Eyes of Fire

Eyes of Fire ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Avery Crounse's 1983 directorial debut imagines mid-eighteenth century America as raw and unsettled, actively resistant to religious, cultural and bodily colonization, blindly destructive forces displacing tribal configurations and remaking that which is rightfully wild. Eyes of Fire is solidly constructed if worn and dreary. A certain aesthetic, documentarian muddiness benefits the film, as its characters venture into diffuse, untamed natural spaces.

The story is deliberately related ex post facto from the perspective of young Eloise (Rebecca Stanley) and Fanny (Sally Klein), unreliable survivors recounting an unbelievable story in flashback. Captured by French soldiers, Fanny and Eloise recount a bizarre frontier tale of exodus, witchcraft and depersonalization. The girls arguably interpret their story as myth or folktale, calling into question their more fantastic claims. Dimensions are blurred, details forgotten.

Dennis Lipscomb plays preacher Will Smythe, driven from a Midwestern settler's town, assuming a Christian soldier's quest into uncharted wilderness, defiant of both Shawnee, and French colonists. Smythe is a charismatic, Svengali-like figure, whose apparent metaphysical powers are as vaguely defined as the landscapes his group traverses. His followers include the mostly reactive, witnessing Eloise and Fanny, and a young Rob Paulsen, as Jewell Buchanan. His peculiar interpretation of Christian scripture reflects an animist's respect for landscape, an idealized Native perspective he appreciates even as he deliberately invades Tribal lands and defends his camp from often unseen Herzogian archers. Smythe appears in possession of holy protection, escaping the hangman's noose, exposing his chest to his enemies in a declaration of invincibility and fearlessness. Every moment of hardship, each setback, is reinterpreted by Smythe as divine message, as confirmation.

A crucial dynamic in the film is the dissolving and reconfiguration of familial bonds. The eldest of Smythe's congregation, Mr. Calvin (Will Hare), calls his wife "Sister" (Fran Ryan); Eloise recognizes her fluid relationship with her shell-shocked mother--"It was like she was the child now and I was the mother". The girls' father, Marion (Guy Boyd), seems to renounce all familial obligation, blithely resigned, apart from the group, indifferent to Smythe's assumption of his family. The breaking down of traditional bonds reflects not only Smythe's polygamist, collectivist-child rearing edict but also a dissolution of civilized custom, surrender to libidinous, incestuous desire and earthbound primitivism.

Crounse's conflation of wilderness and Native Tribal practice is troubling, and exoticises and homogenizes Native peoples in rote reified Hollywood tradition. Nevertheless, Eyes of Fire is defiantly anti-colonialist and environmentalist, deploying literal natural spirits as antibodies against Western colonial infection. Privileged and knowledgeable among Smythe's camp is the mysterious Leah (Karlene Crockett), vulgar in behavior and feral in appearance. Crockett is even credited as "Leah - Queen of the Forest"

There are moments of practical compositing and effects-work in Eyes of Fire that are genuinely frightening--a blackened face peering from a row of potatoes, the face of a missing child grafted to tree bark, mud-covered humanoids supping from a cow's udder, apparitions disappearing in a flash of lightning, drooling, yellow-eyed demonic figures glimpsed only for a moment at the edges of the group's encampment. These forest spirits are interpreted by Smythe as Biblical devils, and no match for his powerful, frenzied witnessing. Smythe's devotional hubris appears somehow legitimate initially, but is debased and defrauded as forces either Satanic or pagan (or both) overwhelm his influence and claim the innocent of his flock.

The coda that completes Eyes of Fire suggests a transformation for Eloise and young Fanny, an agency finally granted as they carry protective natural demonic forces across the threshold of the wild and into formally settled civilized domestic space. While the tired, sexist (and cissexist) equating of feminine bodies and the natural world is suggested, the positioning of two young girls as agents for environmental counterattack plays as powerful feminist resistance, an acknowledgment of patriarchal oppression as tantamount to male-supremacist environmental mastery. The film's chilling ending serves as both a logical thematic conclusion, and suggests the beginning of an alternate American time-line, a revisionist history that both satisfyingly fulfills horror cinema best practices and stands as impactful political statement, and as testament to genre cinema's unique potential for meaningful narrative ideation.

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