The de Montfaucon family appear to be living the perfect life in suburban Paris- husband Philippe (David Niven) and wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr) and their two children Jacques and Antoinette, seem to have everything they need. But when Philippe receives news from his home at castle Bellenac that the vineyard crops have failed for the third year running it is time he must return, in order to fulfil an ancestral pact he made, to appease the old Gods and make a sacrifice that will restore vitality to the land. Leaving his family behind Philippe heads home, but his wife Catherine- knowing her husband is troubled by his past- ignores her husband’s wishes to stay behind. She and the children travel to be by his side. What Catherine finds at Bellenac is disturbing, but is she too late to stop such pagan barbarity and has her husband really lost his mind?
The film not only boasts a strong cast list, but comes lead by the talent of director J Lee Thompson. The award winning filmmaker was active for many years and alongside many other films, was responsible for the original Cape Fear (1962). Horror fans will most likely be familiar with Lee’s oddball slasher Happy Birthday to Me (1982). Eye of the Devil is an exquisitely crafted film, if not only for the top notch performances but the strong artistic quality of the visuals, and the way in which director Lee is able to inject claustrophobia and dread into a fairly simple narrative. The plot comes adapted from Philip Loraine’s original novel Day of the Arrow.
One point worth mentioning is, although the film is apparently set in rural France, and all of the characters have French sounding names, due to the largely British cast the film still manages to retain a very British feel.
When it comes to the cast it really is a two horse race between Deborah Kerr and Sharon Tate . All the supporting parts do well; David Niven as Philippe is the stoical family head, bound by duty- Niven does a great job looking suitably tortured throughout, although he has little dialogue. Donald Pleasance again, as expected, is great in his limited role as priest Pere Dominic. A very young David Hemmings provides some mild threat in his characterisation of the bow and arrow wielding Christian de Caray. While Flora Robson steps in as Sister-in- Law Countess Estell and is capable in her part, and Emlyn Williams makes a small, yet memorable, appearance as father Alain. Actor John Le Mesurier pops up in a small part as the village doctor.
Back to the two female leads Tate is iconic in this her first major role as Odile de Caray. The camera obviously loved the star, and she gets a lot more focus than her on screen brother, literally stealing all her scenes. Yet it is not all about Sharon Tate’s looks, regardless of the fact her voice is not used (being dubbed by someone with an English accent), the actress manages to exude pure unadulterated sexuality in every scene she appears; along with displaying an edge of callousness, and mystical power, making for one of the strongest characterisations of the piece. Kerr as Odile’s nemesis, the over-protective wife Catherine- with no time for ancient religions- again, is outstanding in her part. A headstrong character Catherine will not bow to threat or coercion, this is a woman who knows her own mind and will do anything to protect her family.
Visually Eye of the Devil is beautiful. If you are someone who appreciates occult aesthetics in an artistic sense there are many moments to be found here that could be paused and marvelled at. The strong style statement is backed up with a fantastic backdrop of the 17th Century French Chateau d’Hautefort (located in Hautefort, Dordogne, South-West France), where the exteriors were shot; an imposing castle structure and its surrounding grounds. The interiors were filmed in England, at Borehamwood London, and come with some fantastic production design to match the outstanding beauty of the exterior locations. There is a lot of iconography used as well, black robed figures, candles, and a strange amulet that is seen several times, and these support the mood and the tone of the piece perfectly.
It would be easy to assume, from a brief glance at the synopsis, Eye of the Devil is some sort of precursor to the The Wicker Man (1973). This comes from the fact both films have a basic plot that involves the idea of an entire town or village being wrapped up in old religion, and working together, conspiring even, to keep outsiders from meddling in their tradition. Also there is the question of ancient rites, failed crops and sacrifice involved with both films. However, it can also be argued that some of these elements have also been used in other witchcraft based films; for example in Hammer’s The Witches (1966)- made the same year as Eye of the Devil– a similar set-up occurs when an outsider comes into a village that is deeply involved in ancient witchcraft . Therefore I would argue, while there are similarities, these facets are certainly not exclusive to just these two films– Eye of the Devil and The Wicker Man– to draw a definite link between the two, despite some commentators attempting to do so. It is important to mention this because this appears to be the main source of disappointment for newcomers who have read online commentary on the film before viewing- they go into Eye of the Devil expecting something completely different, and then find themselves walking away feeling let down because it was not what they expected. This is definitely a film with which to keep an open mind on.
While the similarities are not strong enough to claim Eye of the Devil had any influence on Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic The Wicker Man, it does make for a stimulating discussion point when focusing on British ‘Witchcraft/Satanic’ films in general- Eye of the Devil being one of the lesser known entries into the sub-genre. It is interesting that Eye of the Devil is a film that doesn’t particularly get much attention, seemingly relegated to the ranks of obscurity, but this could be something to do with the film’s status as more of a psychological thriller, than a straight up horror. It certainly isn’t anything to do with the quality- or lack of- of the material involved, and the film on this basis deserves a lot more praise and attention than it has managed to achieve.
It is important to note for a witch based film Eye of the Devil lacks nudity of any kind (as in keeping with its time and place). However it doesn’t include the usual black mass cavorting or more out there forms of witchery either, in any form- bar a scene when Sharon Tate inexplicably turns a toad into a dove- and it has little violence. What the narrative does provide is strong thriller elements with poor wife Catherine trying to understand her husband’s situation and the entire neighbourhood, including her own Sister- in -Law cutting her off at every corner. Instead of going for the jugular the story is one that slowly seeps along at a subtle pace before building into a dark and foreboding conclusion. Within this there are some taut moments of suspense which are encompassed by a strong ominous air. Whether this will be your kind of film is all down to whether you have patience for a plot largely dominated by dialogue rather than action.
Verdict- A solid British thriller with a focus on the occult that contains striking visual elements, features a strong cast, and subtle pacing in the plotline. Not for everyone, due to the lack of overt horror, but nevertheless a fine example of solid sixties British filmmaking with a witchy twist.