DirectorJ. Lee Thompson
Release Date(s)1966 (October 26, 2021)
Studio(s)Filmways Pictures/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: D-
Eye of the Devil can best be described as an occult thriller. With an unusually fine cast, the film is steeped in atmospheric gloom with a creepy castle-like mansion, two weird siblings, an increasingly terrified wife, and an enigmatic nobleman.
Catherine de Montfaucon (Deborah Kerr) lives happily in London with her French nobleman husband Philippe (David Niven) and their young son and daughter. The marquis hasn’t visited his French vineyards since his children were born. An ominous messenger sent from Philippe’s village informs him that the crop has failed for the third straight year and the locals are starving. Philippe immediately goes off to France, leaving his confused wife behind.
Even though Philippe insisted that Catherine remain in London, she and the children miss him and travel to his French estate. She finds some strangely behaving people on the property, an unwelcoming aunt, and an oddly secretive, troubled, preoccupied husband who claims no one can help him. He wants her to take the children and leave.
Philippe was initiated long ago into the villagers’ pagan religion and bizarre practices, among them that if the wine crop fails three years in a row, human sacrifice is required to restore it. Specifically, the marquis must offer himself to be killed. Under the heretical religious leader Pere Dominic (Donald Pleasence), the marquis complies with village customs. Catherine attempts to deal with the madness around her and save her husband.
Christian (David Hemmings) is a creepy warlock and a dead shot at archery with a fondness for shooting white doves. His witch sister, Odile (Sharon Tate, in her film debut) impresses the children by turning a frog into a dove and terrifies Catherine, at one point putting her into a trance and nearly causing her to fall to her death. Philippe’s aunt (Flora Robson) is aware of the dark events surrounding her and appears to be in state of eternal despair and resignation.
Based on the novel Day of the Arrow by Philip Loraine, Eye of the Devil is similar to The Wicker Man, a far better film, in its focus on pagan rituals in the modern world. The two leads are completely miscast. Kerr as Philippe’s American wife and the very British Niven as a French nobleman are unbelievable, though their acting makes watching this flawed picture worthwhile. Hemmings’ Christian, young and good looking, lurks around as a stone-faced harbinger of doom, his bow and arrows as much a part of him as his arms and legs. Tate’s Odile conveys a trance-like state and the sense that beneath her placid beauty, she harbors malignant intentions.
The screenplay meanders, and it takes a while to put the pieces together. Kerr spends most of the film running around massive spaces, clambering up and down narrow staircases, dodging mysterious figures in the woods, and suffering nightmares that are on par with the reality she’s facing. It’s a pity to see such an accomplished actress in a picture that’s far from meriting her talents. Since Catherine is the main character and we’re seeing events through her eyes, Kerr has the responsibility of making the occult happenings believable. Quite frankly, she’s at her best and most at home in the role in an early scene when Catherine, in an elegant evening gown, and her husband host a harp concert at their London mansion. Deborah Kerr is not suited to creepy, horror-tinged films (The Innocents aside).
David Niven has far less screen time and seems to be sauntering through his part with little conviction. Yes, part of his performance is meant to mask evil goings-on, but he is oddly distant and we never see him in a state of distress or even concern. Eye of the Devil was his first screen pairing with Deborah Kerr since they starred together in 1958’s Separate Tables.
As an aside, Kim Novak was originally cast as Catherine. A fall from a horse during filming injured her back, forcing her to withdraw from the film, and Deborah Kerr was brought in to replace her. The filmmakers had to start shooting again from scratch. This was also one of Sharon Tate’s few film credits before her murder three years later.
Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone) incorporates a number of images that appropriately set the tone of the film—the massive ancestral castle dominating the landscape, close-ups of the peasants staring blankly as the marquis passes, hooded figures in black robes, Christian and Odile lurking and observing silently, and several scenes shot in the rain. The black-and-white photography adds considerably to the bleak atmosphere.
Eye of the Devil was shot by director of photography Erwin Hiller on black-and-white 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Warner Archive brings the film to Blu-ray featuring a new 4K scan of original elements. The dominant look of the film is gloomy, with overcast skies for outdoor scenes and deeply shadowed interiors. Rain in a couple of scenes adds to the bleakness. Black levels are rich. Even in darkened scenes, details are visible. Hiller uses off-centered angles to accentuate Catherine’s disorientation, and a nightmare montage contains swirling images, edited quickly. High angle shots when Catherine teeters on the battlements show how far it is to the ground, creating suspense. The robed figures have hoods that completely obscure their faces, making us wonder whether they’re human or supernatural. The cinematography suggests entrapment, particularly in Catherine’s scenes.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. Niven’s British accent doesn’t suggest a French nobleman. Kerr also stretches credibility as the American-born wife, as she often lapses into her precise, natural British manner of speaking. Gary McFarland’s score works hard to enhance mood. A beautiful, expressive melody that aches with loss and heartbreak suggests Catherine’s loneliness and feeling of abandonment, loud dissonant chords punctuate the nightmare montage, and a climactic scene is accompanied by a heavy, insidious tempo that’s both hypnotic and a portent of imminent doom. Sound effects include the twang of Christian’s bow, arrows piercing their target, rainfall, and Catherine’s car making its way to the ancestral castle in France.
The only extra is the film’s theatrical trailer.
Eye of the Devil is a psychological-horror-witchcraft film inspired by satanic-ritual film such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. The setting offers Gothic thrills as an innocent outsider to an isolated world peels back layers of mystery to reveal a shocking reality. Though the film is just 96 minutes in length, it feels much longer. It takes Catherine an awfully long time to figure out what’s happening. Because Deborah Kerr has always taken intelligent roles, her character’s cluelessness is hard to accept.
- Dennis Seuling