The reputation of Eye of the Devil came to me via books on classic horror movies years before I saw the movie. To my knowledge it was never released on VHS, and it was not until TCM acquired the rights to MGM’s film library that it began to show up on cable TV in the wee hours of the morning, usually as part of a David Niven or Deborah Kerr film festival. A DVD format was not available until a few years ago as part of the Warner’s Manufacture on Demand collection
Eye of the Devil is purportedly an occult shocker complete with witches, warlocks, and human sacrifice. Add to the subject matter the presence of the beguiling Sharon Tate who was to be killed several years later by the Manson cult, and you’ve got a film ripe for a bad reputation. The DVD slipcase cover featuring the original poster art trumpets the tag-line, “This is the climax in mind-chilling terror.” Too bad the film doesn’t make good on that promise.
Depending on your tolerance for moldy oldies like Eye of the Devil, film fans seem to love it or hate it. I love the black and white cinematography, the constantly moving camera, and rapid fire edits. I love looking at Sharon Tate, sinister and seductive with her blond hair and black turtlenecks. I love the grim, joyless faces of British cinema royalty – Flora Robson, Edward Mulhare, Donald Pleasence, and David Niven – but I can’t say the same for Deborah Kerr. She enters the plot as an emotionally overwrought housewife with a nervous tremor in her voice and within ten minutes of screen time her performance accelerates to a fever pitch. Kerr is not entirely to blame. The majority of film footage was shot with Kim Novak in the role of Catherine de Montfaucon. Novak was thrown from a horse while filming the scene where Catherine visits the family crypt in the forest. Kerr was her replacement. All footage with Novak was reshot, leaving Kerr little time to create a nuanced performance.
Eye of the Devil, originally titled 13, came from an uninspired Gothic horror novel by Phillip Loraine, Day of the Arrow – which would have made a better title for the movie. I guess have issues with a Gothic horror film with the Devil in the title but not in the actual story line.
Paperback reprint cover art by Lou Marchetti
The plot follows the standard template, but it’s more a tepid exercise in slow-burn Gothic suspense than full blown occult horror. Phillippe (Niven), the Marquise de Montfaucon, is called home to the ancestral chateau, Bellenac, deep in French vineyard country. It seems the crops have failed, and Phillippe has an obligation to fulfill. His wife, Catherine, ignores his warning for her to remain in Paris, packs up the kiddies and arrives at Bellenac in time to scamper around like a nervous kitten wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s pretty obvious from the get-go – obvious to everyone except Catherine. Catherine whimpers and whines but all that Phillippe and the rest of the relatives and morose family retainers will say is, “You don’t understand.”
The idea of human sacrifice to ensure the abundance of the crop has been done better, and in more horrifying manner, in tales such as The Wicker Man and (The Dark Secret of) Harvest Home. Eye of the Devil presents its occult “shocks” rather timidly. Odile de Cary (Sharon Tate) and her brother Christian de Cary (David Hemmings) are some sort of witch and warlock brother/sister act who serve little purpose other than to stand around looking blond and pretty; hooded figures stalk our perpetually frightened heroine, voices chant in Latin…there’s even a mad relative locked away in a tower who only confirms what the audience has figured out well ahead of time.
From the looks of the film and the all-star cast, it seems MGM was intent on making a classy thriller, but the whole thing is too tame to be horrifying. Imagine how diabolical and lurid the film could have been if Roger Corman had been behind the camera.
But it rocks the Gothic eye-candy scale, and earns its place in the Midnight Room.