Folk Horror Festival, Part 2: When Eyes of Fire Are Crying Blue Sky

Time for another dip into Severin Films’ absurdly expansive All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set. This time around, I’m going to dig into some homegrown indie American folk horror – a treat so nice, Severin included it twice…

Eyes of Fire

It is 1750, in colonial America. Eccentric preacher Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscombe) and his followers have been turned out of their home, after the townsfolk objected to him carrying on with a married woman, Eloise Dalton (Rebecca Stanley). Included in the party is Leah (Karlene Crockett), who arrived in the region with Will when he emigrated, and whose antisocial behaviour and tendency towards being nonverbal or speaking in tongues, and her personal history as the daughter of a woman burned for witchcraft, mean there’s no place for her back in the town. Joining them after a while is Marion Dalton (Guy Boyd) – Eloise’s husband and the father of her children, who catches up with them after returning from a hunting and trapping trip to discover them fled. Unable to convince Eloise to leave the group (or let him take the kids), he elects to stay with them, the better to ensure their survival.

They will need him – for they have strayed into the borderland between English, French, and Shawnee-held territory; the French don’t take kindly to English and Irish settlers horning in on their turf, and the Shawnee have absolutely no sense of humour about colonist incursions (and, given subsequent history, nor should they). When the group stumble across a valley which the Shawnee have symbolically marked as being anathema, they realise that, precisely because of this, the Shawnee won’t pursue them there. When they take a look, they find dilapidated but still repairable cabins from an abandoned settlement, and decide to move in, with the plan to eventually make this the nucleus of a new town.

However, though the Shawnee aren’t coming after them, someone is definitely messing with them. Cavorting, filthy, naked figures are seen in the distance, and a string of strange incidents take place. There’s the child (Rose Preston) left behind for the group to discover; what is her deal? What happened to Fanny Dalton (Sally Klein) when she disappeared and was found in a coma? And what’s with the faces growing out of some of the trees – faces which nobody except Leah seems to notice at first?

As it turns out, the Shawnee shunned the valley for damn good reasons – it is the abode of a malevolent entity (Russell James Young Jr.) of some manner, whether it be a witch or a genius loci or a malign deity or whatever. Whatever the nature of the entity is, Will’s preaching and spurious claims of miracles are no power against it. In fact, the only member of the group who seems to get a handle on what’s really going on – let alone being able to do anything about it – is Leah. Is Leah simply very neurodivergent – either from being born on the spectrum or through her mental equilibrium being wrecked by what was done to her mother? Or is she, like little Meg (Erin Buchanan) believes, a creature of faerie?

Eyes of Fire was a passion project on the part of writer and director Avery Crounse; shot in 1982, Crounse ended up spending three years trying to promote the thing and get a decent number of prints made to get it into distribution. It eventually got a home video release in 1987, got some buzz in that form, but then largely vanished from view until Severin exhumed it, releasing it in this box and also as a separate Blu-Ray.

Crounse’s background was in still photography, and in interviews he’d ascribe much of the film’s power to this – and he’d be right. Though in some respect the movie has the sort of issues with pacing you might expect from a first-time director filming their own script, a lot of the time its shortcomings are overcome by the combination of Crounse’s direction and visual imagination, excellent costuming and locations, and the cinematography of Wade Hanks, who’d get his first credit as cinematographer on this and would go on to be fairly prolific in that vein off the back of this. (He’d previously been an assistant camera operator on Fulci’s The Beyond).

Moreover, the cast all do a fine job with their performances. This is the sort of material which sinks or swims on the strength of the cast’s willingness to take it seriously and deliver a compelling performance despite the unusual situations they find themselves in, and everyone does a fine job. Lipscombe’s performance as the smarmy, self-assured preacher is particularly fun.

It helps that they have good material to work with. Really, the shaky pacing is the only real problem I have with the writing; beyond that, Crouse’s script has a lot to recommend it. It’s notable that, for a film from the early 1980s, the script does a good job of acknowledging the conflicts of the colonial era and avoids taking the cheap old “Indian curse” route. Most of the characters assume the figures assailing them in the valley are “Indians”, but Marion – who’s actually interacted with them to the point where he speaks Shawnee – notes that they don’t behave like any indigenous group he knows of, and by the end the most plausible reading is that they are the spirits of people slain in the valley, local and colonist alike, who have been enslaved by its malevolent genius loci.

Whatever the entity is, it’s not something which is intrinsically indigenous or is a by-product of their culture – it’s something which they likely understand no better than the colonists do, but do understand that you should stay the hell out of that valley and have taken appropriate measures to keep away. Yes, there is the child the party take in, who based on her appearance they assume is Shawnee – but it becomes evident by the end that she’s a Trojan Horse, with a form chosen to pander to their prejudices (and perhaps specifically pandering to Will’s desire to convert the Indians).

Though the pacing and editing of the last act leave a little to be desired, and some of its plot points could do with a bit more room to breathe, Eyes of Fire is an impressive bit of indie filmmaking, and Severin have made a good call in unearthing it.

Crying Blue Sky

This is an extra treat Severin have offered up on their rerelease – an alternate early cut of the film, under its original title. This cut is 20 minutes longer, and is restored from Avery Crounse’s personal 35mm answer print. The differences between the two versions, however, are more than mere cuts; there’s significant changes between the two which make it well worth Severin providing both versions. For one thing, it doesn’t have the slightly clumsy framing story from the original, in which two of the survivors relate the story to a French army officer (and which throws in an absolutely pointless final choice), suggesting that this was tacked on in reshoots. This is by and large an improvement – not least because the framing story spoilers Leah’s final fate.

Their narration is still present, however – but we just get a couple of shots of them wrapped in towels to establish they are telling the tale to someone – and in fact I think there’s more of it, with more delivered by the younger survivor. I had thought that the use of the narration in the Eyes of Fire cut was tacked on to cover for cut material – and it seems likely that it was adapted for that purpose, but it’s equally clear that some form of narration was part of the original vision all along. Interestingly, the framing story in this version has the survivors narrating their tale to a Catholic priest in French-held territory, who tries to get them to refer to the dark spirits as “Indians”, whilst they insist otherwise – heightening the colonial themes in that respect.

According to interviews, Crounse replaced the frame story when test audiences disliked the original ending, but I think this was a mistake, since the Eyes of Fire twist ending that caps off the replacement frame story is kind of hokey. The material here is far away at its best when it’s veering away from the usual, expected formula, which is the sort of thing you go to indie films for in the first place. Yes, first-timers writing and directing their own movies can produce disasters – just look at Champagne and Bullets – but on the other hand, the fun thing about outsider artists is that they throw in ideas and details and approaches which people who enter the field through a more conventional route would never consider.

The earlier version of the movie is a bit more sparing about some of its special effects. The part where Leah uses her powers to protect the raft, for instance, uses much more heavy-handed effects in the final version, to make it entirely unambiguous that this is what she is doing; other supernatural sequences are tweaked in various respects. (In particular, the bits where Leah seems to get premonitions of future events are trimmed entirely; she can perceive things that happened long ago and observe supernatural forces at work, but she doesn’t seem to be precognitive this time around.)

There’s additional scenes before the party reach the cursed valley which better establish the viciousness of some of the inter-communal fighting of the era, as well as hinting at the dangers of the deep forest. Other additions help convey some plot points a little more smoothly – particularly Marion’s decision to pitch in with Will’s party rather than take those of his family members who wish to go and just leave.

One strand which is outright absent from Eyes of Fire involves Sister (Fran Ryan) one of Will’s followers, feigning a miracle cure, which Will leans into – thereby increasing the determination of the group to stick around in the valley, when Will decides that the river must be blessed (since the miracle coincides with the baptism of the mystery child). It’s a small thing, but it’s a helpful one when it comes to explaining why the group are intent on sticking around. This and other expansions better convey the different characters within Smythe’s party, who can all blend together in the Eyes of Fire version.

It’s also well worth watching both versions, not just for the differences but because in whichever edition, it’s a film worth watching twice. Will’s shittiness becomes even more apparent when you’re reminded of how sad and genuinely sympathetic he sounded when narrating how Leah’s mother was burned at the stake… and recall that later in the film, he reveals that he was partly responsible for burning her.

This cut, in fact, expands on that history rather well, though in both cuts there’s a nice sense of a hidden backstory to uncover there. What, exactly, was the deal with Leah’s mother? Is it possible that she did have some sort of congress with the fairy folk, which explains Leah’s powers? The fact that Leah and other members of Smythe’s congregation hail from Ireland, whilst Smythe is a snooty Englishman, further heightens the colonial themes, and having Leah framed as a victim of English society makes her conflict with the entity seem less like a good settler overcoming an evil indigenous malefactor and more like two earth-spirits having it out on spiritual territory which is more their turf than it is any human’s. The Crying Blue Sky cut leans into Leah-as-fairy more, and I think I like it better for that.

Crounse seems to have doggedly kept plugging away at the whole “indie filmmaker” thing for a while; in the late 1980s he’d write and direct The Invisible Kid, which sounds like a kind of horrible teen comedy about a nerd who discovers a way to become invisible and uses it to peep on girls in the showers, and in 1996 he’d put out the melodrama Cries of Silence. It’s Eyes of Fire he’s known for, however, and for good reason; whereas his subsequent films give every appearance of being crafted to fill popular commercial niches, Eyes of Fire – in either iteration – is in a category of its own.

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