This Missouri lensed no-budgeter from the eighties is real oddity: a hallucinatory horror movie set in Colonial America. EYES OF FIRE is definitely one of the most unique American genre films of the decade, but the problem is that it just isn’t all that good. If valiant intentions were enough to guarantee success than this film would be a classic, but they’re not and it isn’t.
I’ve been able to uncover little information about this strange little film’s production or distribution, outside its 1987 VHS release on Vestron Video (now out of print, with no DVD release in sight), which featured several critical raves (“A bizarrely fascinating story”, “A spook movie with a difference,” etc.).
The film’s writer-director Avery Crounse and his company Elysian Pictures would go on to make the better-left-unmentioned 1987 teen comedy THE INVISIBLE KID and 1993 straight-to-video drama CRIES OF SILENCE.
Sometime during the late 1700’s a desperate band of Western settlers find themselves on a raft, sailing into uncharted regions of “New France.” Among their charges is a red headed Irish stowaway. It’s clear from early on that this young woman has magical powers, as she somehow creates a force field that repels arrows shot by Indians.
The settlers decide to set up a camp in a dense, uncharted forest. A bad idea, as the area is haunted; a stone tablet made by earlier settlers warns “The Devil is in the Trees.” It may not actually be the Devil, but something is definitely afoot, as demonstrated by the human faces visible in many of the trees, as well as the faceless mud-covered weirdies who rampage through the camp each night, inspiring the men to build a large barricade out of woodblocks. Not that this stops whatever evil force is loose, as a mysterious little girl shows up one day outside the camp. The men unwisely interpret the girl’s appearance as a “gift” from the nearby Indians, but the Irish gal knows better.
Before long the little girl is making trouble, and freaky nightmares involving people’s souls trapped in trees are afflicting the settlers. The girl tries to lure the children of the settlement away, presumably to become tree people, but the elders eject her from the camp.
With so much weirdness going on around them the settlers understandably elect to leave. Around the same time the Irish redhead goes off by herself to do battle with the tree spirits. Without giving anything away, I will reveal that the two events collide. How? Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for prospective viewers—and anyway I’m not entirely sure.
This film is a failure, but an interesting one. It’s impeccably designed and photographed, with an artfully constructed atmosphere of primal dread that favorably recalls CARNIVAL OF SOULS. With so much skill on display it’s inevitable that some genuinely effective moments shine through here and there: the initial appearances of the ghostly tree people that menace the protagonists are appropriately eerie and disturbing…at least until the goofy make-up effects become apparent.
It’s here that the movie’s central problem lies: writer-director Avery Crounse’s intent is simply too ambitious for his paltry budget. The film might have worked better if Crouse had embraced the rapid-fire insanity that tends to characterize genre fare from Asia (check out the mind roasting Filipino flick THE KILLING OF SATAN for what EYES OF FIRE might have been); as it is, though, Crounse’s relentlessly solemn, humorless tone doesn’t jibe too well with the tacky lightning effects and low rent monster make-up he’s stuck with.
Not that this film’s problems are confined to the budgetary arena. The characters, outside the supernaturally endowed Irish girl, barely register, a problem due largely to an overemphasis on atmosphere, which often makes the film a chore to watch. Quite simply, EYES OF FIRE repels rather than compels attention. It’s an intriguing piece of work, but unfortunately that’s all it is.
EYES OF FIRE
Director: Avery Crounse
Producer: Philip Spinelli
Screenplay: Avery Crounse
Cinematography: Wade Hanks, Don Devine
Editing: Michael Barnard
Cast: Dennis Lipscomb, Rebecca Stanley, Sally Klein, Fran Ryan, Rob Paulsen, Kerry Sherman, Will Hare, Ivy Bethune, John Miranda, Karlene Crockett, Guy Boyd