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Horror as Folk: Eyes of Fire and the Horror of Fairy Tales

“They look on it as a natural thing.”

When Severin announced the contents of their massive folk horror boxed set, All the Haunts Be Ours, I was pleased that I had only seen three of the films contained therein. Of those that were new to me, the one I had heard the most about, over the years, was the 1983 American horror film Eyes of Fire.

I remember seeing the VHS cover of Eyes of Fire in my local video store when I was a kid, though I never rented it, for whatever reason – probably out of a misguided sense that historically-set movies were “boring.” It may be a good thing that I never watched Eyes of Fire until now, though. I’m not sure a younger me would have appreciated it.

Fortunately, present-day me appreciates it very much. Eyes of Fire was the directorial debut of experimental photographer Avery Crounse, whose other two credits include the 1988 comedy The Invisible Kid, so it’s not as if he went on to a distinguished career in pictures. Which is a shame, because the “experimental” part of that photography shines through in Eyes, showcasing a dizzying array of effects techniques – mixed in with occasional pyrotechnics; it was the ‘80s, after all.

It’s tempting to compare Eyes of Fire to Hausu (1977), though that suggests a very different tone than the one Eyes strikes. Yet, that opus by Nobuhiko Obayashi is one of the only movies I can think of that is as bold in its variety of approaches to special effects as this one. There are optical effects aplenty here, editing tricks, old-fashioned people in monster suits, people disappearing into the forest floor and into trees, gloppy makeup. There’s a lot going on in this film, and a lot of it you just have to accept at face value, because the movie is not going to walk you through it too assiduously.

The Dream Logic of Fairy Tales

There’s something else that Hausu and Eyes of Fire have in common, and it’s the way both of them approach storytelling. In the case of the former, it’s because Obayashi’s young daughter helped to write the story, causing the film to unspool with the type of magical thinking logic that only children generally employ. In the case of the latter, it feels, more so than perhaps any other movie I have ever encountered, like what would happen if characters from a normal movie – say, in this case, a wilderness survival tale set on the American frontier – were to stumble into the world of a fairy tale.

Most of the time, when horror movies take fairy tales as their jumping-off point, one of two things happens. The fairy tale creature or situation is wrenched into the real world and “grounded” as a result, treated with the same sense of “realism” that a horror film would typically employ for a vampire or werewolf. Or else everyone in the movie feels like they’re in a fairy tale from the get go, complete with “once upon a time” stylings to bookend the picture.

Neither is true in Eyes of Fire, which begins as a fairly pedestrian and certainly naturalistic take on a frontier story, as an adultering preacher and his flock are sent packing downriver by angry townsfolk, more or less, to establish their own settlement, with the trapper husband of the woman the preacher has been carrying on with in hot (okay, lukewarm) pursuit.

It isn’t until the party reaches their destination, a forbidden valley marked by a tree covered in white feathers, that the fairy tale elements kick in. Even then, the characters are all just trying to survive, to make sense of their surroundings, and navigate the troubled waters of their various interpersonal conflicts. It is only the world around them that operates on fairy tale logic, in ways that prove uncanny and terrifying for the normal folks caught in the middle.

But Is It Folk Horror?

I’ve talked a lot about fairy tales here, but this is ostensibly a folk horror column, and this movie is included in a folk horror set. Indeed, though Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched features an entire section on American folk horror, this is one of the only examples of that subgenre included in this Blu-ray set. So, is it folk horror?

It certainly pays lip service to the idea. Characters spout off about Native American beliefs (that seem, at a glance, at least partially made up for the purposes of the film) and recite lines like “the secret is in the trees.” But it also seems to be content to tell its own story, conjuring up an American fairy tale from elements imported from the old country mixed with the primordial forests of the new.

Which isn’t to suggest that Eyes of Fire isn’t folk horror, per se, but I think the reason we so comfortably assume that it is has as much to do with its period trappings (it states, from the outset, that it is set in 1750, on the “American frontier”) and its unorthodox style as anything in its plot or themes. In other words, it contains those “signifiers” that we mentioned last time, the things we’ve come to associate with the brand, rightly or wrongly.

For one thing, there’s remarkably little “folk” in this horror. The beliefs of the preacher may bring the group to the forbidden valley and, initially, help to keep them there, and we may get some indications of the locals shunning the place, that the blood of the innocent gathers in certain spots in nature and becomes an evil spirit. But ultimately the “devil-witch” and her prisoners (and her nemesis) feel separate from any of that. They are their own thing, with their own narrative, and these people just happen to stumble into the middle of them

Folk horror or not, though, Eyes of Fire is a masterpiece, a film quite unlike any other I have ever seen. Moments in which the editing feels strangely choppy or the narrative doesn’t fully connect one scene to the next seldom detract from its power, instead feeding into the helpless, dreamlike feel of the film. The “devil-witch” looks amazing, and the last half of the picture is packed with haunting images and a growing sense of the uncanny as the lives of the rugged frontier folk come apart in the face of actual and undeniable magic.

Want more Folk Horror? Check out all of Horror as Folk.