I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“If We Just Floated Down the River, It Would Find Us”: 1983’s Mystifying Eyes of Fire

by Anthony Galli
Feb. 4, 2014

About 20 minutes into this film, I had forgotten what it was called, which, I will admit, was probably caused by an extreme dose of much needed cold medicine. I decided to go back to the beginning of the film and see just what I had missed.

A title sequence that does not give very much away and then goes up in flames. Nice.

“An Avery Crounse Film.” Hmmm…have I heard of him?

Produced by Phillip J. Spinelli. He must be important, with that middle initial and his name right before the movie title and all.

Eyes of Fire. Gotta remember that for later, in case the cold medicine kicks in again. Since there is no mention of a writer or director in the opening credits, this “Avery Crounse Film” must be the work of an auteur. Perhaps our Avery Crounse is a forgotten or unappreciated Terrence Malick type, popping up occasionally with imagistic meditations on the meaning of life, reliant on voiceover narration to provide a semblance of plot unity.

Shhhhh…the film is about to begin again. Let’s listen.

The American frontier in 1750 looks cold, but, at least, it is lighted well. Apparently, some people back then wore clean and pressed military uniforms of some type and spoke in indiscernible accents, while others seemed poverty stricken, waiflike, and sported scratchy looking blankets, with different indiscernible accents.

Wait…the child speaks. Backstory. I hope this is important.

Allegheny River---Father away trapping when “it” started---Mother tired of waiting---Moved in with Will Smythe…Magic, the devil witch, Queen of the forest.

It all makes sense now, not. Thanks, put upon daughter.

But wait…she continues…I wonder how long this will go on.

1983’s independently produced Eyes of Fire is billed in IMDb as a Horror/Western, which is something of a misidentification. It is not a Western, essentially because it takes place on the East Coast in Colonial America, hence not the West, and a horror film? Well, it’s a bit of a sleeper as horror goes…but, that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Eyes of Fire is ostensibly about a group of rebel Puritans who follow a charismatic cult leader, Will Smythe, and his half-mute, somewhat adopted devil daughter into exile. The patch of forest they eventually inhabit may be haunted by the spirits of dead Shawnee Indians, but is certainly haunted by anomalous synthesizer soundtrack sounds and occasional vintage 1980’s video effects. Hilariously so. Except, the cult leader is not charismatic in any way, and not really much of a cult leader; more of a d-bag who somehow convinces easily influenced women to sleep with him, and others to do his bidding and follow his nefarious lead.

Is this a knowing comment on the rampant wave of televangelism which was spreading like wildfire across TV screens in 1980’s America when Eyes of Fire was being produced? Probably not. Is it a reflection of corrupt Calvinist ministers in Puritan witch hating New England? Doubtful.

Although there are traces of witch hunt hysteria and the intimations of evil that religious charlatans commit in Eyes of Fire, this film is no Witchfinder General. And despite an undercurrent of fertility rites and Native American paganism in Eyes of Fire, this film is no Wicker Man.

Eyes of Fire, however, takes itself very seriously, which makes one aware that there is a profound message underneath all of the adultery, polygamy, and Leah, Queen of the Forest’s bizarre witchy gibberish. Eyes of Fire takes its time getting to the point, but just when the cold medicine threatens to lull you into a somnambulistic reverie, something disturbingly awful will happen onscreen and make you wonder what the hell has been going on this whole time.

Eyes of Fire’s steady, studied pace is deceptive in the way that it ambles through its bucolic setting, completely at stylistic odds with the majority of films produced in 1983. Think Risky Business; think Flashdance; think freakin’ Scarface. Perhaps, as an independent venture, Eyes of Fire should not be compared to such esteemed rivals. However, one can see where the box office was at in 1983, and, conversely, where the heart of Eyes of Fire lies.

The film takes full advantage of the Missouri countryside where it was filmed, although it never achieves the full scale creepout factor that the spooky landscapes of Witchfinder General or Wicker Man provide. Likewise, the performances in Eyes of Fire seem earnest enough and professional, but relatively subdued for a 1980’s vintage horror film. Except, of course, for the over-the-top devil witch Leah, Queen of the Forest. Perhaps her lunatic ramblings were directed to compensate for the uncharacteristically sedate demeanor of this tale.

Which, of course, is not to say that Eyes of Fire suffers a lack of eye-popping, mind melting, batshit insane moments of cinematic ecstasy. There are, for example, moving faces in haunted trees. There are standing and running ghost Indians who disappear and reappear at will. There is gratuitous ghost cow udder suckling. There are leaf demons, and children hanging upside down from crosses. There is diabolic ghost whispering and yellow matter custard dripping from a dead thing’s mouth.

Eyes of Fire is so leisurely in its pursuit of terrifying thrills and chills that it’s easy to take its catalogue of insane, inexplicable monuments to insanity in stride. Eyes of Fire is, however, an odd, odd film that doesn’t seem to have any hidden agenda. Just a convoluted take on an alternative version of this nation’s history that we may not have ever encountered, were it not for Eyes of Fire.

Almost as strange as anything else in Eyes of Fire itself is an acknowledgement at the end of the film thanking Glen Buxton, the lead guitarist for the original Alice Cooper Group in the 1970’s. Interesting.

And, is Avery Crounse one of American filmmaking’s lost auteurs? Well, at this point, 30 years later, only time will tell.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.