Directed by J. Lee Thompson [Other horror films: The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975), Happy Birthday to Me (1981)]
So I didn’t really know what to expect going into this one, and to be entirely honest, I wasn’t really anticipating that I’d enjoy it, which goes to show (not that this needs any additional examples) of how wrong I can be.
Eye of the Devil is far from your typical Satanist movie, even for the time period. I was expecting something along the lines of The Devil Rides Out (1968), which seemed a fair basis of comparison since that’s also a British Satanist film from the latter half of the 1960’s, but again, I was far, far mistaken.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Eye of the Devil’s horror is subtle, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s far more uneasiness and unsettling situations than there is outright horror. Certainly there are some tense scenes (two of my favorites being the children playing on the roof and the main actress being chased through the woods by robed cultists), and I think they work beautifully in the movie, but it’s not a thrill-ride from beginning to end.
Another somewhat surprising aspect about this film is the fact it’s in black-and-white. By the mid-1960’s, most movies had made the full transition over to color (Night of the Living Dead being the most famous exception, but other cases of black-and-white movies post-1965 include Hour of the Wolf, Blood Bath, Ghosts of Hanley House, The Living Skeleton, Confessions of a Psycho Cat, Zinda Laash, and A Thousand Pleasures), so the fact they filmed this in black-and-white was a bit of a surprise. That said, I do think it worked wonderfully with the story (especially during the scene when Deborah Kerr is being chased by the cultists).
Kerr (The Innocents) here is great in her leading role, as she is well aware something sinister is going on around the castle and surrounding village, but she can’t ascertain as to exactly what it is (and it doesn’t help when everyone who knows something has exactly zero intention on letting her in on it). Playing her husband, David Niven (who has an extraordinarily familiar face, but aside from the murder mystery spoof Murder by Death, I haven’t seen anything else with him it in) does a great job too, especially as his somewhat tragic tale unfolds. I often wonder if he is seeking, or the one being sought.
Of most interest to me, of course, is Donald Pleasence (most famously Halloween, though he also really stood out in 1960’s The Flesh and the Fiends), who played a priest here. He was pretty much as you’d expect, speaking in soft tones (it’s hard for me to even hear him speak without immediately thinking about The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water), so that was fun. David Hemmings isn’t a name I know, but he was also great (and that scene where he pops up blowing that horn just randomly amusing), and brought a fantastically tense character. Others who stand out here include Sharon Tate (yes, that Sharon Tate), Edward Mulhare, and Flora Robson.
What really sets Eye of the Devil apart from many of it’s contemporaries is the atypical cinematography, some of which is really quite smashing, as my homeboi Nigel would say (90’s kids what’s up!). Seriously, some of the camera-work here is fantastic, and much before it’s time. Even if the story isn’t up your alley (and it should be, because there’s some solid uncertainty and a great feeling of dread of the unknown), you should probably watch this just to see how it was filmed.
Like I said at the beginning, I didn’t really expect to like this film, but I was quite mistaken. I’ve not honestly seen that many 1960’s horror (at most recent count, only about 148 total films for the decade), but I can say that I think Eye of the Devil would be in my personal top 20 list for the decade, and it’s a movie I’m sorry I waited so long to see.