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Eyes of Fire and the Philosophical Tension in Folk Horror

Eyes of Fire

The wind will blow them across the ocean
thousands of them in giant boats
swarming like larva
out of a crushed ant hill

-Leslie Marmon Silko, from “Storyteller”, 1981

America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians… the evil was there… waiting.”
-William S. Burroughs

Cursed land has always been a preoccupation of the American cinema, and this has been especially true for horror films set in colonial periods. American cinema of the past has never quite had the guts to reckon with the holocaust of its aboriginal peoples. The best they have done are horror movies or westerns where the shadow of immense death hangs over the film like a great plague, influencing everything. John Ford brushed up against it numerous times, stared into that desolate place, and made Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) walk the Earth, blinded, forever, in the closing shot of The Searchers (1956). Stanley Kubrick created his version of The Shining (1980) with echoes of burial grounds—as did Tobe Hooper with Poltergeist (1982). These films acknowledge the rot, and then use it to tell separate stories of haunting and malice. William S. Burroughs’s quote argues that America was always this way, even before the aboriginal people, but such a distinction lets the colonizers off the hook to some extent. There’s too much space to suggest cause and effect, and because of that America functions like an Eldritch creature whose natural instinct is to leak violence from every orifice. That is a fair image to conjure, but the causation of such horrible things can be clearly understood as an outlet for horror with meaning if it originates with an understanding of what the colonizers have done. The tension in whether or not America is inherently cursed, or if its curse was an accumulation of innocent blood spilled, resulting in the total decay of the land, and her people, is what drives Avery Crounse’s folk horror film Eyes of Fire.

Eyes of Fire is a colonial horror film that follows a polygamous sect who are looking for land to settle on after the religious leaders of their previous community attempted to hang their patriarch, Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb). Smythe fashions himself as a man of god, but he comes across more like a cult leader, because his charisma and hold on the others in his polygamous family is not readily apparent. Among them is a babbling Irish girl named Leah (Karlene Crockett) who is familiar with witchcraft and saves Smythe by chanting backwards, snapping the hanging noose, and summoning wind for a stolen ferry. She is meant to evoke the iconography of the Salem witches of old, and is placed in direct contrast to aboriginal magicks and belief systems. She seems to have a deeper understanding of nature as she is seen plunging mud into her mouth and lounging around trees. One of the children in the camp tells us innocently in voice-over that Leah “smells like bushes, but she is our friend”. Among the travellers is Marion (Guy Boyd), who is friends with the Shawnee tribe, and trying to convince his wife Eloise (Rebecca Stanley) to decouple from Smythe, but to no avail. They travel upriver, on foggy shores, in photography that intentionally evokes other colonialist pictures like Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), set to voice-over that is reaching for the same timeless effect achieved by Linda Manz and Sissy Spacek in Terrence Malick pictures.

Crounse’s influences show, but they reach further than horror films from this period, and come from a broader range of photographic brilliance. Before he made Eyes of Fire, Crounse made a name for himself as a still photographer and had his work, which often used solarization techniques to combine artificial technologies with nature, featured in such publications as American Photographer. In an interview for the Severin blu ray release of Eyes on Fire he said he always wanted to make films, and cited an interview with Roman Polanski being his catalyst for undertaking the lofty goal of direction. In that interview Polanski said that every director needs to understand photography inside and out before they commit to direction, and Crounse was confident in his abilities to communicate his intentions visually, and stated with confidence that he knew how to make his pictures move. Crounse’s style as a still photographer shows in Eyes of Fire with its cinematography and strong visual palette being its greatest feature. His is a direction and style that is expansive, and sculpts the natural world into his own palette of the forest, and all that resides within, becoming sick with the actions of people. Marion wonders aloud over a roasted rabbit that the devil is perhaps a real being, but not in the Christian sense. His summation is closer to that of the Shawnee, where innocent blood accumulates into the manifestation of a monstrous being. “I am happy, but the rabbit is dead.”. Crounse uses that as a thesis for his construction of images where human faces can be seen whittled into the bark of a tree, or blood dripping from those same branches.  Ghosts of mud-covered settlers run around in the night, nude, sucking from the tit of a cow, and crosses are planted like flags high atop hills with a blood red sky. His is a world of beauty made horrible, and it is as honest a depiction of colonial malpractice as has ever been seen in horror.

Dawn Keetley writes that folk horror derives much of its tension from what is “wild” and what is “contrived”. She believes that the notion of landscapes versus nature is what ultimately gives the Earthen subgenre of storytelling its intrinsic power. Landscapes, of course, propose a philosophical problem in image making and particularly the cinematic impulse to sculpt with the land. The contradiction of folk horror is to present nature as its own beast, but by the very nature of art, we take the land for our own uses of image and narrative. The “landscape” attempts to domesticate that which is unruly, and this has been by and large true for any DP working in any conceit, even beyond the confines of folk horror. This is particularly relevant, however, when considering white filmmakers, like Crounse, making films that evoke the natural world, and what we have done to it. This is made even more pertinent when considering the place of aboriginals and their relationship to the land in a historic sense. Is it ours to film? These are questions that Eyes of Fire unconsciously wrangles with by suggesting the defilement of nature in the image-making. Crounse seems aware of this and hyper-fixates on tree bark transforming into flesh and vice-versa. It is always the white characters who experience this degradation, because they have broken a rule that must be followed.

The Shawnee have warned Marion not to move beyond the feathered tree. Marion is friendly with the tribe and he has learned that once you move beyond the tree that your footsteps become impossible to track, meaning, that once inside, you are bound to be lost in the deep of the woods. There is also the belief that something evil resides beyond its reach that feasts on those who enter, nourishing the forest, but banishing those to an after life inside its bowels. The image in question of Leah rolling about in the feathers is ethereal, and recalls Malick’s own best work in the 70s, but also bears a resemblance to photography one might find in the work of Raoul Ruiz. Its beauty is, of course, a contradiction, and acts as a dangerous trail marker along the path, and is a warning to Smythe’s polygamous sect. They ignore it, on Marion’s own urging, because he believes they will be left alone if they travel further into the woods, but even he admits that they are the intruders, and he can’t quite comprehend what might live beyond. They find a desolate cabin, and call it home. Crounse uses an axial cut to show the worn out lodging from all angles. It appears half-burned, with bad infrastructure, and an angular quality that feels pagan. Crounse is perhaps mixing his folklore here, but the cabin feels betrothed to the damned, regardless of its accuracy to one symbol or another. The sect call it paradise, but are met with strange visitations by dissolving ghostly figures, corpses rising out of the earth, and yellow eyes gazing out at them in the dead of night.

Crounse is a self-professed animist and it is that belief that guides both the narrative and the camera. Animism is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. This belief system is parallel to a lot of symbolic and architectural concerns in horror movies, where, a place, object or area might become horrible with context. Animism obviously believes in the positive spiritual essence as much as it does a negative one. Through the character of Leah, Crounse indulges in numerous grace notes that act in contrast to the haunted quality of his images. In the midst of a rain shower she and the children hide under a barrel together and laugh—it is an innocent, child-like image—and later, she, and those same children, walk through a field together playing. If there is to be a closest descendant of Eyes of Fire that informs its visual genealogy then it is almost certainly Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which has a similar diagnosis of nature, and creates a “zone” around hidden areas of forestry where bad, or perhaps, inconceivable things, may dwell alongside beauty. Crounse’s film is blunter, with numerous shocking special effects moments (the crew for this film went on to work with Wes Craven for A Nightmare on Elm Street), but its essence is similar to the notes of discovery in Stalker.

Crounse’s belief in animism also informs the type of horror that he employs. He will show you a corpse rotting inside of a tree. He will drop skulls from the sky. He will reveal a decapitated cow head atop the shoulders of a wandering man, and all of this ties back into the conversation that Marion had about the innocent rabbit. “I am happy, but the rabbit is dead.”. It begs the question of a moral toll of our effect on nature, but luckily the film never dips into preaching about what’s right and wrong. It is just the way things are. The duality of life and death, the righteous and the evil, the intruder and the owner. Tassilo Bauer’s special effects are tremendously alluring and disconcerting in their texture and believability. Crounse occasionally over-emphasizes with the deepening of voices, and his propensity for solarization of the image, but for the most part all of this holds up, because it is tied into the core themes of the film, while also evoking the central fears of our characters.

Eyes of Fire is almost entirely free of the trends in horror that were beginning to percolate in the mid 80s, because it is not invested in gore, structuralism, rules, or influences that were common in horror at the time like the science fiction films of the 1950s or the Italian giallo of the 60s and 70s. Because of this, it has the strange effect of feeling separate from the genre, and acts almost like a found object, due to its distinctiveness. This is a gem of a film that analyzes fraught histories with clear eyes and a focus on disconcerting imagery built around colonization, and the accumulated effect of that action on nature. It is fraught with horrible, unconventional endings for these settlers, and the film moves at a brisk, destabilizing pace, rarely stopping to explain the unexplainable. It bathes in the eye of its camera, and the terror therein, and finds only reverberation of a natural law that is out of our hands. It is unfortunate that Crounse rarely worked in film again, because Eyes of Fire is confident, bold filmmaking by an artist with a clear interpretation of mis-en-scene who puts every bit of his belief systems and what makes him tick into this film. Crounse grew up on the Western edge of Kentucky, not too far from the Ozarks, where rivers creep up strange forests and people handle their own business their own way. His upbringing found its way into his film, drifting along the edges of unknown trails, and he finds in it only things that have no business being seen. There are parts of this world still hidden, and still locked from our grasp of control, and in those places, things run wild. Cinema takes up space. It spreads out, transforming land into image and context and meaning and art, and Eyes of Fire understands that it came at a cost. Cinematic interpretations of folk horror are a contradiction, because it argues that nature is best left alone, but the camera itself, collapses those spaces into boxes, images, and narrative. Eyes of Fire understands this, and finds terror bristling underneath beauty.

This essay was originally published on my patreon as a joint collaboration with critic Scout Tafoya.

Eyes of Fire is currently streaming on Shudder and is available on blu-ray through Severin.

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