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Folk horror: Eye of the Devil (1966)

Sharon Tate was so beautiful it hurts.
Which is stating the obvious, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Her fame rests on her beauty, on a handful of movies and on her tragic death at the hands of Charles Manson’s cultists.

Tate’s screen debut was slated to be Eye of the Devil, a small black and white occult/folk horror with a stellar cast: Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Donald Pleasence, David Hemmings. The lead female role should have been covered by Kim Novak, but the actress had a riding accident early on in the filming, and was replaced. Or maybe she was replaced because she fought with director J. Lee Thompson, and/or because she had had an on-set affair with Hemmings.

It was, all things considered, a very troubled production: change of leading lady, three directors stepping in and then out, at least a major rewrite of the script, a change of title (the movie was originally to be called 13) then the movie shelved for over one year.

The plot: the vineyards of the Montfaucon family have been suffering for three years, causing a profound crisis in the local community. The Marquis Philippe (Davi Niven) is called back to the family castle in the French countryside to solve the problem. His wife Catherine follows him and finds herself in a sinister community, and it soon becomes clear that a human sacrifice is required to restore the health to the vineyards.

Eye of the Devil has been compared to The Wicker Man for its central themes of rural paganism surviving just off the beaten track, and while lacking the impact of the more famous movie, manages to be disquieting and, yes, haunting. It’s the black and white photography, probably, coupled with the music, and the overall high level of the performances. Donald Pleasence is sinister as hell in the role of a priest, and Sharon Tate, as the most openly supernatural presence in the movie, is both sensual and scary.

Where the Wicker Man is quite open and “scandalous” in its portrayal of pagan sex rituals, in Eye of the Devil the sexuality is repressed and denied, with a hint of sado-masochism; there is a flagellation scene, and it’s pretty disturbing watching Tate get obviously aroused as David Niven whips her (it was used to death for publicity purposes, of course).

Interestingly enough, while the script referenced heavily The Golden Bough in its basic premise, a bona fide occultist and high priest of Wicca (Alex Sanders, who styled himself “King of the Witches”) was involved in the filming to provide “accuracy”. These were, after all, the sixties.

The movie came to me as a bit of fuzzy serendipity – I have been taking notes and making plans about a story featuring the survival of pagan beliefs and the modern wine industry (I live, after all, in what is one of the top wine-producing areas of Italy), and this story of dying vineyards and old blood rituals came quite timely.

A rather inferior copy of the movie can be found on Youtube, and it’s well worth watching. It’s a small film, but highly suggestive.

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