September 26, 2022
Apart from maybe hauntedhouses or graveyards, what scary story setting can be creepier and morefrightening than the deep dark woods?
Be it the dead of night oreven a beautiful sunny day, a desolate forest can be a place filled with risk,danger, and fear of the unknown. It is this fear that storytellers havecapitalized upon for ages. After all, who knows what kinds of horrifyingcreatures or monsters lurk in the forest? We’re all familiar with the famousexamples: the Brothers Grimm had Hanseland Gretel venturing innocently into the woods, only to be targeted by acannibalistic witch. Little Red RidingHood looked to visit her ill grandmother and found themselves stalked by aravenous forest wolf. Meanwhile at the cinema, hulking hockey mask-sportingkiller Jason Voorhees slaughtered teenage summer camp victims using horriblyinventive methods in the Friday the 13th franchise,while grotesque demons terrorized reluctant everyman hero Ash (cult movie starBruce Campbell) within the Michigan backwoods in the Evil Dead series. From children’s fairy tales to Hollywood slasherepics, the woods will always be an ideal horror story backdrop designed to keepmainstream audiences too terrified to sleep comfortably at night!
Then there’s Folk Horror,a relatively obscure subgenre of horror that takes the scary woods setting to amore unique level. Unlike other conventional stories where the wilderness is amere backdrop, Folk Horror utilizes rural-based, often period piece folkloreelements to generate scares. Again, the fear of the unknown is emphasized.However, the fear comes not from a tangiblethreat such as an animalistic beast or a rampaging killer. Rather, it isderived heavily from the characters’ paranoia towards the unexplored remotesurroundings that lay before them. The very human elements of isolation, sheerignorance, overzealous religious beliefs, and superstition fuel their paranoia,resulting in usually very rash, drastic impulsiveness and decisions. Thecharacters’ impulsiveness in the face of their dire situations - whetherjustified or not - are key to Folk Horror’s fear-generating effectiveness.Notable cinematic entries that fit this unique horror formula include The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), Children of the Corn (1984), and most recently, Midsommar (2019).
The 1983 film Eyes of Fire is perhaps the mostexemplary example of Folk Horror. Written and directed by independent filmmakerAvery Crounse, Eyes of Fire combinesclassic horror tropes such as witchcraft, Indian legends, and phantoms withhumanistic Folk Horror paranoia into one hauntingly atmospheric thriller notrue fan should miss.
Eyes of Fire takes place in the 1750s, as European settlers fromEngland and France vie for control of the growing American frontier. Thecolonies are plagued with challenges from the raw elements to hostile ShawneeIndians, and ultimately each other. Providing the narration are a young womanand child named Fanny and Meg, who survived a mysterious and horrifying ordealwhich perplexes the French military officers that came to their aid. Fanny andMeg were members of an English settlement where a young preacher named Will Smythewas accused of adultery by their fellow settlers. The elder settlers deemWill’s affair with two lovers as blasphemous and therefore, punishable bydeath. Among Will’s lovers is Leah, a disturbed young woman who is endowed withpowers of witchcraft. Leah’s powers save Will from execution, and both fleefrom their captors along with a small group of other settlers via a raft on ariver into an uncertain future.
The misfit group continuestheir journey to a deserted valley once inhabited by Shawnee Indians but havesince been mysteriously abandoned by the tribe. Following a Shawnee ambushwhich kills some of the settlers, the group encounters Marion Dalton, a ruggedmountain man and hunter who happens to be the husband of Will Smythe’s otheradulterous lover Eloise (who is mother to surviving settler Fanny). Themultilingual Dalton saves the settlers by convincing the Shawnees not tocontinue with their attacks. The threat of the Shawnees now greatly reduced,the valley appears to be a safe enough haven for the settlers to call theirhome.
Or is it?
A foreboding sense ofdread is growing as unnatural forces are making themselves to the settlers.Smythe, the group’s de facto leader, dismisses the dread as nothing more than“savage” Shawnee superstitions. But Dalton, the insane, bewitched Leah, and theother settlers know better. Something otherworldly and evil is afoot, andwaiting to consume them all.
Eyes of Fire gradually and hauntingly becomes the Folk Horror nightmare itscreators have promised. The settlers are soon trapped upon a rustic hell onearth where they are beset with witchcraft spells, demonic possession, andother frightening occurrences. The film utilizes 80s-flavored special effectsto create ghostly visions that come alive from the wooded lands around them.Just what are these visions? Are they the results of Leah’s witchery? TheShawnee superstitions come to life? Phantoms from an unearthly, frighteningexistence? Or are they, in fact, terrifying figments of the settlers’ paranoidimagination? The Folk Horror cinematic equation is alive and well in thisscenario.
When it was first releasedin 1983, Eyes of Fire was met withmostly positive critical acclaim. Caryn James of The New York Times would even refer to the film as somethingbetween The Scarlet Letter and The Exorcist (FILM: 'EYES OF FIRE,' A MORALITY TALE). The back of the film’s recent DVDrelease states that the film was “misunderstood by audiences and mishandled bydistributors, it has remained virtually unseen until now.” That may be true,especially since the film had the misfortune of being released at the height ofHollywood’s “slasher movie craze” when popular horror icons like JasonVoorhees, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers ruled the box office. Essentially, Eyes of Fire, with its more artful,abstract approach to horror, was not a commercial success, and undeservedlyplaced on the movie back burner as a result.
Nevertheless, it is theatmospheric, organic creepiness factor of Eyesof Fire that will win the hearts of true horror film aficionados, or anyonelooking for something entirely different. With its believable cast, etherealspecial effects visuals, and rustic Folk Horror approach in its storytelling, Eyes of Fire is pure nightmare fuel inan otherwise rudimentary, cliche-ridden genre.
The 2022 Lake Placid FilmFestival will be screening Eyes of Fire onOctober 22 at 3:30PM. Introducing the film will be Peg Aloi, who will alsodiscuss the roots and distinctions of Folk Horror. Both Eyes of Fire and Peg Aloi are co-sponsored by the MiskatonicInstitute of Horror Studies. There will be a Q&A session after the film.For more information, please click https://www.adirondackfilm.org/films/eyes-of-fire.
The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies receives its name from the fictionaluniversity in H.P. Lovecraft’s literary mythos, and is an internationalorganization that offers undergraduate-level history, theory, andproduction-based masterclasses. With three global campuses–New York City, LosAngeles, and London–the Institute offers world-class perspectives on the genreto filmmakers, screenwriters, directors, scholars, and programmers/curatorsalike. For more information on the Institute’s history, visit https://miskatonicinstitute.com/about/.
Executive Director of theInstitute, Shelagh Rowan-Legg, will also hold an educational seminar on the“Tools of the Terrifying Trade,” alongside Daniel Byers, Lucky Cerruti andMatthew Serenson. Attendees will reap the benefits of the Institute’slong-established curriculum, and pick the brains of the renowned filmmakers.For more information, please click https://www.adirondackfilm.org/title/ut-enim-ad-minim-veniam.
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October 24, 2023