Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Eye of the Devil, Scored by Gary McFarland

It was a far cry from his pop-jazz collaborations with Gabor Szabo, but Gary McFarland’s moody symphonic soundtrack album had been mastered and a commissioned jacket was even teased on Verve record sleeves, but the horror film’s production delays eventually scuttled its release. Decades after his untimely death, it was finally issued on a collector’s label. It is too bad we didn’t get it much sooner, because the themes are quite distinctive and they perfectly underscore the dramatic pagan visuals of J. Lee Thompson’s Eye of the Devil (a.k.a. 13), which airs this Friday night on TCM.

Philippe de Montfaucon is the lord of his ancestral French chateau and the surrounding vineyards, but he rarely allows his British wife and children to visit—for good reason. News of another harvest failure forces him to make a homecoming, but he adamantly leaves Catherine and the kids behind. She just can’t take the hint, though, so she soon follows with their bratty son Jacques and his younger sister Antoinette.

The night that she arrives, Madame de Montfaucon is rather freaked out to find a dozen cloaked figures performing some sort of ritual in the chateau. She is also quite put out by Odile and Christian de Caray, two Aryan-looking siblings, who frequently exercise their familial rights to hunt (with bow-and-arrow) on the de Montfaucon grounds. Brother Christian rather impertinently welcomed Madame by shooting a dove from the sky, right in front of her eyes. Yet, her preoccupied husband always dismisses her concerns. Clearly, bad things are afoot and the entire village is in league to keep her out of the way.

There are many reasons
Eye of the Devil could be dubbed a “cursed” film, beyond McFarland’s long-deferred soundtrack release (which surely would have been beneficial to the jazz musician at the time). Reportedly, an accident forced Kim Novak to pull out of the production after shooting several scenes, as Madame de Montfaucon. Yet, it is probably best remembered as the film debut of Sharon Tate, whose relevancy to a supposed film curse hardly needs explanation.

The truth is, Tate was quite good as Odile de Caray, sort of a witchy Diana-the-huntress-type. Despite the uncharitable reviews, she was quite chilling in a way that was clearly enhanced by her cover-model looks. Of course, Donald Pleasence, the old horror movie hand, was reliably creepy as the coldly sinister Father Dominic. Strangely, David Niven seems rather bored and uncomfortable playing de Montfaucon. However, Deborah Kerr really went all in when she tagged-in for Novak, playing the distraught, overheated, and altogether terrified Madame de Montfaucon.

This isn’t what we would expect from Thompson, who became an action-specialist, helming Charles Bronson vehicles for Cannon, but he really swung for the fences in
Eye. There some amazing images throughout the film that cinematographer Erwin Hiller often frames quite strikingly. With its harvest-horror-scapegoat themes, Eye was probably the most pagan horror film of its time, until the release of The Wicker Man.

It doesn’t always work, but its ambitions are impressive. Arguably, there are not a lot of black-and-white genre films from this era that look and sound as good. McFarland’s score is mostly orchestral (recorded by musicians from the London Philharmonic, with Tubby Hayes on flute, according to some documentation), but there are a few jazzy parts, like an opening harp performance that starts to swing in spots, and the dissonant brass that so effectively cranks up the tension of the climax. Cursed or not, it is definitely worth checking out. Recommended as a horror curiosity with considerable aesthetic merit,
Eye of the Devil airs this Friday night (10/30), on TCM.