"Tell me, do you believe in magic?"
--Sharon Tate, giving the creepiest delivery of this line in history.
Hammer Studios turned out predecessor films before making The Wicker Man, which has an understanding of its premise the earlier versions did not, and a willingness to push its implications. Hammer wasn't alone; Filmways Productions and MGM released Eye of the Devil in 1966, an occult thriller with more than a little in common with that celebrated, future horror classic. It's not the best of the genre, but it gives us David Niven in an atypical role, Donald Pleasence in one of his first horror appearances, and Sharon Tate in her debut.
Wealthy Philippe de Montfaucon (Niven) returns to his ancestral property to deal with a poor harvest. Against his wishes, his wife and children follow him to the old stomping grounds, where they find villagers with sinister visages, a priest (Pleasence) with questionable devotion, an old woman of uncertain allegiance (Flora Robson), a witch (Tate) with designs on the children, her brother (David Hemmings), who has a great love of arrows, and (of course) a secret concealed in a castle room.
Mrs. de Montfaucon begins to realize the local method of dealing with a poor harvest will be shockingly old-school.
Eye of the Devil features some impressive location shooting in France. Imagine a period Hammer film with a budget, and you'll have something like this movie. The filmmakers adapted the script from a novel written, I assume, while the author watched Hammer Films and read The Golden Bough. It boasts generally good direction and atmospheric creepiness, but it's not especially scary, and only occasionally suspenseful. We learn about the cult's existence almost immediately, and anyone familiar with Frazier and other popular works on European Paganism will see the ending coming.
Its most disturbing moments concern the interaction between Odile, her brother, and the children. These scenes might have been even more powerful if Tate and Hemmings had not been directed to move through this film in a trance.
At times, the characters act in ways that serve the script, but do not consistently make sense in context. I understand why Catherine chooses to stay but, given her wealth, resources, and what she has already witnessed, why does she not send her children away, and out of danger?
In the end, this is a film for occult horror completists, or, I suppose, someone who absolutely needs to see David Niven chase Sharon Tate around with a whip. Honestly, the movie has some talented actors and impressive scenery, but it isn't terribly memorable. Without the involvement of Sharon Tate and the similarities to The Wicker Man, it might be entirely forgotten.
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Writers: Robin Estridge and Dennis Murphy, from the novel by Robin Estridge.
David Niven as Philippe de Montfaucon
Deborah Kerr as Catherine de Montfaucon
Donald Pleasence as Pere Dominic
Sharon Tate as Odile de Caray
Edward Mulhare as Jean-Claude Ibert
Flora Robson as Countess Estell
Emlyn Williams as Alain de Montfaucon
Robert Duncan as Jacques de Montfaucon
Suky Appleby as Antoinette de Montfaucon
David Hemmings as Christian de Caray
John Le Mesurier as Dr. Monnet
Michael Miller as Grandec
Donald Bisset as Rennard
Pauline Letts as Marianne