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The Season of Re-Branded Paganism

Posted by Dirck on 29 October, 2013

Hallowe’en being upon us, I believe I’ll treat myself to a response to a review of a… horror, sort of, after a fashion, movie.  Suspense might be nearer the mark .  The review in question is from a different source than the previous ones, a self-declared (and justifiably so) gonzo-theorist film critic, and the review that I’m taking issue with him over is his recent offering regarding Eye of the Devil.  As with my previous excursions into this line of though, I’m going to drop spoilers galore, so if you’re a fan of creepy 1960s black-and-white film, David Niven, or both, you’re endangering the surprises by reading either this or, in fact, the review down the link.

Also as with previous excursions, I’m going to start by agreeing with my target.  The first half of Eye of the Devil is all about keeping the viewer as mystified as Deborah Kerr, the wife of French nobleman David Niven, and apart from the profoundly obscure menace provided by a couple of creepy blond twins (Sharon Tate and David Hemmings) it is, as he says, dull.  I’ve seen this film only once, which was the result of three attempts.  Actually, if you act a fan of the above-mentioned items, keep reading.  Read the review I link too.  Read plenty of reviews.  It helps immensely to know that they thing is actually going somewhere. and it’s not (just) one of these tedious artistic films in which nothing every strings together and the point is to leave the viewer as baffled as they began, because for the first half it’s hard to not assume that’s what you’re facing.

Once you’ve fought your way through that powerfully obtuse first portion, when some of the hints of what’s going on start to actually hang together into suggestive shapes, the going gets easier, and indeed well before the end you get a pretty good idea of what the problem is for Kerr and Niven, and can start trying to decide which of them has the right response to it.  Here’s the big spoiler; the domain Niven’s family holds is the seat of a cult, and part of the cult’s activities involve sacrifices to ensure bountiful harvests– the longer since a bumper crop comes in, the more serious the sacrifice, and we all know what the biggest sacrifice is, right?

I really only have one serious beef with the review, and it’s something that the title leads him into.  He keeps speaking of the cultists as Satanists.  That’s not right, and it bugs me slightly.  I use the word “cult” guardedly; cult practices are out of line with mainstream religions, but don’t pursue evil necessarily.  In Eye of the Devil, the cultists are in most of their expressions of religion Christian.  The local priest is in on the deal.  The troubling sacrifice aspects of their beliefs are not presented as a tip of the hat to The Adversary, but rather a replaying of the sacrifice which Christianity’s namesake made– he went up on the cross to improve things for everyone else, and the cult’s sacrificial object does the same, willingly, for the benefit of his entire community, and what I take from it at least is that the cult is a survival of pre-Christian practices that has infused itself into the (relatively) new religion.  This is not unlike Hallowe’en, or rather Hallowmas, in which a hard to eradicate pre-Christian notion was adopted by the church as an alternative to the difficulty of suppressing it– if people are going to get flippy about ancestral spirits creeping about once a year, let’s make sure they’re also thinking about saints!  In Eye of the Devil, it’s just a more local and rather hairier-chested version of the effect.  Another critic I enjoy suggests parallels between this film and The Wicker Man, and he’s not wrong, even though the paganism in that one is extremely neo- rather than a survival of past ages; there’s a fully-formed and plausible theology at work in both, and in both it’s not a confrontation of opposites as much as a selection of parallel paths.

Unlike a lot of actual devil-worship films (let’s try The Devil’s Rain and Rosemary’s Baby to cover a spectrum of possible examples), there’s no supernatural powers at work, at least not in any overt way.  The response to the religious efforts of the cultists is much like that one might expect from the more conventionally Christian prayer– things get better, perhaps even dramatically, but one could attribute it to a mere swing of nature’s pendulum as much as the hand of an interested deity.  The stopping of resistance to the plan is pretty much all through human agency, rather than unseen powers (edit; just remembered– there is a little unlikely hypnotism, but it happens during the befuddling front end and thus hardly counts).  What I find actually interesting about Eye of the Devil is that if you take David Niven rather than Deborah Kerr as your identification character, it’s about having the moral fibre to do something painful because you know that it’s morally required.  If we end up rooting for the cultists, it’s not because of the appeal which the villain of any piece inevitably has, but because David Niven is clearly on the path to doing something terrible in pursuit of being good and for no personal gain whatever.

Which is almost worth the struggle the first part of the film represents.

Today’s pen: Waterman Carène
Today’s ink: Herbin Poussière de Lune

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