Eye of the Devil (1966): Thompson’s Supernatural Horror Thriller, Starring Deborah Kerr, David Niven and Sharon Tate

J. Lee Thompson directed Eye of the Devil, a well-executed supernatural horror-thriller, featuring Deborah Kerr and David Niven in top form, and rising starlet Sharon Tate in her feature debut.

Our Grade: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)

Set in rural France, it was shot in stylized black and white by cinematographer Erwin Hillier at the French Château de Hautefort and in England.

Based on the novel Day of the Arrow by Philip Loraine (pseudonym of Robin Estridge), the film was initially titled Thirteen.  Told from a female point of view, the script was written by Robin Estridge, the novel’s original author and Dennis Miller, with some uncredited writing by Terry Southern.

David Niven plays Philippe, the owner of a vineyard who’s called back to the estate when it verges on financial collapse. Accompanied by his wife (Deborah Kerr), the couple are soon confronted by a beautiful witch (Sharon Tate), who lives on the estate with her brother (David Hemmings).

Gradually, it becomes clear that some ritualistic blood sacrifices are needed to restore the vineyard to its former glory.

Does the husband know more than he is willing to reveal to his wife? Catherine, initially representing the only voice of reason, becomes increasingly suspicious that “something wrong” is going on.  “You are mad,” Catherine tells her husband in the climax, “You don’t believe in this nonsense and stupidity.” She thereupon urges Philippe to leave the place with her and their children, but he refuses.

Narratively, the film borrows conventions from the “haunted house” subgenre, with Catherine being locked behind closed doors or framed behind windows, trying to get out and make sense of the surreal surroundings.

In the film’s most emotionally touching scene, Catherine begs Philippe’s father, Alain, to help her rescue his son from death.

Alex Sanders, an English occultist and Wiccan, served as the film’s consultant.

Ultimately, the tautly helmed tale is more strange, even bizarre, than truly scary or frightening, but the impressive surreal images and the superb acting lending a measure of authenticity–and pleasure that’s both cerebral and visual.

Eye of the Devil was the first feature of Sharon Tate, who had been discovered by producer Martin Ransohoff when she auditioned for “Petticoat Junction.”

Sidney J. Furie, the original director, was replaced by Michael Anderson, and when the latter fell ill, J.Lee Thompson was hired.

Deborah Kerr replaced Kim Novak, when she broke her back in a horse-riding incident; Novak can be seen in some long shots.

Eye of the Devil was not a commercial success in the US when first released, but it was popular in Europe. Over the years, it has acquired a larger following due to its supernatural themes, surreal images, and the notorious murder of Sharon Tate in 1969.

The film is also notable for its strong supporting cast, which includes vet actors Donald Pleasence, Flora Robson, and Emlyn Williams.

Spoiler Alert

The very last scene is both shocking and coherent with the proceedings.  After Philippe’s sacrificial death, Catherine leaves the haunted estate with her two boys.  The youngest one claims that he had forgotten his watch and runs back to the house to get it.  Once inside, he is confronted by Pere Dominic.  They exchange a meaningful look, and the boy leaves his watch on the altar, suggesting that he, too, will be back, thus literally and symbolically following in his father’s footsteps.  Back in the car, his mom asks him, “Did you get it (the watch)?” to which he simply answers, “Yes.”

The end credits then roll in.


Deborah Kerr as Catherine
David Niven as Philippe
Flora Robson as Countess Estel
Donald Pleasence as Pere Dominic
David Hemmings as Christian de Caray
Sharon Tate as Odile de Caray
Edward Mulhare as Jean-Claude
Emlyn Williams as Alain


Music by Gary McFarland
Cinematography by Erwin Hillier
Edited by Ernest Walter

Production company: Filmways Pictures

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date: July 1966
Running time: 96 minutes

Budget: $3 million


I am grateful to TCM, which showed the film on October 11, 2019.