Catherine de Montfaucon (Deborah Kerr) is in London with her French nobleman husband Philippe (David Niven), where they spend most of their time, in fact they haven't been to visit France since before their two children were born. But that is all about to change, as tonight as they listen to a harp recital at a gathering held in their home, a man arrives from the village where Philippe's vineyard is situated and he has bad news: the crop has failed yet again, and something drastic will have to be done to ensure it does not happen this year - but Catherine fails to realise how drastic...
The effect of watching Eye of the Devil is less interesting than the stories that sprung up about it. The film suffered at the hands (or scissors) of the censors for one thing, and rumours about the occult power of that missing footage grew up around it, undoubtedly unfounded but when one of the film's stars, Sharon Tate, was the victim of a dreadful murder three years after making this there were those who liked to make a link between the fictional black magic goings-on here and the real life horrors of the Manson Family, especially as her husband Roman Polanski had made the ultimate devil-worship film Rosemary's Baby around the same time.
But really, Eye of the Devil does not bear the weight of these rumours, and on watching it you can see how far apart the filmmakers' aims to chill the blood and the actual results were. Funnily enough, although there are marked similarities between this and Kerr's previous horror classic The Innocents, she was not the first choice for the role: Kim Novak was to have starred, but for various reasons was judged not to be up to the part and was let go. But where Kerr's previous black and white supernatural suspense piece was undeniably effective, here it seems like a flimsy excuse to freak the actress out for an hour and a half.
At least the film looks good thanks to Erwin Hillier's atmospheric photography, going some way to working up an oppressive mood, yet you can't help but compare his efforts to the Freddie Francis work on that other movie. Once Catherine and her children reach the country mansion of her husband, the spookiness can begin in earnest, and it grows clearer that things are building up to a twist. That's what you might be expecting, but what really happens is once you know what the townsfolk have in mind, that is precisely what happens with no big revelations and no sudden shocks. Perhaps Catherine's dashed efforts to prevent what happens were supposed to be adequate.
At least the cast was interesting, so even if Kerr's performance leaned to heavily on the frightened woman cliché we did get to see David Niven acting sinister, not something he was accustomed to in most of his films. Actually, he doesn't appear that much and is almost a supporting character, with the two children playing his offspring securing more screen time than he does. Also cast against type as menacing is John Le Mesurier, but when Donald Pleasence appears as the local priest, you're not taken aback at how he turns out. Tate (dubbed with an English accent) and David Hemmings play a spacey brother and sister who are involved with witchcraft of some description, with Hemmings ominously carrying a bow and arrows which he uses to shoot doves from the sky, and worse, but they are merely part of a much-reworked screenplay which strains for foreboding significance yet somehow falls short. There's a good idea in this somewhere - a fact not lost on the makers of The Wicker Man, as many viewers have noticed. Music by Gary MacFarland.