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Tabula Rasa

Two Evil Eyes

Review by Iain Triffitt, 2005

Also known as Due occhi diabolici
Italy/US, 1990
Written and directed by Dario Argento and George A Romero
Main cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Harvey Keitel
Version reviewed: Blue Underground/Stomp Visual R4 DVD

Two Evil Eyes DVD coverThe anthology or portmanteau film has a long but relatively undistinguished career in horror cinema history. These films are often compilations of short films by different directors, most with a framing story to put each story in context. One of the first such films also turned out to be the classic of the subgenre, the Basil Dearden produced Dead of Night (1945).

In 1990 Dario Argento decided to produce his own portmanteau film. It would based on Edgar Allen Poe stories, like an updated version of the Roger Corman produced and directed Tales of Terror. Argento set out to recruit the major horror directors of the day: John Carpenter, George Romero and reputedly Wes Craven and Stephen King. Only Romero was available at the time and so the project was altered to have one story directed by Romero and the second story directed by Argento. The scaling down of the project clearly resulted in pacing problems in the final version.

Romero's half — The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar — is the weakest of the pair. The story itself does not lend itself to much padding, it merely recounts the suspension of death through hypnosis and the ultimately messy result when the hypnosis is lifted. Romero takes the basic premise of the story and unfolds an EC-ish morality play around it; we have a conniving would-be widow (played by Adrienne Barbeau), her old and mortally ill husband (the raffishly named Bingo O'Malley) and her lover — who is also her husband's doctor (Ramy Zada). When the husband expires too early for the scheming couple to vacuum out his account, the doctor's knowledge of hypnosis comes to the fore. They intend to delay Valdemar's death just long enough to finish cleaning out his estate.

So far, that's close to the plot of, ohhh, a thousand made-for-TV movies (with titles like Murder in Pleasantville or Double Jeopardy). And for the most part there's nothing to disabuse the viewer of the notion that their DVD player has stopped and they're watching the Midday Movie by mistake. The cinematography is as flat as the performances, with the notable exception of Barbeau who introduces a complexity and sympathy to her character that the rest of the production is lacking. It's only when the dead Mr Valdemar wakes up and the Tom Savini make-up effects kick in that you are reminded that if there's one thing Romero can do, it's zombies.

However, despite a neat addition to Poe's original story, the long awaited switch from bargain basement James M Cain to zombie horror arrives too late. It is like Romero has been studying the rushes too closely and hypnotised himself, only snapping out of it moments before the climax. As it's Romero, there are moments of social comment bobbing feebly above the ocean of tedium, but not enough to distinguish the film in any way, making The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar a decidedly minor part of Romero's canon.

Argento's contribution, The Black Cat, is a complete contrast to Romero's turgid tale. As if by way of apology for the lack of sensation in the previous story, it starts with a distinctly Poe influenced murder scene — a naked woman sliced in twain with a razor-sharp pendulum — before revealing the scene to be nothing more than a road side attraction to the major plot. The main story concerns the photographer at the scene of the crime, one 'Rod Usher' (Harvey Keitel) who is obsessively taking photos of gruesome crimes, most of which are Poe influenced. He runs afoul of the eponymous cat, who's curious white markings predict a horrible fate for Usher. Despite his best efforts at ridding himself of the message by disposing of the messenger, the outcome is already preordained.

The black cat, from Two Evil EyesWhilst the story is based explicitly on Poe's 'The Black Cat', Argento seems determined to shoe horn as many other Poe references in as possible — from character names (Rod Usher, Berenice) to events (a corpse with the teeth pried out of her mouth, a character walled up in an apartment) to the point where the floridity and density of Argento's story and direction is at a far remove from the stateliness of Poe's style (which is more authentically echoed in the staidness of Romero's contribution.) Poe builds to a manic frenzy, whilst Argento starts there. The film is almost an inversion of his classic giallos where, instead of following the investigation into the murders by an unknown perpetrator, we follow the perpetrator and catch occasional glimpses of the ongoing investigation. The Black Cat is worth the purchase of the DVD alone, its psychotic intensity more than compensating for the sheer ordinaryness of Romero's initial contribution.

The DVD from Blue Underground is a good sharp transfer with solid audio, at least on my own limited equipment. It does appear to have minor cuts in the Argento sequence (especially in a scene with the black cat and a saw) but not enough cuts to make it unwatchable. The Australian Region 4 release is missing the second disk of the US and UK releases which have an extensive documentary on the making of the Argento section. The Region 4 release only has a photo gallery, bios of the directors and trailers.

Despite the let down of Romero's contribution, Argento's second half more than justifies this DVD's purchase. Two Evil Eyes is not a necessarily film for the casual horror viewer, but for fans, especially of Argento's oeuvre, it is a film that rewards the patient.

 

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