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In Association with
Two Evil Eyes (1990)
Directors: George A. Romero and Dario Argento

review by Jonathan McCalmont
Back in 1968, someone had the bright idea of getting together three famous art house directors and getting them to each make a short film on a similar theme that would then be bound up together and distributed as an anthology film. The directors were Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini, the theme was the short fiction of Edgar Allen Poe and the film was Histoires Extraordinaires.

However, despite the excellence of the basic idea and the creative calibre of the directors and actors attached to the project, the results were decidedly mixed with Vadim using Jane Fonda to revisit the excruciatingly awful campy eroticism of the pair's (then recent) Barbarella, while Fellini deployed Terrence Stamp like a scalpel to cut away the fat of the original story in order to produce a powerful and hauntingly bizarre rumination on the price of celebrity.

Fast forward to 1990 and someone has the bright idea of revisiting the idea of a Poe anthology film only instead of pulling in great names from art house cinema, the producers went with two of the biggest names in exploitation cinema - George A. Romero and Dario Argento.

As with Histoires Extraordinaires, the producers allowed Romero and Argento a good deal of leeway in how they attacked their chosen short stories and, just as with Histoires Extraordinaires, the quality of Two Evil Eyes (aka: Due occhi diabolici) is decidedly uneven.

The first short film is Romero's take on Poe's The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar (1845). The original story is a short sharp shock. Barely ten pages, it opens with the decidedly postmodern trick of pretending to be a piece of non-fiction, starring the author, before exploring the idea that mesmerism might be used to 'freeze' someone on the point of death - trapping them in a state of extended un-death by keeping them in a hypnotic trance. Romero's film keeps the idea of mesmerism and freezing someone in a state of un-death but turns the story into a rather clumsy attack on immoral grasping people who would do anything to get ahead. In other words, he really sticks his satirical neck out and goes for the hard targets.

Ernest Waldemar is a rich but unpleasant old man. Having alienated his family and taken up with a much younger air hostess Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau) he now finds himself on his deathbed. The only thing preventing him from screaming in pain as his body slowly devours itself is the state of hypnotic slumber he is kept in by Dr Hoffman (Ramy Zada). Hoffman and Jessica are young, ruthless and have decided to work together in order to embezzle as much of the old man's money as possible before he dies and his family swoop in to pick the bones.

They do this by manipulating Valdemar's trance so that he issues instructions to his lawyers and bankers facilitating the couple's embezzlement. However, before the pair can clean the old man out and elope, Valdemar dies. Initially, they hope to keep the old boy's death secret by stashing him in a freezer but they soon discover that Valdemar is not in fact dead. Instead, he is trapped between worlds and this status means that 'others' are going to use him as a gateway back into the real world.

Up to this point, the story has some kind of shape and there are tensions between the various characters. But then, Romero's lack of imagination reasserts itself and the film slides into yet another pointless exercise in zombie-wrangling as Valdemar starts rampaging about the place before infecting other people with his... hypnotic state. The film climaxes with someone stabbing a zombie in the chest with a huge metronome...

Narratively and thematically speaking, Romero's offering is a disaster. Romero introduces the idea of the grasping lovers into Poe's narrative but he then fails to come up with anything for them to do so he flirts with the idea that they're going to turn on each other before he flirts with the idea that Valdemar is an even bigger evil grasping prick than both of them but, failing to make any hay with either of these ideas, he drops them and goes for zombies and fire-fights, which is a real pity.

Visually, Romero's film is also deeply bizarre. For starters, Barbeau is completely miscast as the ruthless bimbo wife as she is quite obviously middle-aged and - though an attractive woman in her own right - not someone anyone would consider taking as a 'trophy'. Also strange is the actual look of the film as the costume design, sets and blockings are all very reminiscent of the kind of populist murder-mystery TV series that were popular in America in the 1980s. I spent half the film's running time expecting Angela Lansbury to wander in with Tom Bosley in tow claiming that her extensive career as a crime writer and geriatric ghoul made her eminently qualified to fight zombies. It makes for a bizarre and decidedly off-putting viewing experience.

The second film, Dario Argento's take on Poe's The Black Cat (1843) is a different category of film altogether. Poe's original story is a bleakly macabre examination of growing madness and alcoholism as the narrator takes against a cat and sets about mutilating it only for the cat to return with augurs of the narrator's death embedded in its fur. Argento takes these themes on board but expands them into a much more robust and surreal take on the battle of the sexes and one man's problems with his wife's sexuality.

Roderick Usher (Harvey Keitel) is an eccentric crime-scene photographer. A self-proclaimed artist and wannabe member of the counter-culture, he makes his living by photographing dead bodies. He lives in a magnificent gothic mansion, has a beautiful violinist for a girlfriend (Madeleine Potter) but there is a very clear sense that he is not quite living up to the standards he has set for himself. Somewhere along the way, he has confused the trappings of artistic alienation (weird clothes, glamorously artsy girlfriend, and strange house) with actual artistic alienation. He is a crime-scene photographer and a failure. Nothing more...

One day, he returns home to find that his girlfriend has taken in a stray black cat. Usher takes an instant dislike to the animal and the animal seems to feel just the same. Wherever Usher goes, there is the cart staring at him. Challenging him... Reminding him of his inadequacies... These inadequacies are also quite clearly sexual as girlfriend Annabelle has taken to snogging her violin student. Indeed, in a spectacularly odd dream sequence, the cat is revealed to be an embodiment of Annabelle's feminine mystique. Her uniqueness and her sexuality...

Her individuality threatens Usher and so he murders the animal, taking pictures as he does so. He even manages to sell the pictures as a collection, thereby making clear that he can only achieve his desires by exploiting and mutilating the woman he lives with. Annabelle must pay the cost for Usher's failings. But the cat keeps on coming back. It comes home. It turns up in a bar where Usher is flirting with the barmaid, Usher snaps and murders Annabelle, walling her up in a cupboard. But still the cat comes back. There is no escaping it.

Visually, Argento's film is endlessly interesting. It contains a few interesting shots (including one superb tracking shot from the back of a truck) but what really sells this film as a substantial contribution to Argento's back catalogue is the quirkiness and the attention to detail. I adore the way in which Argento tips his hat to Poe's gothic tendencies by making sure that every single building he uses is features gothic characteristics. Even the offices of the newspaper have huge beams. But these gothic tendencies also clash with the modernism of the dress and set decoration. It is almost as though the look of the film itself reflects the tensions within the project itself: Poe's story provides the gothic bones of the film but the foreground and characters are modern and belong to Argento.

Argento's film ultimately rests upon the shoulders of Harvey Keitel who seems to be pre-empting his performance in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992) by exuding a powerful blend of off-putting disconnectedness and demented aggression. His passive-aggressive attempt at withstanding a police interview is astonishing to watch, peppered as it is with barely controlled explosions of rage and triumph ("She's not my wife!" and "Why should I tell those busy-bodies anything!?"). Argento's film is an oddly beautiful and incredibly memorable examination of a man consumed by his own failings which he then projects onto a cat. It is, without question, an improvement upon the original short story and that is really saying something as The Black Cat is one of Poe's better works.

I was tempted to give this film a lesser rating on the grounds that Argento's film is as wonderful as Romero's is incompetently pedestrian but, as a product, I think the sheer awesomeness of Argento's hour-long film easily makes up for the comparative shabbiness of Romero's contribution. My only regret is that this re-release does not contain any proper extras beyond a few trailers. This is a real shame as the recent spate of gialli DVD releases from companies like Shameless have all been lavishly accompanied with insightful and entertaining extras. This is still worth keeping an eye out for though.

Two Evil Eyes on DVD

Adrienne Barbeau in Two Evil Eyes

frozen undead in Two Evil Eyes

crime scene, Two Evil Eyes

walled in, Two Evil Eyes

Two Evil Eyes

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