Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #431
Number of Views: One
Release Date: 25 January 1990
Sub-Genre: Horror Anthology
Country of Origin: Italy, United States
Box Office: $349,618
Running Time: 120 minutes
Director: Dario Argento, George A. Romero
Producers: Claudio Argento, Dario Argento, Achille Manzotti
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini, George A. Romero, Peter Koper (uncredited)
Based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe
Special Effects: Tom Savini
Cinematography: Peter Reniers
Score: Pino Donaggio
Editing: Pat Buba
Studios: ADC Films, Gruppo Bema
Distributor: Taurus Entertainment Company
Stars: Adrienne Barbeau, Harvey Keitel, Ramy Zada, Bingo O’Malley, Jeff Howell, E.G. Marshall, Madeleine Potter, John Amos, Sally Kirkland, Kim Hunter, Holter Graham, Martin Balsam, Chuck Aber, Jonathan Adams, Tom Atkins
Suggested Audio Candy
Pino Donaggio “Dreaming Dreams”
John Carpenter aside, if you were to point a gun at my head and ask me for the two most influential horror filmmakers of the past forty years, I would not stutter delivering my response. Dario Argento and George A. Romero formed a massive part of my cinematic upbringing and provided me with some of my most memorable moments growing up. My first experience of the Italian maestro was Suspiria and nothing whatsoever in my life up until that point had prepared me for what I was about to endure. Interestingly, I recently watched this nightmarish masterpiece once again, and it still makes my blood run cold to this very day. While Argento may have seemingly misplaced that certain something which made his early works so majestic, there are numerous other examples of this great man’s boundless talent. Deep Red, Inferno, Tenebrae, Opera, and others besides to a lesser extent, all offer ample proof of his expressionism in full garish Technicolor and I will forever be indebted to him for his introduction into horror as an art form.
As for Romero, he did something of a number on me also by giving me my first true taste of splatter cinema, a term which he coined himself. While my personal favorite films from his vast catalogue are actually Martin and Day of The Dead, there can be no denying the impact of the second phase of his zombie assault, the formidable Dawn of The Dead. He single-handedly raised the bar with his 1978 masterpiece, delivering a visceral delight which also supplied damning social commentary about consumerism in the process. Indeed, it was here that his affiliation with Argento commenced as the Italian had been a fan of Romero since Night of The Living Dead and assisted financing the project in exchange for international distribution rights. As a result of their collaboration, a European cut helmed by Argento was released under the title Zombi and the two have remained firm friends ever since.
Two Evil Eyes came about when, after over a decade of both men consolidating their success on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Argento called Romero out of the blue and suggested they join forces once more. He had designs on a four-piece anthology celebrating the works of Edgar Allen Poe and had Carpenter and Wes Craven in mind to direct two other segments which never saw fruition after both pulled out. Thus, The Masque of the Red Death and The Cask of Amontillado never got made and, instead, it remained a two-man enterprise. Romero directed The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar while Argento tackled The Black Cat and the result is a curious affair which arrived just late enough to hover beneath many horror aficionados’ radars.
Astonishingly, and I say this with my head hung in shame, I never offered it the time of day until recently. Heaven knows why I didn’t see fit to watch a collusion between two devilish minds such as these, especially given that I love nothing more than a good anthology and Romero’s Creepshow remains one of my favorite rainy day movies. I’m trying hard to fathom reasoning behind this despicable snub and nothing is forthcoming. In my sole defense, I was sixteen when this surfaced and embroiled in all manner of other enlightenment but that is still scant excuse. Thankfully, while perusing my collection recently, Two Evil Eyes glared back at me and the hoodoo was finally broken. I now present you my findings.
The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar
My first consideration when taking in Romero’s opening segment was that it felt as though I had unearthed a secret vault from Creepshow. This could so easy have been condensed into a thirty minute tale and would have been effortlessly interchangeable with any of the fables there. That represents a stellar start in my book and is no less than I had expected, given the director’s vast capacity for telling a story. Whereas Argento has always felt disconnected with actors and primarily uses his lens to narrate, Romero has a far more hands-on approach with his cast which makes him better suited to this opener. He takes a far more conventional approach to elucidating Poe’s original parable, pensively pondering death while remaining respectful of the source material and exercising admirable restraint in the process.
Scheming gold-digger Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau), and her lover Dr. Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada) are in cahoots and planning to manipulate her terminally ill husband Ernest into signing over his estate and finances through way of hypnosis before he croaks. What starts out suspiciously like a daytime soap opera soon ditches the melodrama in favor of paranoia and a creeping dread once things turn awry and her spouse is left stranded somewhere between the living and the dead in a state of perpetual hypnosis. He leaves the comfy confines of his divan and takes up residency in the vault freezer, while the conniving lovers frantically attempt to work out a plan B, all the while realizing just how ill-suited to one another they actually are. Then the tortured groans begin…
Barbeau is always an absolute treasure to watch and couldn’t be better suited to playing the adulterous wife. She starts off cold and calculated and there is a priceless early exchange with her husband’s skeptical lawyer Steven Pike (E.G. Marshall of Creepshow) as she shows herself to be a hard-nosed businesswoman disinterested in second thinking. This changes as the story wears on and she displays her overbearing conscience in every troubled look. Andy Garcia lookalike Zada offers strong support as her accomplice and the two spar decidedly well together, each offering their own twisted logic and coming up with precious few answers.
The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar is commonly regarded as the weaker of the two tales and I would be inclined to disagree on this count. Sure, it is not as iconic a tale, and Romero is left with precious little room for movement with regards to implementing the trademark style we have all grown to cherish but it is tightly scripted, faultlessly played, and encourages an eerie underlying sense of slow-building alarm which serves it well as it reaches its gratifying conclusion.
The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar Judgement: 8/10
The Black Cat
Argento’s offering is the lengthier of the two, clocking in at just over an hour-long, and takes its cues from numerous other Poe works aside from the obvious, most dominantly The Tell-Tale Heart. The Italian has far more space to maneuver and is afforded more chance to offer his own unique take on Poe’s fiction. All the trademarks are here; from the tracking, panning, close-up and crane shots synonymous to his work to second-fiddle narrative which often defies any sense of real logic. However, anyone expecting the levels of expressionism found in Suspiria or Tenebrae will be left wanting as he is still mindful of towing the line.
On the surface, Forensic photographer Roderick Usher (Harvey Keitel) and his live-in doll Annabel (Madeleine Porter) appear to be a happy enough couple. That is until she brings home a stray cat and gives it a home, much to his displeasure. It isn’t long before his growing resentment for the similarly stand-offish moggy has spilled over culminating in strangulation which he uses to inform his next provocative work. Usher makes two pretty brazen errors at this point. First, he hits the liquor hard and reveals himself to be a contemptible bastard capable of unapologetic domestic violence. Second, he publishes a book of his mondo photography named Metropolitan Horrors containing blatant images of him wringing its scrawny little neck which Annabel stumbles across, to her absolute horror.
Keitel is more than happy to play bad lieutenant and here doesn’t request our empathy for one picosecond. Rod is self-loathing scum of the highest order and, in stark contrast to both characters from Romero’s segment, displays not a crumb of conscience as he lurches from one vile act to the next without so much as blinking an eye. Of course, we desire nothing more than to witness this reprobate falling on his sword, and a wonderfully macabre dream sequence featuring medieval Pagan sacrifice and wince-inducing sheesh kebab impalement goes one better, albeit in the form of phantasm. His feline foe proves a most stubborn adversary and, as the net begins closing in around him, we get to revel in his rapid descent into madness, something Keitel courts decidedly well.
The Black Cat is the more visually arresting of the two segments, as you would expect from the flamboyant Italian and features a sturdy supporting cast with Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam, John Amos and Kim Hunter all putting in notable turns, while Porter also fares well as the long-suffering Annabel. Ultimately it all boils down to personal choice but, for Keeper, Romero has the edge on this occasion.
The Black Cat Judgement: 7/10
While Two Evil Eyes comprises strong entries from two undisputed monarchs of modern-day horror, it still feels a little unfurnished. There is no wraparound to tie it all together while time and cost constraints leave it feeling a tad cobbled together if truth be known. It is always marvelous to see Poe’s phenomenal art embellished onscreen but this would have benefited greatly from a little longer in the kiln. Having said that, we are still talking about Romero and Argento here and there is more than enough evidence on exhibit that neither had misplaced their mojo by the time the desolate nineties were looming large. Two great directors somewhat shackled are still two great directors after all.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: How could there possibly not be grue? Two Evil Eyes is endowed with plentiful gristle, particularly during Argento’s segment when Tom Savini offers up some gloriously grotesque injury detail including a half-eaten corpse stuffed with kittens, the grisly aftermath of the pendulum, and damn good reason to take a rain check on that dentist’s appointment for the foreseeable.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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