Although Blue Underground's persistence at bestowing their genre back-catalogue of Blu-ray releases with patently unnecessary lossless surround sound makeovers really does get under my skin, I do applaud the fact that they keep coming up with cult titles. This offering, the rather ill-fated 1989 joint effort between George Romero and Dario Argento that saw the two updating up a couple of Edgar Allan Poe's twisted tales, is no exception. It wasn't the success that the filmmakers or the fans expected and certainly, when I first saw it all those years ago, I found it to be a major disappointment. The concept may have been commendable, but the execution was slightly wrong-footed, the pace of this double-dosage of creepiness decidedly uneven and the shocks - that we'd come to expect from such supremos of the form - were, sadly, all too scarce.
Two Evil Eyes, as the project came to be known, was the end result of a doomed plan from Argento to produce a four-part series of Poe adaptations for cable TV. With Romero on-board, as well as the talented newcomers of Michele (Stagefright) Soavi and Richard (Hardware, Dust Devil) Stanley, the intentions were not for theatrical releases at all, which would go some way to validating the languid and often bland style of Romero's story, which was also to be the first of the series. But when this idea fell through - ironically it was Romero who got cold feet after helming his “The Facts In The Case Of Mr. Valdemar” - they were only left with two hour-long films, the other being Argento's “The Black Cat”, itself rife with homages to other Poe stories. With no series to be developed, the only thing left to do was to bolt the two tales together and release them as a double-bill.
Combining the two horror gods with make-up man extraordinaire, Tom Savini, would seem like a love triangle made in Hell. Another solid bonus was in getting some big names to appear in front of the camera. Romero had already proven a big draw for celebrities eager to face his terrors with his earlier anthology of fear, the EC Comics homage Creepshow and he would make sure to bring a couple of his stars from that garish classic along for this ride as well. To genre fans of a certain age, Adrienne Barbeau - one-time Mrs. John Carpenter and forever The Fog's valiant DJ, Stevie Wayne - is something a cult siren. The buxom brunette has a strangely exotic allure - part Native Indian and part Romany, she graced Escape From New York and The Fog with, respectively, heroic loyalty and smooth, sassy charisma - her roles memorable for Barbeau's skills in conveying vulnerability, sex appeal and down-to-earth realism. Undoubtedly attractive, she nevertheless manages to eschew glamour in favour of character. When Romero cast her for the role of Hal Holbrook's alcoholic gob-on-a-stick wife in the best chapter of Creepshow, The Crate, she brought out a broad line of over-the-top arrogance and poisonous mockery.
Here playing Jessica, the conniving younger wife, and former airline hostess, of the dying tycoon Valdemar (the fabulously named Bingo O'Malley), Barbeau purses those exquisite lips in consternation when her carefully plotted scheme to embezzle his vast wealth takes a turn for the hideously macabre. Having enlisted the aid of Ramy Zada's nefarious Dr. Robert Hoffman, who is also her lover, to hypnotise the bed-ridden old moaner into signing away his fortune, they discover to their mutual horror that, even once his body has died, Valdemar's trance has kept his spirit locked in the limbo between Heaven and Earth - and that he is most definitely not happy about his predicament ... and nor is he alone there. Kept on-ice, but reluctant to keep quiet, he brings along some nasty surprises from beyond the grave to get his own back on the dastardly crooks. With his own wife and co-screenwriter, Christine Forrest (who appeared in both Dawn Of The Dead and The Dark Half as well), playing the crotchety, but hardly professional nurse pleased at being dismissed from such a dismal job and a host of other Romero-regulars dotted around the production, the great man should have been completely at home with his instalment, especially considering that it meant he would be able to employ some of his cherished zombies, as well.
But all is not blood and roses, I'm sorry to say.
The tone of Romero's piece is TV-drama tinged with a softly-softly supernatural. The Godfather of Gore (as he had come to be known) is on restrained, almost tepid form. Yet this doesn't mean that he drops the ball, narratively speaking, or turns in a horribly boring instalment - the presence of Adrienne Barbeau, alone, ensures that can't happen, anyway. In fact, his story (screen-written by him, as well) could easily have fitted into Creepshow ... well, had he chopped it's running-time of an hour down a bit. But, as a master in the art of the Grand Guignol, he doesn't quite grasp the wicked heart of darkness and corrupted mind that Poe so eloquently examined with his prose. Barbeau is always watchable, of course, and there are certainly some eerie chills to be found when strange, unearthly moans and groans infiltrate the mansion in the wee small hours, and a deliciously creepy atmosphere of dread during the final act when Romero finally finds his mojo. Getting some mileage out of that twisting staircase leading down to the basement in which Valdemar is locked in a freezer, and the shadows that dance across it, Romero turns in what may be considered a cosy sort of spook-fest - for him, at any rate. Although violent once Valdemar goes walkies, the story is padded-out with discussions on the morals and ramifications of such evil deeds and the bickering dilemmas of the two devious schemers threaten to dilute the otherworldly frisson of the situation. Having Valdemar's disembodied voice issue from a motionless and frozen mouth is vaguely unnerving, but with the camera continually gazing at his lifeless face and his tortured tones struggling from somewhere other, the effect soon becomes slightly cheesy and naff. O' Malley's warbling, raspy pain is quite authentic, though, and it is remarkable how you feel both sympathy for the poor guy as well as profound irritation at his incessant grumbling.
What will definitely disappoint is the fact that Savini doesn't get to unleash any proper bullet-through-the-skull gags. There are, indeed, several bullets fired through reanimated flesh, yet most of them happen off-camera. Romero is clearly saying to us “Yeah, I can come up with subtle stuff too ... stuff that doesn't have brains being blasted out all over the place.” Which, of course, we know. Romero does a fine job with his King adaptation The Dark Half but, here, the story, as quiet and dreamy as it is for the most part, still needs some serious oomph to reward us for sticking with endless scenes of rather pedantic familial skulduggery. The finale does go some way to supplying a jolt or two, but it is still not enough. Hazy visions of spectral strangers almost chill, however. It these had been allowed a more prominent part then I feel this instalment would have been much stronger.
Romero has always had a un-extravagant filming style. Oh, his scenarios and set-pieces are outrageous, of course, but his camera-work and editing - even during the awesome Dawn Of The Dead - are purely of the workmanlike, television mould. Only lately has he actually tried to do anything different, visually speaking, with the likeable Land Of The Dead and the simply awful Diary Of The Dead - kinetic action and a much more vibrant and fast-moving approach to the former, and the now-boringly commonplace hand-held, shoot on-the-hoof style of the latter. The Facts In The Case Of Mr. Valdemar is soft and gently composed, its framing unshowy and flat. The mansion house is a great setting, modern, comfortable and well-lit, but still retaining a delicious feeling of isolation. Barring a couple of visits to her husband's suspicious attorney - who is played by another veteran of Creepshow in E. G. Marshall, who was the cockroach-hating Mr. Pratt in the final episode, “They're Creeping Up On You” - the film could serve very well as a stage-play. Poe's fiction often lurked in basements, concealed rooms and garrets, their shut-in evocations of paranoia, madness and violence prevailingly intimate and all the more powerful for it. Time and time again, Romero would choose to cut off and isolate his cast - the initial Dead movies all contrived to batten down the hatches and hole-up his characters in, consecutively, farmhouse, shopping mall and underground bunker - and his penchant for having the horrors literally invade such sanctuaries is also apparent here. The home becomes a hemmed-in enclave of depravity and his demons - more restless undead - are apt to get you when you are asleep. Thus, Romero's admittedly rather safe little tale sneaks one past you in its refusal to fight fair and get us at home when our guard is down.
The Facts In The Case Of Mr. Valdemar remains a bit of a damp squib, though. Had it actually ended up being the debut episode of a series, it would possibly not have delivered the horrific hook that such an ambitious project needed. As the first act in a two-part movie, it just about holds it own, although it does leave you wanting some real meat to be served up with the main course. So, our hopes rest with Dario Argento and his story.
In The Black Cat, Harvey Keitel plays troubled forensic photographer Roderick Usher - the name is culled from Poe's The Fall Of The House Of Usher - and the story revolves around his descent into madness and murder following the arrival of the titular feline in the house he shares with his girlfriend, Annabel. Despising the cat and suspecting Annabel, who teaches violin lessons and is something of an elemental, of seeing somebody else, his mind becomes unhinged and he tortures the cat and, ultimately, kills it, photographing the sick deed so that he can bolster the pages of his new book of dark art and satisfy his unimpressed publishers. When Annabel discovers what he has done, she plots with her lover to leave him and start afresh in New York, but Usher, now deranged, has other ideas about that. And, as with the best of Poe's short fiction, Usher's painstakingly elaborate cover-up falls apart at the seams when his crime comes back to haunt him. Filmed many times, most notably in 1935 with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff - although much altered from its source - and even by Argento's Italian gore-rival at the time, Lucio Fulci in his hackneyed 1981 version - and altered considerably more - this updating of Poe's tale of guilt and paranoia actually works pretty well as one of the better versions. Savini has a lot more to do on this one. As well as performing the grisly gore for two of the crime scenes that Usher is called-in to photograph - the first being a fantastic visual reference to Poe's “The Pit And The Pendulum” and the second a sly recalling of “Berenice's” ghastly tooth-removal - Savini also plays a bizarre corpse-disturbing felon, bedecked in long straggly hair and clearly relishing the first in what would become a long line of escalatingly lunatic cameo-appearances. With animatronics, prosthetics and a smattering of gushing blood, The Black Cat certainly makes an effort to come up with the gruesome goods. The bisected woman gag is justly infamous, but Savini's hideous neck-nibbling kitten now looks quite badly dated, I'm afraid to say.
Keitel was still a couple of years away from turning in his morals to play the repugnant Bad Lieutenant for Abel (Driller Killer) Ferrara, but his jaded, squalid performance here was certainly a step in that direction. Although he had never shied away from playing pot-heads, psychos and fringe-dwelling weirdos - from Sport in Taxi Driver to loopy robot-building space captain Benson in Saturn 3 to the corrupt detective in Cop Killer (aka Corrupt) - he would go on to become the epitome of shady ne'er-do-wells in the 80's and 90's. Roderick Usher may not start out as a head-case, but the impression is that years of observing and photographing dead bodies and mutilation has crept into his subconscious and lain, festering, inside there until something finally pushes him over the edge. Keitel no doubt studied every facet of such a character to enable him to get under Roderick's skin, but there is still a uneven quality to his portrayal, even though he is supposed to be playing someone who is losing control. At times, he gives Usher something of a comedic spin, at others, he comes over as mumbling, and almost sleepwalks through the scene. However, his volatility and aggression are convincing and there is, indeed, a raw unpredictability to his performance. I also like the quick and actually quite credible excuse he gives when a nosy neighbour spots blood on the rug.
Madeleine Potter is good as the occult-obsessed Annabel, and looks and acts every inch the stereotypical “artsy witch” that was seen in so many seventies black magic pot-boilers - far too much billowing red hair, incredibly milky-pale complexion, arrogant high-brow attitude and convincingly annoying. Right from the start, we get the impression that poor Roderick has been leading something of a dog's life and is miserably putting up with Annabel's tastes and esoteric ways. Yet, once he has snapped, we definitely feel for her, the innocent caught up in his self-perpetuated breakdown and the obvious target of his warped affections. A weird, transcendental barmaid, with a handy cat to replace the one that Usher butchered, is played by familiar face and workaholic character actress, Sally Kirkland. Plus, in-keeping with the original TV-land agenda, two reliable guest-stars in Martin Balsam and Kim (Planet Of The Apes) Hunter bolster Argento's cast, even if their couple of busybody neighbours do turn the tension of the piece into something slightly more farcical. Julie Benz, of Dexter and Rambo fame, even crops up as a youthful violin student, and there is one of those appalling young Italian actors - who looks like a devout groupie for 80's pop-band A-ha - playing someone instrumental in Usher's inevitable downfall.
Argento directs with some vigour, his virtually trademarked animosity towards cats given a pretty shocking outlet here, although a disclaimer in the credits does inform us that no animals were actually harmed during the making of the movie. Kudos must also go to his use of an audacious dream sequence in which a drunken Usher finds himself the unwitting centre-piece of a very Wicker Man-esque ritual led by Annabel. What was surely meant to be a supremely gut-wrenching sequence, this, ahem, penetrating sacrificial scene is actually more reminiscent of the type of violence seen in the classic comedy show “Bottom”, especially the episode that ended with Rik Mayall's plaster-cast-covered character, Richie, literally flung so high that virtually every bone in his body appears to crack. But then black comedy, something that Argento, who can be a witty director when he wants to be, isn't exactly renowned for, is definitely on the cards here. For what else could have been on his mind when he wrote in his screenplay (with help from regular scripting-aid Franco Ferrini) that Usher drive away alongside a hand-made mannequin with a photo of Annabel stuck on its head to convince those inquisitive neighbours that she is still alive and well? But daftness of this sort is actually compensated for with Argento's technical and visual prowess. Filming from the cat's POV results in some great, free-flowing and agile camera-work, the lens scooting up bookshelves and right over Keitel's head at one stage in a fair approximation of the cat leaping. Compare this with the dry, mundane shooting style of Romero and it is clear whose story is the more energised.
Another great component that is always rewarding about this somewhat clichéd format is that of the killer attempting to cover his tracks, going to elaborate lengths to concoct a credible alibi and then becoming utterly powerless to intervene when the whole scheme begins to unravel right before his very eyes. The thing about poor Roderick Usher is that his cover story is so preposterous and fraught with unforeseen extraneous variables (how do you like that, then?), that you don't need a detective of Columbo's credentials and sixth sense to get to the bottom of it. John (Die Hard 2) Amos' Det. Legrand plays with Usher in almost the same way as Peter Falk's iconic bloodhound, though - friendly questions to his old chum, teasing little suspicions about things that don't quite add up, and an almost believable interest in Usher's grim book of dark photographs.
Although all this is quite compelling in an odd way, the finale is fluffed in such a hum-drum manner that you are left scratching your head as to how a former master of sustained suspense could relax the tension and drop the ball so badly. In fact, I would love to hear from anyone out there who actually knows what the hell Usher thinks he is doing at the very end of this tale - because it makes absolutely no sense at all to me.
Despite Argento's story packing more of a punch, there are still many problems with this double-act production. Firstly, two stories just don't seem enough. Portmanteau, or anthology movies - which have almost always been nestled cannily within the horror genre - require three tales, at least, to work properly and deliver a satisfying outcome. By the end of Argento's offering, we should actually be craving a third grim saga. But Two Evil Eyes, because of the length of both individual stories, actually goes too far the other way and leaves you in no mood for any more. Which just has to be wrong, doesn't it? For God's sake, we've got both George Romero and Dario Argento operating here! We all know that Argento was, at this stage, already rapidly going off the boil, but here was an opportunity to rekindle his former magic. With great source material from Edgar Allan Poe, a knock-out crazy-boy performer in Harvey Keitel and the gruesome effects from Tom Savini, this should have been a barnstorming tale of out and out horror. Given that he is in full knowledge that he has the “nastier” story, you would justifiably expect Argento to play vigorously to his strengths and he does, certainly, invest his chapter with the profound psychological bent of Poe's agitated writing that so completely eludes Romero's, but there is still that nagging suspicion that even he is playing it safe.
Both films feature an insipid and uninspiring score from Pino (Carrie/The Howling) Donaggio. The composer, well-known for his Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa “homages” once again supplies music that simply doesn't fit the on-screen action or the narratives at large. This is a common failing for Donaggio who has, on the odd occasion, come up with seriously good work, but all too often simpers with string-led mock romanticism and a derivative lushness that is at odds with the motivation and plight of the characters.
It is debatable how extreme Romero would have gone with The Black Cat, had he been helming it, but it seems clear that Argento was the right man for the job. Surreal nightmares, daft psychological dilemmas and an intensely overwrought emotional drama add up to exactly the kind of scenario that he loves to dissect. Plus, we have that traditional theme of animal cruelty - though he has habitually denied it, Argento clearly hates cats, with numerous examples to illustrate this, from The Bird With The Crystal Plumage to Inferno, for example - and Romero is not of this ilk. The gore and violence in “Cat” far exceeds anything seen in Romero's choice, which looks positively tame by comparison. Thus, the two-part enterprise does not make a comfortable whole, which is something that we have every right to feel deflated by. At the end of the day, both directors were established cult operators through whose very veins the genre runs. Two Evil Eyes, therefore, is likely to appeal only to hardcore fans of the duo, or of Edgar Allan Poe.
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