Two Evil Eyes Review
Two Evil Eyes has its origins in an idea Dario Argento had to create an anthology of stories based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe (of whom Argento is a great admirer), with himself directing one story, and the other three being handled by George Romero, John Carpenter and Stephen King (or Wes Craven, depending on your source). Carpenter and King were unable to contribute since they were busy with other projects, so Argento and Romero decided to go it alone, each creating a one-hour story. Shot in Pittsburgh for $9,000,000, this represented the first time Argento worked in the US, as well as being the first, and to date only, directorial collaboration between the two filmmakers (although Argento had previously been heavily involved with many aspects of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead).
First up is Romero’s little tale. The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar tells the story of Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau), who, with the help of her lover, a doctor (Ramy Zada), is hypnotizing her much older husband in order to force him to sign all his money over to her before he dies. Disaster strikes, however, when Valdemar dies whilst hypnotized. The result is that he is trapped between two realities, acting as a portal of sorts for the living dead to enter our world. Argento’s story, The Black Cat, follows. Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a crime scene photographer who takes a slightly unhealthy interest in death. All seems fine until his girlfriend Annabel (Madeleine Potter) brings home a stray black cat. The cat continues to get on Usher’s nerves until he strangles it, and eventually kills Annabel as well. The black cat keeps showing up, however, no matter how many times he kills it.
Argento knows his Poe, and it shows. His half is definitely more faithful to its origins than Romero’s offering, which is unsurprising given the profound influence Poe’s stories have had on Argento’s other films. The Black Cat features several references to other Poe works, including Premature Burial, and even the name itself of the protagonist: Rod Usher. Romero, in contrast, feels the need to tack extraneous ideas on to the story he tackles, especially the tacky and thoroughly mundane concept of the scheming wife cheating on her husband. So, whereas Argento plays his part of the film as a respectful homage to the famous horror writer, the Poe elements in Romero’s half feel more like an afterthought.
The single biggest problem with Romero’s half of the film is that it doesn’t really go anywhere. Given the short (one hour) running time, Romero takes far too long to set up the storyline and characters and not enough on the chaos that ensues. Chaos, however, would be too strong a word. I spent most of the story’s running time waiting for something to actually happen, and found that the pay-off simply did not justify the foundation. Argento’s story, in contrast, has vastly superior pacing and seems to fit the short running time quite well. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that Argento, whose writing abilities are often called into dispute, is the one who manages to deliver a superior narrative. Argento’s camerawork is also a lot more imaginative than Romero’s, although this is not unsurprising. The camera is constantly on the move, often framed near the ground to imitate the point of view of a cat.
Both directors make heavy use of metaphor, but Romero’s is much more heavy-handed than Argento’s. While Romero virtually hits the viewer over the head about the evils of corruption and greed (the closing shot showing blood-stained money was a little too much for me), Argento’s motif of the importance of visualization and the way things are presented is handled with a good deal more tact. It is a nice touch that Usher, a photographer, finds himself having to manipulate what people see in an attempt to conceal his dark secret. What’s more, The Black Cat actually has a coherent (and oddly satisfying) conclusion, whereas Romero just seems to keep going and grind to a sudden halt, as if he ran out of ideas.
It also helps that Harvey Keitel is on top form here, delivering a performance that makes Adrienne Barbeau and Ramy Zada’s routines in The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar look positively anaemic. Keitel delivers Usher’s furious rant at Annabel (“This is my fucking kitchen, and I’ll fucking stay, and I’ll fucking drink if I fucking want!”) with such ferocity that you truly believe this man to be capable of the violence that ensues. Madeleine Potter’s overwrought performance, brows continually furrowed, borders on being overly pathetic at times, but she has an airy, wispy demeanour that suits the character well.
Special effects and animatronics artist Tom Savini does a good job conveying the horror in both stories, but he undoubtedly gets more to do in Argento’s half than in Romero’s. In The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar, he has to content himself with creating some nice-looking corpses and some guys walking around in white sheets, but he gets a chance to really shine in The Black Cat, creating the sliced-in-half nude body of a woman, some creepy mutant kittens, and some truly impressive animatronic cats that honestly look like the real thing. The overall look of both segments is quite understated, with a decidedly desaturated colour scheme, and the photography of Romero’s segment is decidedly mundane. Nonetheless, it looks professional and polished, belying its decidedly low budget. In fact, the company ran out of money and had to move production back to Rome, preventing Romero from supervising the post production of his part of the film. To some extent, I wonder if The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar would have been any better if Romero had been able to complete work on it himself.
Argento may not be on top form with The Black Cat – it is intriguing rather than riveting, and it lacks the originality and all-out visceral thrills of his other work – but his half of the film is competent, to the extent that it thoroughly embarrasses Romero’s contributions. Two Evil Eyes is, overall, a flawed but watchable package, with a strong second half almost making up for the feeble first instalment.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this anamorphic transfer is reasonably pleasing but suffers a little in terms of the amount of noise reduction applied to it. The image looks a bit on the soft side, and frozen grain patterns are sometimes quite noticeable, creating a distracting video-like look. There is also a moderate amount of edge enhancement. Nonetheless, though, the colours and contrast are great, and the high bit rate of 8.63 Mbps means that there are no visible compression artifacts. This is certainly vastly superior to Anchor Bay’s UK effort, and I think it will be absolutely fine for a lot of people, but as you probably know by now there’s nothing that annoys me more than noise reduction.
The three audio mixes provided are a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX remix (448 Kbps), a DTS-ES 6.1 remix (768 Kbps), and the original stereo audio with surround encoding (192 Kbps). I listened to the DTS and 2.0 tracks right through, and briefly sampled the 5.1 mix. All the mixes sound reasonably similar, with decent bass and good use of the rears to back up the musical score, but nothing special.
There are no subtitles. It looks as if Bill Lustig didn’t just carry over some of Anchor Bay’s titles when he set up Blue Underground, but also some of their more dubious practices.
The menu is very nice, moody and professionally put together with animation and strong music from the film. Unfortunately, as is often the case with otherwise great menus, the transitions are overly long.
The cover is a nice achievement, retaining a nice “80s” feel and conveying all the relevant information. Since this is a limited edition, each cover is individually numbered. Also included is a single card with chapter listings on one side and (of all things) a reproduction of a Spanish poster for the film on the other.
Blue Underground continue their commitment to fans of obscure films with a decent if somewhat small number of extras spread over the two discs.
Theatrical trailer - This nicely-edited trailer is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Its biggest problem, however, is that it essentially gives away the entire story of The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar.
Poster and stills gallery - This is an impressive gallery containing more images than I would care to count. These range from behind-the-scenes photographs and film stills to poster concepts. Also included is a reproduction of the American Humane Society’s analysis of the movie (they weren’t too fond of it but admitted that there was no actual animal harm in it).
Talent bios - Lengthy and detailed biographies, including filmographies and information on each of their major projects, are provided for both George Romero and Dario Argento.
Two Masters’ Eyes - documentary - Running for approximately 30 minutes, this documentary covers every aspect of the film’s production, from its origins, to production, to the two directors’ overall feelings about the end result. Plenty of behind-the-scenes video footage is provided, including a interview with a young Asia Argento, watching her father shooting The Black Cat and enthusiastically telling a reporter that she longs to be able to act in one of her father’s films. Also included are retrospectives from Dario Argento, George Romero (very funny guy), executive producer Claudio Argento and make-up supervisor Tom Savini.
Savini’s EFX - featurette - In this 12-minute featurette, Tom Savini enthusiastically details his involvement with the film, going over all the key make-up effects in considerable detail. Plenty of behind-the-scenes footage is shown, including some very interesting early tests.
At Home with Tom Savini - featurette - This 16-minute tour of Tom Savini’s home is interesting if a little self-indulgent. Savini’s house certainly seems like a dream for fans of movie memorabilia. The quality is pretty awful, clearly sourced from a personal camcorder VHS tape, but it doesn’t get in the way of enjoyment too much.
Adrienne Barbeau on George Romero - interview - Definitely the least interesting and most pointless inclusion, Barbeau here talks about… you guessed it… here experiences with working for George Romero.
Two Evil Eyes is an uneven package, with one tale thoroughly outweighing the other. The DVD presentation is fine if not perfect, but it is definitely superior to Anchor Bay’s UK release (see below for a link to Mark Davis’ review of that particular package). Argento fans will probably enjoy this one, but Romero aficionados will most likely be thoroughly disappointed.