Two Evil Eyes Review
Two Evil Eyes presents a somewhat curious and not altogether unenjoyable dual segment feature, with each metaphorical ‘evil eye’ of the title representing an hour long horror picture influenced by the creative pen of Edgar Allan Poe. Directorial duties are handled by none other than seasoned horror veterans George A Romero and Dario Argento; no strangers to one another’s output, having worked together in 1978 on Romero’s multi-layered zombie masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead. A tantalising prospect, therefore, for those who may have missed this 1990 double-header before now.
For all of the appeal of the Poe – Romero – Argento equation for horror connoisseurs, certain conditions of the period cast a gloomy shadow over the potential success of the portmanteau production. Romero and Argento had both experienced dizzy heights of success as horror auteurs and innovators, yet their best work was behind them, and the prevailing outlook for horror was not so bright, with the collective appetite for the genre of the movie-going public taking something of a dip, and many horror outings arriving in the form of tired rehashes or unoriginal template pieces.
Given such a backdrop, it’s perhaps little surprise that the hour-long slice submitted by Romero, a modern-day reworking of Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar, has been derided by many critics as a routine and shallow vehicle with scant merit. On balance though, harsh criticism of the piece is a little unfair, as Romero’s effort deserves some recognition for a competent enough delivery, some engaging moments of tension, and a few isolated but genuine enough chills. And, though Romero eventually cracks by fleeing to the sanctuary of his shuffling undead cadaver friends, much of the film is enjoyable for the notable change in approach, with a clear focus on provoking a fear of the supernatural, as opposed to the fear of his diseased and mutated zombies. He directs Adrienne Barbeau and Ramy Zada well enough in their respective roles as the scheming wife and doctor of a terminally ill man, whose substantial lucre is a target for the greedy pair. The super-bitch Jessica (Barbeau) is haunted by some degree of conscience as the agonised screams of the old man echo through the cavernous halls of the couple’s mansion, but the cold and callous doctor has no such compunction, and revels in his hypnosis of the patient as he controls his mind to engineer the safe channelling of the mammoth inheritance. Of course, such meddling is certain not to go unpunished, and as the couple’s plan is unexpectedly expedited, a tangled web of betrayal and comeuppance is woven.
The pacing of Romero’s ghostly yarn does lurch and stagger a little like the gait of his undead subjects, with the plot stretching somewhat artificially and sporadically during the later stages. Yet for all of its shortcomings, the opportunity to experience a ghostly chiller from Romero is one worth seizing, and will reward you with a mildly unsettling, albeit largely routine horror picture.
What are the chances of Argento following up Romero’s Poe tribute with something similarly routine? Absolutely non-existent, as one might expect. His grisly The Black Cat is a flawed treat, which whilst not constituting an essential segment of core Argento material, still presents an hour of imaginative, well shot, and entertaining filmmaking which exhibits many of the trademarks of the creative maestro.
Argento joins a number of filmmakers who have, to a greater or lesser level of interpretation, adapted Poe’s delightfully grim tale of The Black Cat (including Argento’s now departed Italian horror contemporary, Lucio Fulci, who directed Patrick Magee and David Warbeck in his own bizarre interpretation back in 1981), and with Poe forming a principal influence in many of the visions he portrays, Argento revels in the opportunity to litter the picture with Poe references and markers. Indeed, shortly after the opening credits, where the central character’s obsession with the printed image is profoundly illustrated, a gruesome murder scene is unleashed where Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum is depicted with a stark vision of the story driven to its ultimate conclusion. The gory aftermath of this event is being captured by a photographer, and as we ponder our own lust for the morbid (albeit in vicarious fashion), Argento introduces a theme of our propensity to perform evil, an evil that we perform with scant awareness of why. With such Poe-inspired musings at hand, Argento continues to focus on this uncomfortable study throughout the grisly yarn.
As if you needed further encouragement to seek out this multi-layered oddity, the afore-mentioned photographer is played with typical zeal by Harvey Keitel, who seems to relish the chance to breathe life into the grumpy, beret-wearing alcoholic, Usher (no prizes for spotting another Poe connection). In between capturing graphic images of almost artistically gruesome downtown murders, Usher is irritated by the presence of a black furry feline, encouraged into the household by his wacky, hippy girlfriend. As Usher is tormented by the seemingly omnipresent cat, morally tortured by his continuing obsession with capturing the grim and the gruesome (which at once fascinates and repulses him), and driven to distraction by his tragically incompatible girlfriend, he slides into an alcohol-induced stupor, and quickly derails beyond rational control. Cue a raft of Argento insanity, including Usher’s ongoing battle against his feline adversary, a fun cameo from Tom Savini (who was also the Special Make-up Effects Supervisor here), a delightfully bizarre and elaborate pagan ritual dream sequence, and increasingly close encounters with members of the local community and the police.
The piece isn’t immaculate by any means. Some of the effects are over-stretched, with the eye-watering explicitness of the imagery stealing something in the way of tension, and the story feels a little rushed in the final sequence, with Argento squeezing a host of ideas into the constricted hour-long segment. Yet with some expertly shot manoeuvres (take the shot of the pendulum, where the viewer becomes the pendulum for a moment, or the longer, wandering shots such as that which follows Usher’s gaze from out of the café window), a grim but engaging plot, and character development which feels more thoughtful than some of Argento’s previous efforts, The Black Cat is the superior entry in this modernised Poe pairing.
What is perhaps most striking about this Arrow Video release package is the cover art, which is lurid in the extreme, and as a result proves somewhat unappealing. This is a shame, because the overall presentation is decent enough. The movie is presented faithfully in 1.85:1 (expect black bars at the sides as well as the top and bottom), and despite its 20th birthday, there’s enough detail to be found with nothing in the way of damage or inconsistency. Of course, there is some evidence of the age of the piece; the colours are perhaps a little less vibrant, the overall presentation is slightly soft and lacking a really sharp edge, and the light does over-saturate slightly on stronger shots of sunlight.
Accurate, clearly presented subtitles are provided, and are well positioned at the foot of the action.
The soundtrack is available as a choice of three options. There are two Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtracks, one English, and one Italian. There is also the option to enjoy surround sound with 5.1 Dolby Surround. The audio reproduction feels accurate, with any issues surrounding the dialogue being more closely related to the heavy American accents, as opposed to the quality of the sound. The musical scores (including the decidedly Goblin-esque and catchy theme accompanying The Black Cat and forming the DVD menu background music) are done well enough, although with a 20 year gap between this movie and the technology of today, you should expect a slight deficit in terms of the delivery of the bass resonance, which sounds a little more hollow than a pair of modern ears may be accustomed to.
Extras are rather light, being confined to a trailer for each film, and a Dario Argento trailer reel. The trailer reel is actually well worth watching, if only for the Cat o’ Nine Tails trailer, which with its distinctive primary colours saturating the screen, and funky seventies music at the climax, is one of the most enjoyable horror trailers of the era.
Haunted, tormented consciences, dalliances with the afterlife, and delightfully murky characters; many of Poe’s staple themes are well captured in this modernisation and interpretation of some of the legendary author’s works. Romero’s tale is enjoyable enough, though a little pedestrian, and somewhat schlocky at times. Argento delivers the touch and class of a horror master to this duo, with imaginative filming, compelling characterisation, and some gut-wrenching horror visuals. It’s not a perfect piece, but even with 20 years and the sprawl of horror titles which have followed it, the work still proves a treat today. It’s a shame that Arrow Video’s release is shy of any real extras, but fans of the two directors are unlikely to be able to resist investing in this strange but worthwhile entry.