Sunday, May 13, 2012

Two Evil Eyes

If nothing else, Two Evil Eyes (1990) provides an interesting contrast between the styles of two modern horror masters. Conceived as anthology in tribute of Edgar Allan Poe, Two Evil Eyes features two one-hour stories: "The Facts of the Case of Mr. Valdemar" adapted by George Romero and "The Black Cat" adapted by Dario Argento. Reportedly, John Carpenter and Wes Craven were originally supposed to have their own segments, but scheduling and budget concerns put the kibosh on that arrangement (What would that movie have been called? Four Lethal Limbs?).

In Romero's tale, a dying millionaire (Bingo O'Malley) is hypnotized by his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and her doctor lover (Ramy Zada) into signing away his fortune, but he dies before everything falls into place. However, his spirit remains trapped in his corpse. Romero previously approached this type of material in his much superior Creepshow, his tribute to the EC comics of the 1950s which also inspired Tales from the Crypt. 

"The Facts of the Case of Mr. Valdemar" feels like an extended outtake or episode from Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt. It's a story of just desserts in which the wicked and the greedy confront supernatural punishment from beyond the grave for their sins. Even most of the cast is comprised of Creepshow veterans (Barbeau, O'Malley, E.G. Marshall as a lawyer, and Tom Atkins as a cop). Unlike Creepshow, Romero does not use the comic book-style cinematography and set design to give the story some color, resorting to a more traditional presentation. Apart from Valdemar's talking corpse in the freezer (done with splendid effect by Tom Savini), very little horror happens until the last 10 minutes or so when Valdemar gets up and starts chasing people. Before that, it's a lot of scheming by rather nasty and unlikeable people.

The original Poe story is a neat little piece but doesn't really offer much beyond a man kept alive beyond death under hypnosis; it's a scientific experiment that turns terrifying for a quick shock ending. Romero does a nice job of expanding the tale beyond that with its adultery and embezzlement subplot. There's some nice atmosphere, and Savini's effects are great, but one can't shake the feeling of been-there, done-that. The horror elements are minimal, and  the energy level is decidedly low. This probably would have worked better at 30 minutes in length instead of nearly an hour.

In Argento's tale, a crime scene photographer (Harvey Keitel) goes progressively mad after his wife (Madeleine Potter) brings a stray cat into their home. Unlike Romero's rather straightforward and story-centric episode, Argento's film is filled with surreal and stylistic touches. If Romero is more interested in being literal, Argento has fun blurring the line between what's real and what's fantasy. As Keitel's Usher  descends into murder and insanity, Argento keeps us on edge about what really happened and what Usher thinks happened, most notably in a dream sequence with a nasty resolution.

Although it follows the rough narrative outline of Poe's story, "The Black Cat" contains numerous allusions to other works of Poe, using Usher's crime scene photography to bring in scenes straight out of "The Pit and the Pendulum," "Berenice," and "The Fall of the House of Usher." The film is also true to the graphic violence of Poe's tale, both against the cat and its human characters. Animal lovers will surely be horrified watching Keitel perform all sorts of atrocities against his feline nemesis. In an inspired touched fitting Argento, Keitel uses his violent tendencies for art, using death to create.

Argento includes a number of standout point-of-view camera angles, including the razor-sharp pendulum slicing through its dead victim and handheld shots of the cat's viewpoints. As characteristic of Argento, the graphic violence is beautifully staged and contains striking images, particular one shot of a murder victim submerging in a bathtub as the water becomes dark red. Helping immensely is an intense performance by Keitel, who's obsessive derangement is often darkly funny. When his wife accuses him of killing the cat, he screeches, "It's a fucking cat! Meow! Meow!"

Overall, Two Evil Eyes is the not finest hour of either director, but for their fans, it's certainly worth a watch. For such collaboration of macabre minds, you'd expect something truly mind-blowing, but as it is, it's merely serviceable.

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