Two Evil Eyes (Due occhi diabolici)

Director: George A. Romero (“The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar “) & Dario Argento (“The Black Cat)
Screenplay: George A. Romero (“The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar “) / Dario Argento & Franco Ferrini (“The Black Cat) (based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe)
Stars: “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar”: Adrienne Barbeau (Jessica Valdemar), Ramy Zada (Dr. Robert Hoffman), Bingo O’Malley (Ernest Valdemar), E.G. Marshall (Steven Pike), Tom Atkins (Det. Grogan) / “The Black Cat”: Harvey Keitel (Roderick Usher, Madeleine Potter (Annabel), John Amos (Det. Legrand), Sally Kirkland (Eleonora), Kim Hunter (Mrs. Pym), Holter Graham (Christian), Martin Balsam (Mr. Pym)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1990
Country: Italy / U.S.
Two Evil Eyes Blu-ray
Two Evil Eyes

Almost as soon as there were movies, there were Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The storied Gothic writer penned a litany of short stories and poems that encapsulate virtually every aspect of the modern horror genre, from shivery chills, to macabre obsessions, to outright disgust, so it is little surprise that filmmakers have been drawn to his works again and again. There were more than 20 Poe adaptations during the silent era alone, beginning with Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery (1908), which was actually based on “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and D.W. Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914), which drew heavily on “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In the sound era, Roger Corman’s seven 1960s Technicolor Poe adaptations, several of which starred Vincent Price, count among his most famous and accomplished films. All in all, there have been more than 300 films based on Poe’s works over the years and countless more that have drawn inspiration, ideas, and imagery from them.

Thus, when Italian horror director Dario Argento began to work out an idea for an anthology film on which he would collaborate with a number of American horror directors, using Poe’s works as the binding agent made natural sense. Argento was a long-time fan of Poe’s, and elements of the author’s Gothic sensibility can be found throughout his films, particularly his early giallo like Deep Red (1975), whose co-screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi had earlier adapted Poe’s “Tony Dammit” with Federico Fellini for the Poe anthology film Spirits of the Dead (1968). Argento’s original idea was to make a four-part anthology film, with stories directed by himself, George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead), John Carpenter (Halloween), and Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Unfortunately, Carpenter and Craven were not able to participate, which left only Romero and Argento to helm new adaptations of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” (originally published in 1845) and “The Black Cat” (originally published in 1843). (Both “The Black Cat” and “Mr. Valdemar” had previously been adapted in Corman’s 1961 tryptich Tales of Terror, with Peter Lorre and Vincent Price as the respective stars). As each segment in the film is nearly an hour in length, Romero and Argento had to elaborate quite a bit on Poe’s stories, adding in new plot elements and characters and giving them a more modern spin.

The resulting film, Two Evil Eyes (Due occhi diabolici), is a grim, uneven affair that highlights its respective directors’ strengths and weaknesses in relatively equal measure. Romero, who had recently directed the thriller Monkey Shines (1988), returns to the liminal realm of the living-dead with his adaptation of “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” in which a character dies while under hypnosis and is therefore caught in a nebulous world between life and death. Romero, who also wrote the screenplay, added in a subplot involving the man’s wife, Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau), being secretly involved with his doctor, Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada). Given that Mr. Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley) is exceedingly wealthy, Jessica and Robert are scheming to collect on his riches, which ultimately necessitates their keeping his body on ice after he dies. It is at this point that they discover that, despite his body being dead, his spirit is still intact and able to communicate with them, which Jessica finds horrifying and Robert finds morbidly fascinating. Romero also works in a new wrinkle in which Valdemar’s living-dead body becomes a portal for other liminal souls to cross over into our world, resulting in the film’s most memorable bit of imagery, in which their ghostly bodies are briefly illuminated by flashes of lighting. Romero’s imagination feels somewhat limited here, and the confines of the story don’t give him space to expand beyond the obvious surface of the plot, which makes it feel more mechanical than dramatic.

Argento, working with co-writer Franco Ferrini, with whom he had previously collaborated on Phenomema (1985) and Opera (1987), gives us something decidedly more sensationally gonzo in his adaptation of “The Black Cat,” which is rife with references to numerous other Poe stories, from “The Pit and the Pendulum,” to “Annabelle Lee.” Harvey Keitel, in a performance that is either singularly bad or intentionally over the top, stars as Roderick Usher (see what I mean about the additional Poe references?), an ambitious crime photographer who aspires to the rank of artiste. Usher signals his desires through his eccentric wardrobe of pretentious berets and bowties, which makes him look uniquely ridiculous while photographing a bisected corpse in a warehouse or a body in a graveyard whose mouth has been pried open and all her teeth removed.

The plot is primarily domestic in nature, revolving around Usher’s increasingly strained relationship with his wife, Annabel (Madeleine Potter). Their deteriorating state of affairs is reflected in Usher’s treatment of a black cat that Annabel adopts and that takes an instant dislike to him. As part of his desperate bid to be taken seriously as an artist, Usher uses and abuses the cat to take a series of photographs that become the centerpiece of a grim book of photography he publishes, which sets off a series of events culminating in a dead body being hidden inside a wall and a pair of police detectives (led by John Amos) snooping around. Much of the film is structured around Usher’s descent into madness, as he is fueled by alcohol and repressed fear and rage that explodes in sometimes strange ways (such as an elaborate dream sequence in which he imagines himself the victim of a medieval witchhunt).

“The Black Cat” is definitely a “busier” piece of work than “Mr. Valdemar.” It is almost as if Romero was determined to take his time and draw things out before getting to any visceral horror, whereas Argento is chomping at the bit to give us blood and guts and sadism. There is an anxiousness to Agento’s work here that certainly connects with his other operatic horror films, but it has a tinge of desperation to it that makes it feel unwieldy. It doesn’t help either that Keitel cuts such a kooky, unsympathetic protagonist, so that even when Argento turns on the Hitchcockian flourishes (there’s a fantastic bit involving a key falling from the top of a circular stairwell), it doesn’t entirely work. In his earlier masterpieces like Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977), he was able to fuse a Gothic sensibility with a heightened, sometimes shrieking aesthetic that felt new and invigorating and bold. There are flashes of that old Argento brilliance here and there, but also too many intimations that he’s going after shock value and hysteria and little else.

Two Evil Eyes 3-Disc Blu-ray Set

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English 7.1 DTS-HD surround
  • English 2.0 DTS-HD surround
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by film critic Troy Howarth
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Poster and stills gallery
  • “Two Masters’ Eyes” interviews with directors Dario Argento and George Romero, special make-up effects supervisor Tom Savini, executive producer Claudio Argento, and Asia Argento
  • “Savini’s EFX” featurette
  • “At Home With Tom Savini: A personal tour of Tom Savini's home” featurette
  • “Adrienne Barbeau on George Romero” featurette
  • “Before I Wake” interview with star Ramy Zada
  • “Behind The Wall” interview with star Madeleine Potter
  • “One Maestro And Two Masters” interview with composer Pino Donaggio
  • “Rewriting Poe” interview with co-writer Franco Ferrini
  • “The Cat Who Wouldn't Die” interview with assistant director Luigi Cozzi
  • “Two Evil Brothers” interview with special make-up assistant Everett Burrell
  • “Working With George” interview with costume designer Barbara Anderson
  • Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Pino Donaggio CD
  • Essay by Michael Gingold
  • DistributorBlue Underground
    Release DateOctober 29, 2019

    Two Evil Eyes looks great in Blue Underground’s Blu-ray presentation, which derives from a new 4K master that is duly impressive in bringing out subtle detail in the image while maintaining a clear, filmlike quality. The image is sharp and well-rendered and lacking in any signs of age or wear. Colors are strong, whether they be the cold blues of the film’s interior night scenes or the garish red of a woman’s fingernails. Black levels look good and shadow detail is superb. The disc includes both the original two-channel stereo mix and a 7.1-channel remix, both presented in lossless DTS-HD. The 7.1-channel soundtrack works well in terms of both making good use of the surround channels for atmosphere and also for giving composer Pino Donaggio’s orchestral score plenty of room to flex its flamboyant muscle. While I have some reservations about the film itself, I can’t imagine it looking and sounding much better. This is first-rate work.

    The supplements on this three-disc set are extensive, requiring a second Blu-ray for most of them (which also allowed them to max out the bitrate on the disc containing the film). The only supplements on the first disc are a remastered English-language trailer, an extensive image gallery of international promotional and production materials including posters, lobby cards, home video covers, and Enzo Sciotti’s original artwork, and a brand-new audio commentary film critic and Italian horror expert Troy Howarth, author of the forthcoming Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento and So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films, among others (he also has books on Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava). Howarth is an expert in the field, and he has a great deal of information to share about the film and its production. The second disc is packed with supplements both new and old. From Blue Underground’s previous DVD and Blu-ray releases, we get “Two Masters’ Eyes,” a half-hour retrospective program that features interviews with directors Argento and Romero, special make-up effects supervisor Tom Savini, executive producer Claudio Argento, and Argento’s daughter Asia Argento; “Savini’s EFX,” a 13-minute featurette about the effects work on the film; “At Home with Tom Savini,” a 16-minute tour of Savini’s home by the man himself, which is exactly as you would imagine it would be (that is, stuffed to the rafters with his gruesome work and collectibles from other films); and a 5-minute interview with actress Adrienne Barbeau that was recorded by director Roy Frumkes during the film’s production for inclusion in his documentary The Definitive Document of the Dead. All of the rest of the supplements, which consists of more than two hours of video interviews, are new to this edition: “Before I Wake,” a 14-minute interview with actor Ramy Zada; “Behind the Wall,” a 17-minute interview with actress Madeleine Potter; “One Maestro and Two Masters,” a 16-minute interview with composer Pino Donaggio; “Rewriting Poe,” a 16-minute interview with Argento’s co-writer Franco Ferrini (who isn’t shy about saying which half of the film he thinks is better); “The Cat Who Wouldn’t Die,” a 27-minute interview with assistant director Luigi Cozzi; “Two Evil Brothers,” a 14-minute interview with special make-up assistant Everett Burrell; and “Working With George,” a 9-minute interview with costume designer Barbara Anderson, one of Romero’s frequent collaborators. And, as if all of that weren’t enough, the set is also packaged with an insert book that contains an informative essay by critic Michael Gingold and a CD with the film’s original soundtrack.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Blue Underground

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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