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A dream project for longtime horror buffs, or so it seemed, this two-parter teamed George Romero and Dario Argento, each delivering an hour-long adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe story.  The verdict?  Argento’s segment is interesting, but Romero’s flat-out sucks. 

The Package 
     TWO EVIL EYES was conceived and produced by Dario Argento, based on the filmmaker’s lifelong affinity for the works of Edgar Allen Poe.  Argento originally envisioned a four-part film (in the spirit of sixties anthology fare like SPIRITS OF THE DEAD) with Poe adaptations directed by himself, George Romero, Wes Craven and John Carpenter.  Scheduling conflicts made that approach impractical, however, and the film ended up a two-parter with contributions by Argento and Romero.
     Romero adapted Poe’s “The Case of M. Valdemar”, about a man who finds himself in a deathly limbo after he dies while under hypnosis, which Romero unwisely expanded into a silly drama about a bitchy wife trying to get a hold of her dying hubbie’s fortune (Romero initially planned to adapt “The Masque of the Red Death”, but dropped that idea after discovering Roger Corman already had a version in production).  Argento chose “The Black Cat”, about a man who kills his wife and bricks up her body, only to be stymied when he learns he’s inadvertently bricked up a live cat whose meowing alerts the authorities to the corpse’s presence; like Romero, Argento broadened out the story considerably, but in far more intriguing fashion.
     The end result is a mighty strange film, a hybrid of two wildly divergent sensibilities: Romero’s segment is businesslike and straightforward while Argento’s is wildly hallucinogenic.  Unsurprisingly, TWO EVIL EYES was not a financial success, and nor did it contain much artistic merit, although Argento’s portion is, at the very least, extremely diverting.

The Story
     In “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, a rich old man, Mr. Valdemar, dies one night while under hypnosis.  This allows his scheming wife Jesse and her slimeball lover to loot his bank account.  They also stash Valdemar’s body in a freezer in the basement of his mansion, but they’re shocked when the corpse begins to speak.  In a low, gravelly voice, Valdemar tells them he’s stranded in the afterworld, where “others” are looking to use his body to gain entrance into our world.  Jesse is naturally freaked out by this, and puts two bullets in the corpse’s brain before it can say much more.  But Valdemar’s cadaver remains as active as ever; it actually stands and walks around...and strangles Jesse.  It then goes after her lover, but he manages to put it down before it can get to him.  Not that this matters much--the corpse informs him, just before it expires for good, that it’s “too late”, as the “others” are already loose.
     “The Black Cat” examines the fortunes of Roderick Usher, a crime scene photographer who has an unhealthy fascination with the gruesome sights he captures on film.  One day his girlfriend brings home a pesky black cat that Usher detests...and the feeling is definitely mutual.  Usher strangles the cat to death, photographing the act for use in a book.  However, days later Usher meets a friendly bartender who has a cat just like the one he disposed of.  Usher gets a hold of the cat and brings it home; it promptly goes mad and he tries to kill it, in the process offing his none-too-beloved GF.  He walls both up in a closet in the upper room of his house and goes to great lengths to make it seem like his girlfriend is still alive.  But it turns out he’s walled the cat up with her corpse when one day it breaks through the wall.  He kills it and replasters the wall, but meowing continues to emit from the hidden closet--it seems the cat gave birth while inside... 

The Direction 
     George Romero is one of the genre’s seminal talents, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from his segment of TWO EVIL EYES.  It’s competently done, yes, but utterly undistinguished in every respect, being a shockingly routine affair that plays out in the most hackneyed and predictable manner imaginable (the overall feel of this mini-film is summed up by Romero’s on-set admission that “I almost feel as though I’m shooting an episode of COLUMBO”).  Certainly the material, involving otherworldly presences, zombies and gore, would seem a natural for Romero, but his heart doesn’t appear to have been in it.  Plus, Adrienne Barbeau in the lead role and Ramy Zada as her lover both deliver thoroughly lackluster performances.  All three are capable of far better.
     Argento’s segment is something else entirely, a delirious mélange of animal cruelty, grue and madness of a type that only Dario Argento could conceive.  He was coming off OPERA, one of his most outrageous films, and created a piece of work that goes over the top in the beginning (with the sight of a woman bisected topped off by a swinging pendulum POV shot) and only grows more outrageous as it continues.  Far from a literal adaptation of Poe, it’s a wildly flamboyant affair in which Argento goes wild with his swooping steadicam visuals and Harvey Keitel is allowed to literally go nuts.  Keitel is at his most extreme here, and his histrionics adequately set the tone for the segment.  For Argento it often verges on self-parody, but at least it isn’t boring...something I definitely can’t say for Romero’s contribution.

Vital Statistics

ADC Gruppo Bema Production

Directors: George Romero (“The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar”), Dario Argento (“The Black Cat”)
Producers: Achille Manzotti
Screenplay: George Romero (“The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar”), Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini (“The Black Cat”)
Cinematography: Peter Reniers (“The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar”), Giuseppi Maccari (“The Black Cat”)
Editing: Pat Buba
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Adrienne Barbeau, Ramy Zada, Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, John Amos, Kim Hunter, Madeleine Potter, Bingo O’Malley, Jeff Howell, Holter Graham, Chuck Aber, Jonathan Adams, Tom Atkins, Mitchell Baseman, Julie Benz, Barbara Bryne, Mario Caputo, Christine Forrest, Christina Romero

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