Friday, October 19, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: Two Evil Eyes (Dario Argento and George A. Romero, 1990)

The third and final appearance this Halloween season from Poe's fearsome feline, and the first for both Argento and Romero, Two Evil Eyes, is (as is no doubt obvious) a two part anthology film, featuring adaptations of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (directed by the latter) and "The Black Cat" (from the former). Like many movies in this format, it's a somewhat inconsistent affair. Don't get me wrong, Romero's contribution is perfectly fine, and features some standout sequences, but it doesn't quite seem to match the more sustained, manic energy of Argento's half. 

The first story features genre favourite Adrienne Barbeau as the scheming Jessica Valdemar, who is attempting to swindle her terminally ill husband out of his estate before he dies. She's assisted by the equally - if not more - reprehensible Dr. Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), who hypnotises the ailing Valdemar into revising his will. Unfortunately for all concerned, the man dies whilst hypnotised, leaving him in, at first, frozen cabbage limbo, and later, reanimated and completely zombified, not to mention understandably pissed off and seeking bloody vengeance.

What follows is, I would say, reasonably effective, but not particularly memorable either. The wonderfully named Bingo O'Malley, who plays the eponymous victim of the story, is fairly creepy, and plays this avenging corpsicle with suitably cackling malevolence. Plus, the way that Dr. Hoffman receives his inevitable comeuppance is well staged and visually striking. Also, Adrienne Barbeau gives a typically fine performance, shifting believably from selfish to sympathetic as the tale progresses. Finally, good old Tom Atkins (another horror veteran) makes a brief but amusing appearance as a cynical detective. Admittedly there's something a little bit TV movie-ish about this segment, but I personally think it's stronger than many have suggested; it's certainly growing on me with repeated viewings. 

Argento's installment, by comparison, tends to stick around in the mind much longer, thanks to its characteristically inventive camerawork, trademark gory set-pieces, that are as well orchestrated and visceral as one would expect, and intense, affecting performances from the two leads. 

Harvey Keitel plays - in one of the many references to Poe scattered throughout this section - the suggestively named Rod Usher (well, suggestive to my gutter mind at least; it makes him sound rather well endowed I'd say), who, like Barbeau's Jessica Valdemar, manages to be an utter shit, yet also a tragic figure, but this time simultaneously, as opposed to sequentially. I won't go into the details of the plot; it's suffice to say that Argento's Black Cat, like Fulci's (and even more so, come to think of it), is quite faithful to many parts of the original story, but blended with original elements (perhaps due to the fact that - to paraphrase the director of the 1934 version, Edgar G. Ulmer - a note for note adaptation would probably not work too well on film) and infused with the director's own signature style. I'd say that it also seems to capture the core themes of the Poe story (i.e. madness, the destructive effects of alcohol, and the often irrepressible, haunting nature of guilt) better than either Ulmer's or Fulci's films do as well.

Providing yet another memorable and effective score, and also functioning as a six-degrees link to the 1981 version, is the ever reliable Pino Donaggio.  And Tom Savini has a brief cameo, in a scene that serves as a nod to another Poe tale ("Berenice"). He also contributed to the film's startling make-up effects.

Like that other collection of Poe stories filmed by famous directors, 1968's Spirits of the Dead, Two Evil Eyes is admittedly a bit of a mixed bag, but with so much to recommend about its stronger parts, that one can easily forgive the relative shortcomings of its lesser ones.

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