By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Adrienne Barbeau and Ramy Zada/Harvey Keitel and Madeleine Potter
Directed by Dario Argento/George A. Romero
Written by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini/George A. Romero
In the late 80s, Dario Argento hoped to pay tribute to OG Master of the Macabre, Edgar Allan Poe by assembling a super-team of horror titans to adapt some of the author’s best-loved works. A far cry from the lush, Corman-produced Vincent Price pictures of the 1960s, this would be the portmanteu film to end portmanteu films, made up of modern reimaginings of Poe’s stories helmed by Argento, himself, along with George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and even Stephen King.
That was the idea, anyway. Only Argento and Romero were available/game for the project, and the anthology (er, duology) that materialized as TWO EVIL EYES in 1990 was largely met with apathy. For audiences and critics, the two 60-minute segments that made up the film lacked the elemental brilliance of both the directors’ greatest works, and an inescapable sense of missed opportunity clung to it like grave moss. But Blue Underground chose to treat this meeting-of-the-maestros to a 4K special edition, and fright fans should thank their lucky stars: far from what its reputation would suggest, TWO EVIL EYES is well-crafted and compelling despite its somewhat disappointing reputation.
Beginning with a spoken dedication and wet, moody, daylight shots of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, the film proper starts with Romero’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Adrienne Barbeau plays Jessica, the youngish wife of the wealthy Earnest Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley), who schemes to cheat her rapidly declining husband out of his millions with the help of her hypnotist boyfriend (Ramy Zada). But when Valdemar expires suddenly while under hypnosis, he becomes suspended between life and death in a ghastly manner that puts the lovers’ plan in jeopardy.
Romero is treading on familiar ground here, with what is ostensibly yet another film about the living dead. Initially, the director had intended to update “The Masque of The Red Death” to wrestle with the wealth stratification of the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic, but this was deemed too modern by Argento, who wanted to respect the more timeless themes explored in Poe’s work. Luckily, there’s still a cerebral quality to “Valdemar” that obviously drew the director, with a focus on pseudoscience and mesmerism that gives the source text the flavor of speculative fiction rather than a cut and dried horror story. Therefore, as much as this may appear to be in Romero’s proverbial wheelhouse, it’s also something a departure for a director who was typically more focused on social-political realities than the theoretical.
Romero is patient in rendering this tale of greed and life beyond death—making fine use of a palatial mansion set and minimal cast. A winding cellar staircase (and its blindspots) feature prominently in the story, and the sound design makes every descent Barbeau makes like a journey into the belly of a slavering beast. Reuniting many of his CREEPSHOW cast members (including Tom Atkins in a small role as an investigator) and using gore sparingly for maximum impact, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is an atmospheric chiller whose hypothetical elements, though loosely conceived, make it a cut above your average morality tale.
Things take an immediately noticeable left turn in terms of pace, style, and mood with Dario Argento’s “The Black Cat.” Opening upon a nasty crime scene, the viewer is introduced to Roderick Usher (Harvey Keitel), a Weegee-like photographer who immortalizes murder in the name of art. When his live-in girlfriend, Annabel (Madeleine Potter) brings home a mysterious feline, Roderick’s cruel and abusive tendencies emerge as he becomes increasingly agitated and unhinged.
The fact that TWO EVIL EYES is more two distinct halves than one cohesive whole is never more apparent than in the first moments of “The Black Cat.” The eager Steadicam, the way the lens lingers over a bisected corpse, immediate full-frontal nudity, POV shots upon POV shots…all of these Argento-isms couldn’t be more unlike Romero’s style, and the vibe here is entirely more restless and keyed up than the drip-drip-dripping existential dread of “Valdemar.”
“The Black Cat” is also filled with more characters, cameos, locations and wild diversions—including an extended dream sequence in which Keitel finds himself executed by a pack of Medieval onlookers. Argento’s clear affection for Poe takes center-stage, with references galore for those raven-eyed enough to catch them. At times, the short can seem discursive and scattershot, but as it plays it reveals a smart structure: externalizing the erratic and conniving psyche of the man at its center. Of course, Argento, an artist eternally neurotic about the toll taken on his own mind and his audience’s by the violence in his films, can’t help but use the story to ruminate on the topic, but it’s less thought-provoking than it’s intended to be. Still, “The Black Cat” is essential second-tier Argento, built upon a humdinger of a performance by Keitel.
Blue Underground previously released the film in 2009, but this new 4K restoration bests that release by a mile. The somewhat soft and dated look of that transfer is gone and has been replaced with jaw-dropping image quality. Depth, clarity, and textures are stellar, grain levels consistent, and color-grading feels just right—bolstering the chilly blues of ‘Valdemar” and the, warm, lived-in reds and browns of “The Black Cat.” Though the company’s recent releases of MANIAC and THE NEW YORK RIPPER were equally impressive, the argument could be made that those gritty, urban films suffer somewhat from the unforgiving clairty afforded by 4K. This isn’t the case with TWO EVIL EYES, and the restoration lends a new appreciation for its visual style, breathing new life into its carefully controlled, unshowy aesthetics.
As expected from Blue Underground, special features abound. The first disc features a new commentary with Troy Howarth at his informative and entertaining best, as well as a theatrical trailer, poster and still gallery. Disc two is packed with lots of goodies ported over from the previous release, along with a heap of new interviews with the talent behind and in front of the camera, including Ramy Zada, Madeleine Potter, and Pino Donaggio, among others. Donaggio’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack for the film appears on disc three. The whole package comes with a booklet containing a new essay by Michael Gingold, a reversible sleeve, and a lenticular slipcover featuring the original American poster art (first pressing only.)
As an ambitious, not-quite masterpiece by two nearly-past their prime filmmakers, TWO EVIL EYES is a good deal better than it gets credit for. The two beefed up shorts that make up the piece are more interesting and nuanced than your typical anthology morality play, and it’s no stretch to rank them with the best adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe on film. Restored and assembled with the sort of care that is the Blue Underground standard, it’s gratifying to see the company give the royal treatment to a film so frequently overlooked in spite—or, really, because of—its pedigree. Among the most impressive Blu-ray releases of the year, this 3-Disc Limited Edition is a must-buy for fans of omnibus pictures, Romero, or Argento, and, even for the uninitiated, these TWO EVIL EYES are worth a gaze.
Blue Underground’s TWO EVIL EYES 3-Disc Limited Edition/4K Restoration is available for pre-order and will be released on October 29th.