Sometime around the late ’80s, Italian director Dario Argento, who is a huge Edgar Allan Poe fan, called up George Romero with the idea of making a multi-director anthology film based on Poe’s tales. The original plan was to have four segments, one each by Romero, Argento, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven. In a 2009 interview, Argento also mentions considering Stephen King as a possible contributor.
Unfortunately, neither Carpenter nor Craven were available, and so Romero and Argento decided to do a diptych, for lack of a better term, to be filmed in Romero’s home town of Pittsburgh, and set in the present day. Romero adapted “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar;” Argento chose “The Black Cat.” The resulting film, which was released in Europe first, was Due occhi diabolici, aka Two Evil Eyes.
I’ve only just heard of this film. It had only a limited theater release around 1990-1991 (I’m not sure why), and fell into relative obscurity. Of course once my husband and I found out about it, we had to see it. We’re both huge fans of Corman’s Poe films, and I love the anthology format, so I’m especially fond of Tales of Terror (1962), which also includes versions of “Valdemar” and the “The Black Cat.” How interesting to see new versions of these stories!
As a bonus, the movie was shot in Pittsburgh in 1989, just before I moved there for grad school. So I had the extra treat of recalling the Pittsburgh scenery as it appeared in the background of the film.
The movie got off to a slightly disappointing start with Romero’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar.” I have the utmost respect for Mr. Romero; Night of the Living Dead is a great film, and I thoroughly enjoyed Creepshow. Still, I got the feeling that this segment wasn’t actually a riff on Poe’s original source material, but rather on Corman’s Tales of Terror segment. And to me, that felt lazy.
Perhaps that’s unfair; Poe’s original story has essentially only two characters: the narrator/hypnotist, and his friend M. Valdemar, who starts the story dying of consumption, and spends the rest of it in bed, dead-but-not-gone, still trapped in a hypnotic trance. There’s not a lot that goes on. Corman fleshed out the narrative with Valdemar’s much younger wife, who is loyal to her husband but also in love with Valdemar’s (equally loyal) physician. In the meantime, the unscrupulous hypnotist (an awesome Basil Rathbone) covets both Valdemar’s wife and his riches. Romero condenses this love quadrangle into a triangle and makes Mrs. Valdemar much less saintly.
Adrienne Barbeau does a wonderful job as Jessica Valdemar, who is colluding with her physician/hypnotist lover to steal her husband’s assets. She wants something back for all the years she let her older husband use her, yet she’s troubled by some aspects of what she and her lover are doing. And when things go sideways, Barbeau conveys Jessica’s terror really well. Fellow Creepshow alumnus E. G. Marshall gives a nice supporting performance as Valdemar’s suspicious attorney, Pike. Ramy Zada plays Robert Hoffman, Valdemar’s physician/hypnotist and Jessica’s old flame.
Apparently Romero specifically asked for Zada in this role. I’m glad to know that Romero supported actors whose work he liked, and Zada does a perfectly fine and competent acting job, but in my opinion he was miscast. Hoffman was supposed to be an old lover out of Jessica’s past, and the renewed relationship/conspiracy between them should have been ambivalent and noirish, like Double Indemnity. Zada (who was 30) looked too young to have a history with Barbeau’s Jessica (she was about 45); he looked more like her boytoy. Both actors gave fine performances in their scenes together, but to me those scenes didn’t convey that noirish vibe I think the story wanted; perhaps with an older actor they might have. In an ideal world, Romero would have reached back into his Creepshow stable and cast Leslie Nielsen as Hoffman; he would have been perfect. And even Hal Holbrook wouldn’t have been bad.
Casting aside, there were also some minor holes in the plot, though mostly of the kind that I ignore if I like everything else about a film. Still, the story’s EC-comics karmic retribution vibe felt more Creepshow than Poe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and Barbeau’s terrific performance elevates the piece quite a bit. I liked the segment well enough. Nonetheless, Romero’s contribution suffers in comparison to Argento’s giallo-inflected and Poe-filled segment…
Argento’s version of “The Black Cat” is the most faithful cinematic rendition of the Poe tale that I’ve seen so far. Other film versions of this story introduce a love triangle/crime of passion to motivate the story’s central murders. This love triangle isn’t in the original story; the narrator’s wife loves him, though she is also afraid of him and his drunken moods. Even the cat loves him.
In Argento’s version, the protagonist (a fantastic Harvey Keitel) doesn’t get along so well with the cat, which is his girlfriend’s pet. But his destructive and ultimately murderous behavior comes from inside himself: his own morbid tendencies (he photographs gory crime scenes as art, not as police work), his innate anger and frustration with his relationship and his artistic reputation, his alcoholism. Argento doesn’t follow Poe’s plot exactly; he even takes the narrative a few steps further than Poe did. But it’s clear that the theme of the piece is human perversity and self-destructiveness, and that makes it spiritually much closer to the source material than previous versions that I’ve watched.
I’m glad I watched this movie so soon after finishing my translation of Horacio Quiroga’s Poe tribute, “El crimen del otro,” because I re-read a lot of Poe while working on that story. Consequently I was primed to pick up on the numerous Poe references Argento wove into this segment–he really is a fan. There’s too much to detail here, but I’ll just say that Keitel’s character is named Rod Usher and his live-in girlfriend is named Annabel. And there’s more, so much more…
All the actors in this segment are strong. Keitel gives a terrific performance as a man breaking down under drink and stress, destroying his relationship in the process; Madeleine Potter is his much younger girlfriend; she gives a delicate, ethereal performance. Martin Balsam plays their next door neighbor Arthur Pym (!) and Kim Hunter is his wife. They’re both a lot of fun to watch. John Amos is solid as police detective Legrand (yes, that’s another Poe reference), and Sally Kirkland is awesome in a brief role as a bartender named Eleonora. Oh, and special effects genius Tom Savini has a tiny cameo in a scene based on the Poe story “Berenice.”
As I mentioned, this segment is giallo-inflected, and has many of the characteristics one associates with the genre, notably sexuality entwined with violence: the first scene features a naked woman who’s been sliced in half by a pendulum (but not in a pit). There’s also the genre’s characteristic use of color, with striking color compositions and bright saturated hues, used as splashes against a dull or dark background. Lots of red (Argento’s trademark, I’m told), starting with the red light of Usher’s darkroom, to Annabel’s red hair and scarf, to all the blood. So much blood. Argento homages the shower scene from Psycho, and there’s a shockingly beautiful blood-in-a-bathtub scene strongly reminiscent of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, a giallo classic.
Music is key in this piece, with Annabel’s classical violin, suspenseful electronic or electro-orchestral pieces, and jazz all enhancing the mood and atmosphere of the scenes. And the camera work is great. In contrast to Romero’s straightforward (but effective) cinematography, Argento uses lots of point of view angles and motion to follow what the cat sees, or the pendulum blade, even a set of keys dropped down a stairwell… Altogether, this segment is the far more interesting one.
Comparing Two Evil Eyes to Tales of Terror seems inevitable, given the similar choice of stories in each. Two Evil Eyes is much gorier, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, given who the directors are. Let’s just say that Tom Savini had plenty of opportunities to practice the art he’s so famous for. If I can take it, the gore’s probably not that bad–I’m sure some horror fans would consider it tame–but be advised.
I prefer Corman’s version of the Valdemar tale to Romero’s. But while the darkly comedic version of “The Black Cat” in Tales of Terror is one of my favorite short pieces of cinema, Argento’s version is wonderful, and definitely something that Poe enthusiasts should see. And giallo enthusiasts, too.
Two Evil Eyes: Check it out.
 I’m sure the idea was at least partially inspired by the 1968 Poe anthology film Histoires extraordinaires (aka Spirits of the Dead or Tales of Mystery and Imagination), to which Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim each contributed a segment. Argento wanted to do the same thing, only set in the United States–Poe’s home turf–rather than Europe.
I like Spirits of the Dead. My husband thinks it’s so-so, and most people only like Fellini’s segment, which is amazing. Still, critic and genre film expert Tim Lucas loves the film, so I’m in good company. (Back)
 Tales of Terror, of course, and before that, Unheimliche Geschichten (Uncanny Stories), an anthology film from 1919. This silent gem is a wonderful example of proto-Expressionism, and is absolutely charming. I recommend it. (Back)