Instant Terror Tuesday: Two Evil Eyes (1990): Seeing is Half Believing
Hello again my dear friends and welcome back to another Instant Terror Tuesday. It’s been a little while since I’ve had a chance to talk about any of the Italian directors, but seeing as I just booked my room for Horrorhound Weekend Indianapolis 2011 where the special guest will be the great Dario Argento, I thought that I would choose between the titles on Instant Watch that I hadn’t seen yet. What lead me to decide on Two Evil Eyes was the appearance of two of my favorite actors, Barbeau and Keitel, and the fact that it was a split effort between Italy’s master of horror, Argento, and America’s, George Romero. Originally the project was conceived as an Edgar Allan Poe inspired TV series with episodes set to be directed by Argento, Romero, Michele Sovai, and Richard Stanley. When that plan fell through, a new scheme was hatched to spin the project into a film with portions by Romero, Argento, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven. When that well through it was finally paired down two Dario and George, who are two of the most hit and miss horror directors out there.
Unfortunately for Two Evil Eyes, it contains one of each, a hit and a miss. The first tale out of the gate is The Strange Case of M. Valdemar directed by Romero. The tale stars Adrienne Barbeau as Jessica Valdemar, the trophy wife of a soon to be deceased millionaire. Conspiring with his doctor, the pair hypnotized the old man and coerces him to sign papers transferring his fortunes to Adrienne. When he passes away while being mesmerized, the illicit couple tries to hide his demise until the money transfers come through. Unfortunately for them, Mr. Valdemar might not be as dead as he appears.
Romero‘s portion of the film was the miss for me. Barbeau is the center of the film, but she really stumbles through, overacting and looking quite haggard. While there are a number of impressive shots in the film (no doubt because Romero was being influenced by his Italian friend), the majority imagery looks flat and dated. If I had not known that this film was made in the late ‘80’s and released in 1990, then I would have assumed it to have been a product of the Reagan era. It doesn’t help that Barbeau and co-star Ramy Zada look like they were pulled out of the pages of The Yuppie Handbook and plastered on the screen. The story itself is well delivered with sufficient chills and a wonderful respect for the source material though personally I still prefer the 1962 telling of the story from Corman’s Tales of Terror featuring Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone. As a final note, this first segment does end on a high note with Tom “Thrill Me” Atkins showing up as a police detective.
So as I said that the film contains a hit and a miss, you can probably surmise that the hit was Argento’s portion of the film. One of the most frequently adapted of Poe’s stories has to be The Black Cat. I can think of six versions of the story right off the top of my head beginning in 1934 with the version starring Bela Lugosi and (birthday boy today) Boris Karloff. Argento’s telling centers on crime scene photographer Rod Usher played by Harvey Keitel. When his girlfriend takes in a strange, menacing black cat, Usher soon finds the feline to be a devilish menace at every turn. Finally, being able to take no more, he strangles the cat to death while photographing the deed for use in a book of photography. As in Poe‘s story, this is not the end of the cat which comes to push Usher further into madness until he kills something considerably bigger than a cat.
Unlike Romero’s dated looking first entry, Argento’s segment appears to be crisp and modern looking without the flatness that impairs the Night of the Living Dead director’s story. Instead, the trademark Argento moments are there (the swirling cameras and use of a rich color palette and interesting angles), but on top of that Argento got great performances from his actors. Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs, Mean Streets) delivers on all fronts here more than making up for any shaky acting in the film thus far. Even with a silly beret perched atop his head, I was still with his character all the way. Madeleine Potter turns in some solid work as Usher’s troubled girlfriend, and Sally Kirkland (Breakheart Pass, The Sting) impresses in a very short role as a bartender who brings that cat back into Usher’s life. Special effects master Tom Savini (who headed up that department for both segments) also appears very briefly as a Poe-like killer. It should also be said that both segments feature a score by Pino Donaggio that runs the spectrum from Goblin-esque prog to jazz and classical movements. Overall it doesn’t do that much for Romero’s film but perfectly matches Argento’s portion.
Two Evil Eyes is a film that was fraught with issues trying to come to life, and some of its TV roots still show though here and there. In the end, the Argento retelling of The Black Cat saves the picture. I’m sure a fair amount of viewers have shut it off during Romero’s plodding, dated tale never to see Argento’s lushly photographed psychological tale. I’m not going to say it is a must, but if you’re seeing it on instant watch, feel free to skip over George’s first hour and get to the good stuff. I know that’s something I’ll be likely to do many times in the future. Well, that wraps it up of Instant Terror Tuesday, but stay tuned the rest of the week for more goodies. Thanksgiving is in only two days, and that means it’ll be time for the main course of Thanksgiving with Jowderowky.