When “Two Evil Eyes” first appeared in 1990, it wasn’t even accorded the curtsey of a full theatrical release by its distributors - a pretty ignominious fate for a project so visibly attached to two of the hottest properties in International horror at the time, namely George A. Romero and the Italian maestro himself, Dario Argento. Nowadays we can see the film for what it is: a curate’s egg of an anthology piece that sees Argento in particular operating in a completely new and unfamiliar context, though still bringing some of his bravura camera-magic of old along with him for the ride; while Romero’s often maligned contribution still has merit despite some obvious lacklustre elements. The film was conceived by Argento, firstly as a means of attaching his name to some of the familiar icons of contemporary U.S. horror (originally Stephen King and John Carpenter were also slated to direct a contribution each) in the hope of bringing his name to a wider international audience. Although he’d had outside success in the past, Argento’s fame still primarily resided in Italy with only “Suspiria” really making it big for him in the rest of the world. Secondly, Argento was intent on paying tribute to one of his biggest literary influences, the American writer of mystery and the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. The film is really Argento’s pet project then, with Romero simply along for the ride out of friendship and a respect for the work of the Italian maverick director and producer of “Dawn of the Dead“.
Romero never had anything like the obsessive deep love for the work of Poe that Argento possessed; and this, combined with the fact that his original plan to film an interpretation of “The Masque of the Red Death” as an AIDS parable very soon met with a stony response from Argento - is probably what accounts for the slightly stilted quality of Romero’s eventual contribution. That, and last minute budget cuts which meant he wasn't able to oversee the sound design ,or some of the special effects, to his satisfaction. The film’s main problem is that though both directors take Poe’s stories as their inspiration and source material, neither of their finished efforts work all that well when viewed side-by-side. If anything, they distract from rather than complement each other. The slowly paced formal restraint of Romero’s film makes Argento’s contribution appear uncontrolled and self-indulgent, while the inventive restlessness of Argento’s segment leaves the Romero piece feeling like a stodgy made-for-TV melodrama by comparison.
Neither assessment is totally fair though. If given a decent crack of the whip, both films have plenty of merit. Argento in particular is pushing himself and exploring new areas of character-based psychological intensity his cinema rarely touched on previous to “The Black Cat” - although, at the time, the film was largely dismissed by many of his fans for being too Americanised. This was the first time Argento had worked with live production sound on an exclusively English-speaking film with an American cast, so it’s not surprising that it had a very different feel; although, compared to the average ’90s mainstream horror movie, it is strange meat indeed, and its dismissal by many fans was hardly warranted.
Coming in for the lion’s share of criticism over the years, though, has been Romero’s first instalment in the anthology. It’s a retelling of Poe’s disturbing tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, in which the original idea behind the author’s morbid vision becomes the centre of a rather perfunctory soap opera-style inheritance plot with Adrienne Barbeau playing a scheming wife, Jessica Valdemar, who gets her disreputable psychiatrist lover to hypnotise her dying husband (Bingo O’Malley) into signing over his fortune. Unfortunately, Mr Valdemar dies while still under hypnosis, leading to his becoming trapped between the world of the dead and the world of the living - and creating a gap that allows something even more malevolent to creep through into our world.
It’s easy to see why Romero would've settled for this story after his original suggestion was KO’ d by Argento: essentially it’s a living dead tale with a supernatural edge. Although Romero’s direction seems fairly unobtrusive and pedestrian, the film does have many creepy moments, with Tom Savini and his team surpassing themselves on the modelling and make-up work, resulting in some scenes featuring an extremely lifelike ‘frozen corpse’ based on actor Bingo O’Malley, when Jessica and Dr. Hoffman store the dead husband’s body in the freezer. Unfortunately, one or two arresting moments do not make a successful movie, and the excellent Lucio Fulci-like idea of a trapped zombie causing an opening of a portal, through which malevolent undead forces are unleashed, is not tackled with anything like the kind of imagination that it deserves. Heavy-handed symbolism seems to be what Romero is more comfortable with; hence the sight of dollar bills being speckled with drops of blood. A bland Herrmann-esque score by Pino Donaggio rather detracts from the uncanny atmosphere rather than enhances it, although the composer does provide Argento’s segment with some nice flourishes.
Argento’s offering, on the other hand, emerges as a mini-masterpiece. In this contemporary rendering of “The Black Cat”, the Italian director seems to have much more of a handle on the source material than Romero, and delivers an unexpectedly rich character piece with Harvey Keitel at the centre - on blistering form as the troubled protagonist. While both Romero and Argento’s films take place in a modern-day American setting, and both make narrative changes to flesh out Poe’s stories for the medium of film, it is Argento who remains true to the brooding, morbid character that defines the author’s original work. This tale of a forensic photographer who makes art out of images of death and destruction - much like the famous ’30s street photographer Weegee - is steeped in grotesque images of death and decay throughout; and marinated in a funeral atmosphere of hopelessness and neurotic obsession.
Many of these images (again providing Tom Savini with some excellent opportunities to display his considerable skills) are derived from other Poe stories and appear particularly shocking and macabre, as well as appallingly realistic. Argento was also influenced by the exquisitely morbid 1940s Val Lewton classic, “The 7th Victim”(its star, Kim Hunter, makes a cameo appearance in the film along with “Psycho” star Martin Balsam): a poetic meditation on suicide and despair, memorable for its central black & white image of an empty room furnished with only a wooden chair, above which is suspended a waiting noose. Fate and maddness are symbolised by Keitel’s obsession with a stray black cat that won’t die and seems eventually to plunge him into an abyss of murder and deranged madness. Argento’s film combines his signature operatic style consisting of amazing camera acrobatics, with a show-stopping central performance by its lead actor; the director would return to this character-based approach in “The Stendhal Syndrome”, but it arguably works better here, and with his mini-cam pirouettes, cat’s-eye-view shots and other outlandish camera manoeuvres, he was clearly still able to conjure up the kind of awe inspiring visual excess that had been so impressive in his previous film, “Opera”. The cinematography is gritty and downbeat by Argento‘s standards, heralding a new trend in his film-making which would never fully be accepted by many longstanding fans; but it’s fully in-keeping with the grim realistic atmosphere of the film and lends the more outlandish and macabre elements even more of a punch than would have been the case with a gaudier mise en scene.
The Arrow DVD features a very nice anamorphic transfer although it cannot of course compete with the quality of the high-definition Blue Underground Blu-ray. There are few extras here, although the Italian audio track is included (with subtitles) and a trailer reel of Argento titles. The usual attractive Arrow packaging makes this a tempter for those fans who have collected all the other titles in the series and includes a reversible sleeve and a colour booklet with a nice essay on the film by Callum Waddell.