Two Evil Eyes (1990)

NOVEMBER 4, 2019


Should movies do away with opening credits, and let people watch them "blind" (granted, the internet and the like would have already revealed the same information, but let's pretend) so that the movie can be judged on its own merits without the big names behind the camera adjust their expectations or biases? It could only help Two Evil Eyes, a film that's perfectly fine and easy enough to recommend to those who enjoy Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and/or anthology style films, but unfortunately doesn't come close to living up to the potential established by its opening titles, which tell you it's from George Romero and Dario Argento. The only other movie that can boast a partnership between these two titans of horror cinema is Dawn of the Dead, aka one of the greatest horror films of all time. Two Evil Eyes, on the other hand, might not even be one of the best horror films of 1990.

Hell, it's not even the best Romero-related film of 1990, as he wrote a segment of Tales From The Darkside as well as the script for Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake, both of which are superior. And he doubles down on reminding us of his legacy by populating his segment with a number of actors from Creepshow, which will likely leave audiences wondering why this film didn't follow suit and have four or five tales that ran shorter instead of two that run about an hour (with no framing device). To be fair, that was indeed the original plan: Romero and Argento were originally going to be joined by John Carpenter and Wes Craven, but when their other commitments got in the way and dropped out, the two men decided to just split the film in half, though why they never decided to add some kind of framework or "host" is beyond me.

So it makes for a strange viewing experience - the closest example would be Grindhouse, I guess, but at least that offered two complete features, plus the fake trailers to sell you on the overall "double feature" experience. There's no such frills here; the movie starts with Romero's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar", then shifts to Argento's "The Black Cat" without any segue or intermission. And while I suppose it's possible some people prefer Romero's, the vast majority agree that Argento's segment is superior, so to sit down and watch this as a movie means you wait an hour for it to get good, or skip past it entirely to get what amounts to a Masters of Horror episode length experience that will leave you unfulfilled if "watching a movie" was your plan for the evening. There's not even any real connection between the two to make it fun; I was hoping some supporting characters would appear in both segments (both take place in contemporary Pittsburgh), but no dice.

Anyway, as I mentioned "Valdemar" isn't exactly up there with the best of Romero's work, which makes sense when you learn on the bonus features that his heart wasn't really in it (Romero wanted to do "Masque of the Red Death" but his ideas proved to be too costly for the production, forcing him to find a different story). "Valdemar" is a strange consolation choice; the original story doesn't have much of a plot, so Romero invented one around the basic idea of a guy caught in a limbo between life and death thanks to a form of hypnotism called mesmerism. Unfortunately, his story isn't all that exciting or unique: it's the ten billionth "woman and her lover kill her husband to get his money" tale, one you could have seen - in half the time - in any number of episodes of HBO's Tales From The Crypt series, which had debuted the year before and was becoming a minor powerhouse for the genre. It picks up in its final 10 minutes (mostly thanks to Tom Atkins showing up as a cigar chomping cop) but by then it's too late to save this from becoming one of Romero's least interesting productions.

Luckily, Argento's fares much better, to the extent that I wish they simply turned his into a traditional feature sans Romero at all (except for maybe as producer). In fact it's a bit longer than Romero's segment as is, so it'd only take another 15-20 minutes' worth of footage to qualify as a feature, which they could have easily added in without really padding things since it has a rather underdeveloped subplot about a local serial killer (played by Savini himself, another Dawn holdover that might enhance your expectations for the film) and a somewhat rushed climax, as if they were making sure the film didn't cross the two hour mark (it comes in literally seconds under, in fact). And it benefits from a better story; Argento updated Poe's classic tale for a modern setting, changing the protagonist into a crime scene photographer - allowing him to work in other Poe references, such as a "Pit and the Pendulum" inspired murder scene - but otherwise stuck fairly close to the narrative Poe wrote nearly 150 years prior.

Plus it's fun to see Harvey Keitel going through the horror movie motions, as he didn't exactly dive into the genre all that often. And he's one of those guys who never phones anything in, so he's fully committed as the drunken asshole murderer who repeatedly kills a cat (and others along the way), but taking it seriously instead of hamming it up - it's a great performance from an actor who I wish embraced the genre more often. And Argento clearly didn't have trouble adapting to working in America - it's got a number of his nutty camera shots (a falling key being one notable example), splatter, and out of nowhere plot turns - come for the contemporary Pittsburgh setting, stay for the nightmare scene set in medieval times! Any fan of the filmmaker can tell you that his decline was about to start, so having missed the film for so long it was great to see "new" Argento that more or less lived up to his talents, before declining budgets and changing studio politics forever handcuffed his abilities, resulting in sub-par efforts.

However you feel about the film, it's inarguable that Blue Underground has put together a fantastic package for it, starting with a new transfer that looked pretty fantastic to my eyes (though I have nothing to compare it to, having never seen it before) and a mother lode of bonus features old and new that require their own disc. The film was previously released on special edition DVD, and it seems they have carried over all of those supplements (including interviews with Romero and Argento) while adding several new ones, including interviews with Madeline Potter (who plays Annabel, Keitel's wife) and composer Pino Donaggio and a very fresh commentary by Argento biographer Troy Howarth, which must have been recorded in the past few months as he notes the death of actor Bingo O'Malley (Valdemar), who only died in June. He's perhaps a bit too enthusiastic about Argento's segment, claiming it's among his best work, but he gives plenty of background on the production, the two filmmakers' careers as a whole, actor bios, etc - he barely ever stops to breathe. The limited edition release also includes Donaggio's score on CD as well as a booklet with an essay by the great Michael Gingold, so if you plan to go through everything on the set, you best take a day out of work.

Ultimately, it was an intriguing and noble experiment that didn't quite stick the landing due to the compromises on participants (a TV show concept was even floated, which would include American AND Italian maestros contributing episodes) and - in Romero's case - story selection, but is still worth a watch thanks to Argento's segment and the sheer novelty of the whole thing. Plus, if you've followed the careers of its two directors, you'd know that this was at the end of their glory years - Romero would only make five more films over the next 27 years until his death, none of them exactly great, while Argento would make one more attempt at breaking into American filmmaking with Trauma before going back to Italy and doing what he could with their own declining film business. Maybe the film itself isn't a classic, but it's from a time when that was still a possible outcome for these masters.

What say you?


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