Sunday, July 30, 2017

Retro Review: TWO EVIL EYES (1990)

(Italy - 1990; US release 1991)

Directed by Dario Argento and George Romero. Written by George Romero, Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini. Cast: Harvey Keitel, Adrienne Barbeau, Ramy Zada, Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, John Amos, Kim Hunter, Madeleine Potter, Bingo O'Malley, Tom Atkins, Jeff Howell, Holter Ford Graham, Julie Benz, Christine Forrest, Chuck Aber, Anthony DiLeo Jr., Tom Savini. (R, 120 mins)

In its earliest stages of development, TWO EVIL EYES was intended by producer Dario Argento to be a four-part anthology horror film celebrating the work of Edgar Allan Poe, with the Italian master of horror joined by fellow genre legends George A. Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter. By the time production began in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1989, Craven and Carpenter bowed out, leaving Argento and Romero as the remaining participants, each helming a present-day Poe segment running approximately one hour in length. TWO EVIL EYES was supposed to be timed with the ill-fated Poesploitation craze of 1989, which primarily saw rival producers Roger Corman and Harry Alan Towers cranking out a series of Poe adaptations in honor of the 140th anniversary of the writer's death (this included two competing versions of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH). Most of these films weren't released until 1990 or 1991, thereby making the anniversary element pointless, and that went for TWO EVIL EYES as well. While it debuted in Europe in January 1990, it wouldn't hit US theaters until much later in October 1991, courtesy of Taurus Entertainment, who gave it a limited release on just 150 screens. Though an Italian production and Argento's baby, both segments of TWO EVIL EYES were shot in Romero's Pittsburgh stomping grounds, with the beloved NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD auteur providing his usual behind-the-scenes crew for Argento to use, including production designer Cletus Anderson, editor Pasquale Buba, and makeup effects maestro Tom Savini. Though he did some location work in Central Park for 1980's INFERNO, TWO EVIL EYES marked the first time Argento shot an entire project in the US, and he would return to the States for 1993's TRAUMA, which found him unable to create much of a stylish giallo atmosphere in exotic Minneapolis.

Romero kicks things off with "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar," previously filmed by Roger Corman as the closing segment in 1962's TALES OF TERROR and best remembered for Vincent Price waking from the dead and melting into ooze over scheming hypnotist Basil Rathbone. Wealthy Ernest Valdemar (Bingo O'Malley) is in a coma induced by his physician and amateur hypnotist Dr. Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada). Hoffman is having an affair with Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau), a former flight attendant who became an aging Valdemar's trophy wife years ago and is anxious to reap the benefits of his impending passing ("I let him use me," she explains. "For pleasure and for show...and I intend to be paid for my services"). Hoffman puts Valdemar under hypnosis to ease the pain but that's also the time that he can control the old man's mind, getting him to repeat things over the phone to his suspicious attorney Pike (E.G. Marshall) and signing documents transferring untold amounts of cash over to Jessica. They need to keep Valdemar alive for three weeks before the estate transfers to Jessica, but he dies while under hypnosis, putting him in a purgatory where he remains "alive" and part of our world and "the next," with the ominous "the others" attempting to use him to cross over. Romero takes some significant liberties with the story, his attempt to wedge in some social commentary about the greed of the wealthy doesn't really work (nor does the shot of blood dripping on money--Romero wasn't usually so ham-fisted in his societal critiques), and it's flatly shot in a way that makes it resemble a gorier-than-usual episode of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, but "Valdemar" has some effective moments that make it better than its reputation. It's certainly a lesser work in the Romero canon, trying but not quite succeeding in re-establishing that CREEPSHOW mood--with Barbeau as another bitchy harridan, plus the presence of Marshall and O'Malley, not to mention Romero's then-wife Christine Forrest, playing a mean nurse just like she did in 1988's MONKEY SHINES--but it just looks bland and Romero doesn't feel as engaged as he might've been if this project was his idea rather than him being the only guest who showed up to Argento's party thinking Craven and Carpenter would be there as well.

Argento's "The Black Cat" is almost universally regarded as the superior half of TWO EVIL EYES, and while it's got some signature Argento style and, like Romero's "Valdemar," is a reasonably entertaining horror piece, it's too uneven in its approach to be a complete success. A lot of the problems with "The Black Cat" stem from a miscast Harvey Keitel, caught just before his spectacular early '90s resurgence thanks to films like BUGSY (his only Oscar nomination to date), THELMA & LOUISE, RESERVOIR DOGS, and BAD LIEUTENANT. Though he was occasionally appearing in prestigious offerings like THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and THE TWO JAKES around this same time, he was also making ends meet by taking a lot of hired gun gigs in instantly obscure European films that nobody saw. As anyone who's seen the FROM DUSK TILL DAWN documentary FULL TILT BOOGIE will recall, Keitel has been known to be a needy method actor who requires extensive one-on-one time with his directors, and if there's one thing for which Argento has zero patience, going back to his combative working relationship with Tony Musante on 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, it's actors who pester him with questions about character motivation. Argento's been bitching about Musante for 47 years, and while little has been said about his experiences with Keitel, the actor doesn't really look happy to be there, almost like he's intentionally shutting down and withdrawing inside himself when his character is going crazy and he should be a little more animated.

"The Black Cat," written by Argento and frequent collaborator Franco Ferrini, is a mash-up of several Poe stories, filled with characters named after Poe protagonists. Keitel is Rod Usher, a Pittsburgh crime scene photographer who's working on compiling his shots of murder and death into a morbid coffee table book called Metropolitan Horrors. His dark side seems to be known to his younger girlfriend Annabel Lee (Madeleine Potter), a new age-y violinist who adopts a black cat, much to Usher's disapproval. While she's away on a short tour, Usher gets drunk and kills the cat. Of course he denies it, though Annabel isn't buying it, especially when he buys her a new cat--from a sultry barmaid named Eleonora, played by Sally Kirkland--and she catches him trying to murder that one as well. In a violent rage, Usher kills Annabel and walls her up in a closet, while her students (among them a young Julie Benz), nosy neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Pym (Martin Balsam and Kim Hunter), and dogged detective Legrand (John Amos) keep bothering him with questions about her disappearance, clearly not buying his story that she left him. All the while, Usher is tormented incessantly by a ringing phone a la "The Tell-Tale Heart," along with a persistent meowing coming from somewhere in the house.

Where Romero's segment had almost no visual flair at all, Argento goes full throttle, with some arresting camera work, dazzling Steadicam moves throughout Usher's massive three-story house, and some uniquely Argento-ish touches like a premonition of death in the form of a noose-shaped white marking on the cat's otherwise black hair. It ends in an abrupt fashion, which would typify a lot of Argento's films in the coming years, where he often starts the closing credits while the final scene is still playing out (I'm thinking specifically of 2001's SLEEPLESS), and breaks the cardinal rule of horror anthologies that the end segment has be an ace closer to send the audience out buzzing (though Pino Donaggio's closing credits score sorta helps). Regardless of its flaws, Romero's "Valdemar" has the more relatively crowd-pleasing ending, but "The Black Cat" never gets around Keitel being completely wrong for the part. He's a weirdo from the start and it's hard to grasp why Annabel is even interested in this creep, but Keitel makes the mistake of overplaying it early and underplaying it later. He's screaming "I didn't do anything!" immediately after murdering the first cat in a way that only a guilty person would, but later on, when he's being driven batty by the phone and all of the meddling interlopers, he suddenly seems half-asleep, mumbling and morose. It's a strange, mannered performance that never finds the right tone, and it's all the more perplexing because Keitel is one of our great actors, though given the track record of both of them, it's not hard to imagine Keitel and Argento not getting along. Horror fans would've gone to see TWO EVIL EYES in theaters had it been playing anywhere near them. Romero was in his commercial Hollywood phase at the time, between MONKEY SHINES and the Stephen King adaptation THE DARK HALF, and Argento's notoriety among American horror enthusiasts was significant even though much of his work was still difficult to see in the pre-DVD era (his 1987 film OPERA had finally been given a straight-to-video release just a month earlier in September 1991, retitled TERROR AT THE OPERA), with his post-1990 output showing some wild inconsistency that morphed into a precipitous decline from the late '90s onward that continues to this day. TWO EVIL EYES opened the same weekend as HOUSE PARTY 2 and CURLY SUE, but landed in 17th place and was out of theaters a week later, leaving most Argento and Romero fans to discover it in video stores. It doesn't represent either filmmaker at their pinnacle--for that we'd have to go back to 1979 when SUSPIRIA-era Argento helped finance DAWN OF THE DEAD, got Goblin onboard for the score, and recut the film as ZOMBI for European audiences--but it's entertaining enough to make it required viewing for superfans and completists.

George A. Romero and Dario Argento on the set of TWO EVIL EYES

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