Saturday, October 20, 2012

Argento Takes on Poe: TWO EVIL EYES [Argento-thon]

Two Evil Eyes (1990)
Director: George Romero & Dario Argento
Seen via: Blue Underground DVD (R1)
Rating: 6/10 (for "The Black Cat")

To kick off Argento-thon, I started with the earliest film I hadn't seen: 1990's Two Evil Eyes. To be fair though, Argento is only really responsible for *half* of the film, which is a two-part Edgar Allen Poe-themed collaboration with U.S. horror legend George Romero. (Initial plans to make it a four-parter with John Carpenter and Wes Craven didn't pan out.) Romero's film is an updated version of the story "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," which focuses on a couple attempting to swindle a dying man out of his fortune. Little do they know that his ghost won't be quite so happy to see what they've done. I won't really talk much about Romero's film, mostly because it's not very good. Overlong and overly dramatic, it's really sort of a drag, albeit with a couple of creepy moments toward the end.

Argento's half of the film is much more entertaining, and doesn't take its inspiration from a single Poe story. Instead it mashes up themes from several. Playing "spot the references" is pretty fun during this one, although you don't need to be familiar with Poe's work to enjoy it.

The film opens with a particularly grisly gore setpiece, in which the aftermath of a pit-and-the-pendulum style murder is being investigated by Roderick Usher, played by a questionably sober Harvey Keitel. Usher shows up in a beret, which is how you know he has artistic leanings. Rather than being sort of an obvious move, it's perhaps a clue that he's not the most subtle when it comes to displaying his feelings. Most of the rest of the film involves Keitel wearing his frustrations and anger on his sleeve.

There is lots of this in "The Black Cat"
He's a thwarted artist at heart, one who wonders why his book of crime scene photos entitled "Metropolitan Horrors" won't sell (you know, aside from the questionable legality). His marital life isn't going so well either, especially when his girlfriend brings a cat home. Usher is not a cat person, and in a bout of frustration and twisted inspiration, Usher strangles the cat, while photographing the whole process as art. Whether it's his high stress job, failed aspirations, or failing marriage, something is pushing Usher over the edge.

I'm not sure as to what degree Keitel adopted method acting for this film, but it's worth noting that he seems legitimately drunk in quite a few scenes. Maybe he's acting really well, but those bags under your eyes are hard to fake.

The crime scene photos alone wouldn't sell the book,
but kill a cat or two, and it takes off? What's wrong with you, Pittsburgh?
The remainder of the film focuses on Usher's rather quick descent into madness. Killing a cat is only the beginning for him. After that, we get a strange hallucination scene of a pagan ritual where Usher is impaled, and then we watch his anger escalate into murderous rages that are no longer limited to the animal kingdom.

The elaborate kill sequences and POV shots from older Argento are mostly absent. There are still little bits of creativity though, including one absolutely brutal stab that involves a knife to the hand. (Very similar to the stab to the jaw in Opera.) One thing that Dario has clearly maintained is his ability to craft cringe-worthy kill scenes. The gore is amped up a little bit as well... a trend that I've noticed continues throughout Argento's career. This film (not being a giallo) eschews more of the giallo tropes that Dario did well, but it also leaves out a lot of the style. There are thematic nods to Deep Red and Tenebre, but they're just that - little nods. Since we don't have an antagonist whose identity is secret, there isn't really a need for many POV kills, but instead there are an abundance of cat POV shots!

Argento sets this film in Pittsburgh, and it isn't the first time he'd filmed in the U.S.; Inferno and Tenebre both had scenes shot in New York. It does mark the first time he'd set a film exclusively in the U.S. though, and in that sense it's sort of a turning point. There is a strong sense of place in this film, and it's very clearly not Europe, which to my American eyes grounds it more firmly in the real world. This film was also a big move away from his past themes, although it's likely due to the fact that he was focusing on a Poe-themed story as opposed to a genuine desire to shift gears.

Overall, this is an entertaining little film if you ignore Romero's contribution. Aregento-thon is off to a good start! Next up is Trauma - stay tuned!


  1. Nice post. I always think of this as just as a simple anthology film, but I like how you examine it in terms of Argento's career. I haven't rewatched this one in a while, in part because (as you said), Romero's segment is rather meh and Argento's involves a lot of kitty violence. But I forgot about the beret. That is a special thing...

    1. Thanks - yeah, I think I enjoyed Argento's piece more than I typically would have because I was so bummed out by Romero's. I agree that the kitty violence is sort of rough, and I was really glad to see that huge disclaimer from the Humane Society pop up during the credits. Whew! Not all Italian directors have the best track record with that sort of thing...