Two Evil Eyes (George Romero/Dario Argento, 1990)
“It’s the depravity in all of us. Perversity is one of the prime impulses of the heart.”
A diptych of grizzly tales from the literary giant Edgar Allan Poe, updated to modern times and brought to cinematic life from two undisputed Masters of Horror, Romero and Argento, both with barely a smudge yet on their resumes. So what could go wrong, right? Alas. Quite a bit. Or at least half (hint, hint).
Let’s put it this way: a tale of ‘two eyes’? How about more like ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘. And since I’ve decided to go down this path of a really bad turn of phrase, might as well go all the way and say that while ‘It was the best of times’ captures the exquisite (and exquisitely-Argento) Argento segment, ‘it was the worst of times’ is more than a bit hyperbolic… as the Romero episode isn’t that bad; it’s more an uninspired disappointment. Okay, and maybe it is that bad. It’s just I’ve been feeling so much Romero love in my screenings of his work lately it’s hard to admit it.
A perfectly gruesome and darkly humorous short, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, following a mesmerist determined to put a dying man into a suspended hypnotic state at just the moment of death, with the concluding surprise being, in a most sensationally-presented of morbid twists, a literal bed of ‘detestable putrescence’, it certainly wasn’t a problem of story… but rather of conflicting sensibilities, and mis-matched tastes.
Romero was never a Poe acolyte; his youthful inspirations were 1950’s grassroots Americana; classic Hollywood cinema, like Westerns and swashbucklers, and, more importantly, EC comics, with their ghoulishly violent tales perfect to ensnare many an impressionable young mind. With the addition to the story’s plot of greedy gold-digging Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau, still quite the buxom knock-out at forty-five) determined to get every last penny from her terminally ill husband Valdemar (none other than the wonderfully monikered Bingo O’Malley, so entertaining in the “Jordy Verrill” episode of Romero’s Creepshow) with the help of a young strapping doctor (Ramy Zada) and his ability to hypnotize the near-dead with his metronome, Romero works to bring the Poe material as close as he can to the kind of traditions he understands; namely, classic film noir, with a seductress of a femme fatale leading a poor shlep to commit murder for her, merged with an EC Comics morality-tale retribution for the conclusion (along with a zombie or two lumbering about!).
While Romero might have a fondness for noir’s tantalizing playground of illicit desires and destructive impulses, his “Valdemar” unfortunately doesn’t reveal him as having much of a forte for the genre. What’s clearly missing (with the lack highlighted by the score of De Palma composer Pino Donaggio, one that could have worked so well with the right material) is any real sense of eroticism, of seduction in the air; the kind required to sweep us along and engage with these scheming characters in the naughty things they do. That’s the thing of great noir. Hell, of even passable noir. And without this engagement, the too-logistical supernatural machinations of the story (Why is Valdemar a gateway for other spirits now that he’s dead but still hypnotized? How does his final death somehow pass the spirits onto someone else?) grow even more convoluted as well, to the point where the even the violent set-piece that Romero relies upon by the end, while nicely executed, ends up feeling frustratingly random (why exactly the metronome as the murder weapon, anyway?). And those floating spirits at the end? Not particularly convincing.
The Poe connection was a mismatch from the start and as Romero tries to dig his way out, he never finds his footing. Even worse, the episode’s flat lighting makes it look like a quick made-for-television episode, or an overlong rejected episode from the director’s infinitely superior _ Creepshow_. Not Romero’s finest hour (still think of him as one of the great American cinematic indie figures, however, right up there with Cassavetes… so there!).
And then comes the Argento episode, in which not a more perfect, more excitingly realized match could have been forged. Choosing for his adaptation, not surprisingly, one of the author’s most iconic and representative tales (and, as a big Poe fan in my youth, at the top of my list of favorites – one that I used to read aloud to my mom as she went about the kitchen making dinner and all that – and props to her for not having her youngest son assigned to a mental ward for enthusiastically reading her these grizzly tales of madness, dismemberment and cruelty), “The Black Cat”, one that includes so many of his (and Argento’s) recurring obsessions and wild motifs (only missing that of the beautiful, mercurial female object of desire to anguish over, an omission that Argento rectifies by adding his own porcelain waif into the narrative – and naming her Annabel, no less!); a tale written in the author’s singularly feverish tempo, admirably literary yet so eminently readable (unlike, say, Lovecraft, who Poe is often unfairly paired with, whose over-writing I often find difficult to navigate beyond at times, an impediment to being swept fully away into the fantastic worlds of the Old Ones he imagines that lie just beyond the dense wall of his verbiage), with his familiar compulsive and alcoholic narrator describing a descent into uncontrollable destructive impulses, with walled-up bodies and the horrifying madness of mind-throbbing terrible guilt screaming from beyond the grave… and violence, naturally… oh, such cruel and delirious violence!
From the opening voiceover (stated right there above at the beginning of my little write-up herein), provided by our narrator (Harvey Keitel, his intense and weird presence just another coup for the tale) — unnamed in the written tale, amusingly named Roderick Usher in the film (oh, Argento’s got all sorts of fun overt nods to other Poe tales all over this joint) — obsessing over perversity and depravity, as he flips through the pages of his own photography book on graphically violent images of death he’s compiled as a stills crime photographer over the years (with the aspect ratio of the framed images recalling the widescreen photography Argento favors), right on into the tale of madness and destructive impulses swirling about the important (though more Argento than Poe) central co-mingled desire to kill and to create art, “The Black Cat” plays as much a soul-searching journey for Argento as a filmmaking madman (just count how many times characters, especially Usher, look through frames — be they windows, or holes cut in walls – as if images on a movie screen, to discover hidden, oft violent truths) as it does a wonderful visual construction of the sweaty terror and anguish-ridden obsession feverishly described by Poe in his greatest works.
Argento’s narrative shifts from the Poe tale (such as the cat’s initial death being not of passion as in the story, but more deliberate and cruel, as part of the creation of his new lurid photography book, “Metropolitan Horrors” – a book I only wish they had sold for real! I’d be all over it! – and the extended medieval dream sequence playing out Usher’s repressed guilt, ending in quite the vividly painful image) stay true to the author while, not surprisingly, also work for the director’s goals. Pino Donaggio’s score feels far more guided and inspired in the Argento segment than the Romero, moving as it does from wild flights of Goblin-like symphonies of demonic chaos to relentless string-driven pieces channelling Bernard Herrmann/Hitchock at their best.
I projected the latest Blue Underground Bluray of the film (the one with that super-cool lenticular cover), a gorgeous 4K restoration (made even more so by the thoughtful transfer folks maintaining a quality sense of original film grain and texture) for the head honcho of the long-running (over 25 years!) all-celluloid Montreal-based Le Cinéclub/The Film Society on my big screen at my place (relax, it was during the pre-quarantine days, so don’t get your panties in a bunch, please… it always takes awhile for me to get to these write-ups) as he has a 35mm print of the film which I’m trying to convince him to screen as part of his program.
Alas, after viewing, he was (understandably) only excited about the Argento segment. And as much as I hate to see Romero ignored, in this case, if it leads to the possible near-future night that was brainstormed post-screening, one that would include not only the brilliant Argento segment, but that other absolutely essential, brilliant and influential cinematic Poe adaptation (I won’t say who by or what film it’s from, other than think internationally revered filmmaker… and make sure to ‘follow the bouncing ball’), as well as some apparently superlative Poe-adapted shorts from the celluloid vaults? Ah. Guess I’ll just have to accept it…. and look forward to a night of cinematic Poe delights.