Skip the first half of Two Evil Eyes. Or at least watch the second half first.
The film comprises two hour-long segments based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The first, directed by George Romero, adapts The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The second, directed by Dario Argento, loosely adapts The Black Cat.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar stars Adrienne Barbeau as Jessica, a woman embezzling her elderly husband’s fortune. Her former lover, Dr. Hoffman, hypnotizes the ailing Ernest Valdemar under the guise of easing his pain. Hoffman then orders the hypnotized Valdemar to sign his assets over to Jessica, who liquidates them.
All goes according to plan until Valdemar dies while under hypnosis. Trapped in a hypnotic state, Valdemar’s soul cannot cross over to the land of the dead.
Soon, Valdemar’s frozen corpse is stalking the two conspirators, shambling around calling Jessica’s name. He does this without moving his mouth, which was a problem for me, but I’ll get to that later.
Romero’s segment has a made-for-TV feel. I can’t identify the exact cause. Perhaps it’s the under-written characters, or the under-furnished sets. Or the flat lighting. Maybe it’s the stiff performances. Or the EC Comics style twist ending. Whatever the reason, Romero’s film could pass for a lost episode of Tales From the Crypt.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I loved that show. But, fair or not, one expects more from a feature film.
Astute viewers will notice a problem with Ramy Zada as Dr. Hoffman. The script tells us he and Jessica were lovers before she married Valdemar, back when she worked as a stewardess. But Zada’s thirteen years younger than Barbeau. Assuming Barbeau was in her early twenties during their affair, that puts Zada at ten years old.
But I can get past that.
What I couldn’t get past was Valdemar’s ventriloquist act. I couldn’t buy hearing his voice without seeing his mouth move. Romero may have been trying to stay faithful to the source material, but the result feels like what it is: a dubbed-in effect. Worse, it feels unintentional. As though they added it as an afterthought, or because they couldn’t get the prosthetics working right on-set.
Romero’s script has something to say about greed, but his segment lacks the focus and visceral punch of his better work. The story drags and the ending feels obligatory instead of shocking.
Argento’s entry, The Black Cat stars Harvey Keitel as Rod (short for Roderick) Usher, a tabloid photographer. We meet him at a crime scene. A woman lies naked on a table, cleaved in half at the waist. Rod snaps pictures of the lurid spectacle while chatting with the detectives investigating the crime. Poking around, he releases a large pendulum blade. We get a dynamic POV shot as the blade arcs down with a roar and embeds itself between the corpse’s halves.
As the story unfolds, Rod descends into madness culminating in murder. There are some supernatural elements, including the persistent titular feline, but they’re presented as possible figments of Rod’s imagination.
Argento piles on the Poe references en route to a Grand Guignol conclusion that’s so over-the-top it’ll make you laugh and gag in the same breath.
Final reveal aside, the film balances atmosphere and gore. Rod’s brownstone has a worn, lived-in feel. The narrow, shadow-filled rooms engender feelings of confinement. The city streets, feelings of isolation and anonymity. The gruesome murders Rod photographs are both inspired by Poe tales. Besides the halved corpse that opens the film, we see one with its mouth wired open after having its teeth pried out.
Argento’s only outright misstep is Keitel’s wardrobe. Harvey’s a great actor and a good choice, but he should never, ever, wear a beret.
How to rate the film? Two Evil Eyes is uneven. Romero’s entry rates two stars, while Argento’s rates four. I split the difference.