“I don’t find it fascinating. It’s morbid. Frightening.”
Two Evil Eyes is a film that’s easier to lament for what it’s not than appreciate for what it is. As the booklet that accompanies the new Blu-ray explains, the movie that eventually became Two Evil Eyes was originally supposed to be a more standard anthology picture, called simply Edgar Allan Poe, that would feature contemporary adaptations of classic Poe stories directed by Dario Argento, George Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter.
When the latter two titans of terror were forced to step out due to scheduling conflicts, however, the film that might have been became, instead, two hour-long segments helmed by Argento and Romero, both still cleverly updating familiar Poe tales to the modern day.
Romero, perhaps unsurprisingly, tackles “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” though his first pick was going to be “Masque of the Red Death.” It may be more surprising that his approach to the material has almost nothing to do with his early zombie films and everything in common with a less comic take on the kinds of stories he was telling in Creepshow just a few years earlier—complete with several returning alums, most notably Adrienne Barbeau, once again playing someone unlikely to ever win Wife of the Year.
For his part, Argento opted to bring “The Black Cat” to the screen for roughly the billionth time, but he also borrowed a page from some past (and future) Poe adaptations, littering his tale with allusions to other Poe stories, from character names to a rash of Poe-themed murders and other grisly crimes that are occurring unprompted throughout the city as the story unfolds.
That this rash of crimes is perhaps more interesting than the story that we’re actually being told may be unavoidable, but they simultaneously lend “The Black Cat” segment of Two Evil Eyes an extra zest of overpowering dread while also making us sort of wish we were just watching a movie about Poe-themed murders. That, and give Tom Savini’s effects team plenty to do until the segment’s notoriously gruesome climax.
Neither tale showcases the director at the top of his game, but neither comes anywhere near the worst of that auteur’s filmography, either.
Romero was coming off the box office failure of 1988’s Monkey Shines and was, by most accounts, struggling with the bureaucracy of the Hollywood studio system. Argento, meanwhile, was shooting his first film entirely in America—Trauma would follow in 1993—and had not yet begun the slow slide into the worst of his oeuvre that would come in the 2000s.
Two Evil Eyes is far from perfect, but it’s also much better than what I gather is a fairly lackluster reputation—this may have something to do with fans not getting quite what they expected from either director. Romero’s segment is mostly a one-location melodrama that relies more on ominous hints at what lies beyond than viscera-munching zombies, leaving the lion’s share of the gore to Argento’s tale, where his theatrical shocker is rendered almost entirely in overcast earth tones.
Plenty of what makes the directors great is still there, though, even if their most well-worn trademarks may be absent. “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” as it’s stylized in Two Evil Eyes, could easily have been a segment of Creepshow expanded to nearly feature length. All you’d have to do is throw in a little more comedy and some comic book panel transitions—and the brief shots of the “others” in the segment’s climax are fantastic.
Romero also manages to work some class-consciousness into his take on the Poe story, from a symbolic link between the design on the dollar-bill and the pyramid-like metronome used in the film’s hypnotism to Tom Atkins’ detective muttering that, “Sick stuff always turns out to be rich people.”
“The Black Cat,” meanwhile, “reveals the full extent of Argento’s virtuoso mastery of the resources of the camera,” as the booklet that accompanies the new Blu quotes one reviewer as saying. Sometimes this means bravura shots, as when the camera is swung on a bladed pendulum, while in other cases the tight control of the lens is less showy, but no less effective.
Helping both segments along, especially “The Black Cat,” is music by Pino Donaggio which, as in other Blue Underground releases, is included on a soundtrack CD that accompanies the Blu-ray. Blue Underground seems justifiably proud of the music, but when I tried watching the film, I had to switch to the 2.0 audio track, because the music and ambient sounds swallowed the voices in the 7.1 mix.
Two Evil Eyes is a delightfully depraved concoction that feels at once too bloated and too slight. Each of the two segments feels a little over-long at around an hour apiece, and it’s hard not to think that the whole package would be tighter had even one other segment been included, compressing the runtime of each accordingly. At the same time, without a framing story or more tales, Two Evil Eyes feels less like a complete film on its own than two short films jammed together on a double-bill.
Yet, some of the most intriguing elements might have been among those that wound up on the cutting room floor, had Two Evil Eyes been forced into a more typical anthology mold.
Notable in “The Black Cat” is a lengthy dream sequence in which Harvey Keitel’s drunken photographer (named Rod Usher, naturally) is led into a strange medieval festival that not only heightens the theatricality of the rest of the short but also places “The Black Cat” into the folk horror métier.
At their worst, the Two Evil Eyes of the title feel bloated and lethargic, but at their best, they’re a reminder of what two of the most visionary horror directors working at the time were capable of. Either segment, watched in isolation, is a morbid pleasure; it’s only when the two are packaged together into a feature that the seams begin to show.
And if we can’t help but spend a little time lamenting what might have been, the booklet that accompanies the new Blue Underground release gives us plenty of material, including a teasing paragraph about an ill-fated early-‘90s cable series of Poe adaptations for which Argento would have served as producer and sometime director.
According to the booklet, Argento also planned to bring along other filmmakers, including Richard Stanley and Michele Soavi, whose take on “The Masque of the Red Death” we will sadly now never see, because it would have been wild.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.