George Romero wanted to make an AIDS parable out of “The Masque of the Red Death.” Italians forced him to make another film instead. A decent effort, but a great example of “what could have been.” As Phil zeroes in on the last few Romero films he has yet to review, he turns his two good eyes on TWO EVIL EYES. For which he blames Dario Argento.
When I interviewed Roy Frumkes at the first Saturday Nightmares show, we discussed the second part of his DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD, in which Roy interviews George Romero on the set of TWO EVIL EYES. Roy informed me that Romero originally wanted to film “The Masque of the Red Death” for the Edgar Allan Poe anthology. Romero intended to comment on the AIDS epidemic. That film would have really interested me, as the subject matter would have given Romero plenty of room for his pointed social commentary. But TWO EVIL EYES was Dario Argento’s concept, and he nixed Romero’s idea. Romero then settled on Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a tale of betrayal which features a corpse that returns to life. Romero is right at home with the living dead, and provides a perfectly decent, if slow moving, film. I still can’t help but wonder just how much better his entry might’ve been had Argento allowed him to follow his original vision.
This isn’t just about Romero, though. Argento filmed “The Black Cat,” for the second feature. As these are two separate films, directed by two men under one title, I’ll deal with them separately.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
In this contemporary tale, a shrewish woman married to a rich old man is waiting for him to die so she can get his money and be rid of him. Colluding with his doctor, who’s also her lover, they’ve found a way to keep old Valdemar hypnotized in a state of suspended animation, through which they can manipulate his voice and use him. As the devious lovers string him out even after death, keeping him in an icebox, they come to realize that sometimes life goes beyond death, much to their dismay. Because the two aren’t the only ones trying to manipulate Valdemar’s remains.
Valdemar’s one problem is that it’s dull. A solid turn by Adrienne Barbeau as the conflicted Mrs. Valdemar, an interesting plot and some nice, gooey effects by Tom Savini are wasted by the glacial pace. Romero tries to build suspense by turning the screw slowly, but it doesn’t work. Even a strong supporting cast that includes E.G. Marshall, Bingo O’Malley and Tom Atkins’ moustache can’t kick this one into high gear. The best way I can put it is this: Any time an hour long film feels interminable, it’s not a good sign.
Of most interest is Valdemar himself. As with CREEPSHOW, Romero is dealing with a non-Romero style zombie. It’s neat watching him break his own rules for the living dead, especially if you worship Romero’s Dead franchise as I do. Valdemar isn’t really scary, and he’s not going to eat Barbeau, but it’s intriguing that he’s caught between two worlds, begging for his wife and her lover to wake him. Their refusal to do so seals their fates. My main complaint is the voice effect. It’s far from chilling, sadly.
Romero’s final product is a decent little hour of horror. And yet, I wish Argento would’ve let George do his thing and make “Red Death.” Thematically, Valdemar is similar to it in that both comment on the rich upper class. So Romero still gets to deliver his social commentary, but I feel he would’ve expressed so much more with his concept of an AIDS parable. It’s a subject tailor made for the director.
At least Valdemar has a coherent vision. As for Argento’s piece…
The Black Cat
This is an incoherent mess. I have no idea how Argento thought he was respecting Poe’s source material, with tabloid photographer Rod Usher shooting crime photos of a girl sliced in half by a pendulum then returning home to find his wife with a black cat…
While Poe’s original story is a taut exercise in terror, Dario’s film is a bloated, weird disaster. Why did Argento see fit to try to shoehorn every story Poe ever wrote into his film? It does no favors to any of them. In place of any cohesive story, there are a dozen threads that make absolutely no sense when assembled. Unlike Valdemar, this one’s anything but boring. Anything with Harvey Keitel at its center has no chance of being dull, especially when he meows. A cat’s-eye POV, a dwarf and a redhead with a big nose and a medieval dream sequence with Keitel spitted upon a pike sure keep this a lively affair. In fact, it’s some of the liveliest trash I’ve seen in years. If only it were fun trash.
Some great makeup effects by Tom Savini are the only laudable element in the episode. He does creepy cats and women split in two to the hilt, and does for felines here what he did for simians in MONKEY SHINES. Now Tom’s acting turn in the graveyard, not quite as hot.
Argento’s got some nerve, come to think of it. I own the two-disc Blue Underground disc, and during the 30-minute doc, the Italian states that Romero’s concept for “Red Death” was too contemporary and didn’t respect Poe as source material. What a crock. If Argento thinks his film takes place in the 19th century and follows Poe’s “Black Cat” religiously, he’s out of his mind.
The doc also informs us that this was supposed to be a much larger work, with four stories instead of the two and the involvement of John Carpenter. I also got the impression that the Italian producers had their hands all over this film, to ill effect. There’s a 14-year-old Asia Argento, and visual proof that Dario can’t throw a spiral to his receiver. Romero had hoped to film in Rome, but as with every other film of his up to that point, TWO EVIL EYES filmed in Pittsburgh. Which pleased Dario. Because he loves buffalo wings. I couldn’t make that one up if I tried.
There are also two featurettes on Tom Savini, one of which proves what a mess his house is. He’s got makeup effects crammed everywhere. A brief interview with Barbeau that Frumkes shot but didn’t use for DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD shows up. She’s very complimentary of Romero, as his actors universally are. Scroll up to where it says “Bonus Features” and you’ll get a 45 second clip of George’s ex-wife Christine discussing how the producers made her audition for her role.
TWO EVIL EYES comes across as Dario Argento’s misguided attempt to bring his literary hero Edgar Allan Poe to the big screen, and produce some compelling horror. Had he and his contingent of Italian producers relaxed their power and let George Romero make the Poe story he wanted to film, his entry may have turned out to be another classic effort in his catalogue, instead of merely decent. It may also have kept Argento in check, instead of letting the wild man royally mess up a great Poe story. Those at the time who thought they were getting a movie on the level of DAWN OF THE DEAD must have been severely disappointed, even if taking it in through two evil eyes.