Italian horror maestro Dario Argento is a lifelong devotee of Edgar Allan Poe. For his first attempt to break into the American market Argento pitched the idea of a Poe anthology film to George Romero, who was then fresh off the commercial failure of his pet project Monkey Shines (1988). Argento and Romero had worked together on Dawn of the Dead (1979), for which Argento did some script consulting and helped co-finance in exchange for international distribution rights. This gave Argento the right to edit a version of Dawn for international release, which produced the more action-oriented Argento cut.
Promoted at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival as Edgar Allan Poe, Two Evil Eyes was originally planned as a four-section portmanteau with John Carpenter and Clive Barker considered as possible directors in addition to Romero and Argento. This was reduced to a three-parter with Argento pursuing Wes Craven to participate. Getting Craven into the project was a management and scheduling nightmare, so the movie was limited to two stories helmed by Romero and Argento. When production began, Argento considered shooting the film in Baltimore, where Poe is buried, but Romero persuaded him to use Pittsburgh where he had made all his movies.
The first segment of Two Evil Eyes is Romero’s adaptation of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (Romero changes the “M.” to “Mr.”). Initially, Romero had written a script based on “The Masque of the Red Death,” but Argento did not want a period piece and was not persuaded by Romero’s attempt to then set the story in the future. Romero retains the central premise of Poe’s story, with Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley, also in Romero’s Knightriders and Creepshow) hypnotized at the point of his death but adds in the ulterior motive of Valdemar’s wife Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau) and her lover Dr. Bob Hoffman (Ramy Zada) attempting to control the dying man’s estate.
Romero brings an E.C. horror comics tone to the story, with greedy characters ruthless in the pursuit of filthy lucre getting a supernatural comeuppance. Utilitarian in look and feel, The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar plays like an episode of Romero’s TV show Tales from the Darkside but jolts to full life at the finale, where the filmmaker revisits his zombie roots and folds in a dose of H.P. Lovecraft-inspired ‘from beyond’ horror.
The second story, The Black Cat, is Dario Argento’s first entirely American film. The script, written by Argento and Franco Ferrini, is not so much an adaptation of the story but a Poe remix that interpolates several thematic and narrative elements from the author’s oeuvre. Argento said that his intention was to “make Poe the subliminal main character to put on screen what I feel about him.” In this segment, sleazy crime photographer Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel), is looking for an appropriate cover for his forthcoming photography book “Metropolitan Horrors” (one of the original titles considered for Two Evil Eyes). For his cover, Usher photographs himself killing a black cat that was adopted by his girlfriend Annabel (Madelaine Potter). The character of Usher is inspired by legendary street photographer Arthur Fellig, known as “Weegee,” who took stark black and white photographs in New York City, often capturing the aftermath of crimes on the streets of the Big Apple. According to Argento, Keitel looked and dressed in a similar fashion to a picture of Weegee that he had found.
Though Argento tamed his flamboyant visual style for American audiences, The Black Cat is still a noticeable contrast to Romero’s segment. His evocative camerawork summons the spirit of Poe’s work, for instance taking the viewpoint of the bladed pendulum swinging through the cleaved corpse of a homicide victim and showing the point of view of the cat, jumping to the floor and scurrying along the ground. A phantasmagorical dream sequence drops Usher into a mini folk horror scenario that ends with him impaled on a sharpened wooden pole, a la Cannibal Holocaust. Argento (who co-wrote the screenplay with Franco Ferrini) peppers the film with allusions to Poe’s work. Makeup effects designer Tom Savini, for example, plays a demented maniac obsessed with obtaining his dead cousin’s teeth, inspired by the Poe story “Berenice.” Annabel is murdered and her corpse walled up, in a nod to both “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat.” An additional scene shot for the film, taken from Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” with a victim shoved headfirst down a chimney, was cut to keep the running time to one hour.
Romero and Argento did not collaborate on their individual stories. Romero shot his segment first and was editing it while Argento began shooting his part. And so the two short films are an exercise in contrasts: Romero’s story is naturalistic in tone while Argento’s is impressionistic and operatic. As such Two Evil Eyes lacks unity of style but it nevertheless works, with Romero’s more sedate pacing building to a living dead/’other entities’ finale and then Argento stepping in with a kinetic Grande Guignol bizarreness. If the two short pieces had been arranged in the reverse order the whole thing likely would have felt like it ground to a halt in its second half. Argento’s aesthetic love of the macabre turns out to be a better fit for a Poe adaptation, but as a whole Two Evil Eyes is a highlight of ‘90s genre cinema.
Sidenote: Interestingly, Argento apparently planned a Poe TV series. He wanted to broadcast the stories from Two Evil Eyes separately and then follow with four new episodes based on Poe. Directors that were tentatively lined up for the additional episodes were Michele Soavi, Richard Stanley, Lamberto Bava, and Luigi Cozzi. Alas, this series never materialized.
The transfer on Blue Underground’s 4K disc of Two Evil Eyes is scanned in 4K 16-bit from the original camera negative and the results are striking, with rich, deep blacks and dynamic colours. The transfer especially pops in Argento’s The Black Cat, which has a more vibrant colour palette and kinetic camera movements, but the whole film is vividly cinematic.
Extras on the 4K disc:
- Audio Commentary with Troy Howarth, Author of “Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento.” – Howarth is highly knowledgeable about Italian cinema, and delivers a packed program of information in his commentary.
- Theatrical Trailer.
- Poster and still gallery.
Extras on the blu ray disc:
- Two Masters’ Eyes (29 mins.) – Interviews about the project with Dario Argento, George Romero, Tom Savini, Claudio Argento, and Asia Argento.
- Savini’s EFX (12 mins.) – Savini talks about how he achieved the effects in the film, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage. Fascinating stuff.
- At Home with Tom Savini (16 mins.) – A personal tour of Tom Savini’s home. The contemporary video footage begins with Savini in a car talking about some of his experiences on the Two Evil Eyes shoot. Then Savini takes the interviewer through the Aladdin’s cave of treasures that is his home, crammed with horror and film props and reproductions.
- Adrienne Barbeau on George Romero (5 mins.) – A brief interview recorded during the shooting of Two Evil Eyes.
- Before I Wake (14 mins.) – Interview with Ramy Zada, where he discusses how he got in the business and his involvement in Two Evil Eyes.
- Behind the Wall (16 mins.) – Interview with Madeleine Potter, where she talks about her work on the stage and in film, and her experiences making Two Evil Eyes. Potter impresses with intelligence and artistry and it becomes obvious that she put a considerable amount of thought into her performance. An extremely insightful interview, perhaps the most interesting featurette on the disc.
- One Maestro and Two Masters (15 mins.) – Interview with composer Pino Donaggio.
- Rewriting Poe (13 mins.) – Interview with co-writer Franco Ferrini.
- The Cat Who Wouldn’t Die (27 mins.) – Interview with Assistant Director Luigi Cozzi, where he goes into detail about the influence of Poe’s stories on the entire horror genre and then digs into the production of Two Evil Eyes.
- Two Evil Brothers (14 mins.) – Interview with Special Make-Up Assistant Everett Burrell. Burrell’s first film project was Romero’s Day of the Dead, which forged his connection with Savini and Romero. An amiable interviewee, Burrell has some great stories to share.
- Working With George (9 mins.) – Interview with Costume Designer Barbara Anderson.
Note: The Blu-ray disc is extras only and does not contain the movie.
Doing the work of the gods, for Two Evil Eyes Blue Underground has delivered yet another gorgeous 4K presentation of a genre film. If they keep this up, I’m gonna run out of purple prose and superlatives to slather on my reviews of their wonderful discs. Highly recommended, with a nifty and informative collection of extras.