Following Opera, Dario Argento set to work drumming up enthusiasm from his peers for a collaborative horror anthology film based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe, despite that genre having already gone fairly quietly into the night after peaking with 1982’s Creepshow. By 1989, the only two directors still involved with the project, Argento and George A. Romero, each directed a roughly hour-long horror short, with both episodes released under the banner film title Due occhi diabolici, or Two Evil Eyes.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
Initially, Romero conceived of his segment as an adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death,” reimagining it as a parable about AIDS and updating the setting to a luxurious high rise. Argento argued that this would be inconsistent with his vision of the film. With Argento’s segment capitalizing on many of Poe’s most famous pieces, Romero was forced to choose from the writer’s lesser known works, finally settling on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”
The 55-minute segment opens as Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau) makes her way to the office of Steven Pike (E.G. Marshall), the lawyer of her dying husband, Ernest (Bingo O’Malley). Jessica was once a flight attendant whom the much-older Ernest brought home after a trip, and she’s ready to get her literal and metaphorical payment for acting as his escort and trophy all these years. Pike’s suspicious protests about Ernest’s deathbed money reshuffling are overturned when he speaks with the man himself over the phone. He is, of course, unaware that Ernest is doing so under hypnosis, perpetrated by his physician, Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), who was Jessica’s lover many years before. Jessica and Hoffman must keep Ernest alive in order to make sure that Jessica inherits everything, but he succumbs to his disease while hypnotized. Although his body is dead, his mind is trapped between worlds, and he begins to bemoan that wherever he is, there are “Others” there who want to use his body as a gateway into the world of the living; he begs to be released from his hypnosis and embrace death.
This segment is not without its merits. Barbeau’s appearance here further connects this film to Creepshow, although this segment (and the next) lacks the dark comedy that made that anthology so memorable. When the Others finally track down Hoffman after he escapes, their spectral appearance and creepy, featureless humanoid forms are legitimately scary; film legend Tom Savini’s makeup on both the undead Ernest and the rotting corpse of Hoffman is the work of a craftsman at the top of his game. The problem is that the story feels somehow like a very small story. Watching it, you get the sense that you aren’t watching the first half of a movie as much as you’re viewing a vaguely familiar episode of Night Gallery. The mediocre “Valdemar” takes place almost entirely within a single location, but instead of inspiring feelings of claustrophobia or entrapment, it contributes to the overall perception that it was produced on a budget more suited for television than a theatrical release. If you happen to catch it on television, give it a watch; that’s where it belongs.
“The Black Cat”
Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes was much more compelling, although it too suffers in comparison to the source material. Its other primary weakness is in the seemingly odd choices Argento makes about what to spend time on given the segment’s 63ish minute run time. Primarily based upon (and sharing its name with) Poe’s “The Black Cat,” Argento’s segment of the film also incorporates elements from various other Poe stories, well-known and otherwise, as the director paid homage to one of his favorite writers.
Roderick Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a photographer with a morbid streak; his amicable relationship with Detective LeGrand (John Amos) gets him into plenty of crime scenes, where he captures intimate images of the grotesquery that humans can visit upon one another. His live-in girlfriend of four years, Annabel (Madeleine Potter), is a contrasting spirit: a sensitive, meditating concert violinist who gives lessons to teenagers. Annabel adopts a stray black cat with a white spot on her chest, and Roderick takes an instant disliking to the animal. Under pressure from his editor to shoot some material with the same tone as his crime photos but a different subject matter, Usher waits until Annabel takes a couple of her students (Holter Graham and adorable widdle 17-year-old Julie Benz in her first film role) to the opera and then tortures and strangles her poor cat, photographing the whole thing.
Annabel becomes distraught and is correctly suspicious that something horrible has befallen her pet and that she did not run away, as Usher insists. He grows increasingly irritated by Annabel’s grief and, after an afternoon of drinking, he slaps her; he then falls asleep and has vivid dream about a medieval witch who looks like Annabel. She cryptically says that his fate is written in the cat’s white spot before he is brutally executed and starts awake. Annabel discovers Usher’s newest book, Metropolitan Horrors, and realizes that her earlier suspicions were true. Meanwhile, Usher is haunted by the sudden appearance of an identical cat, which he takes back to his home and attempts to kill again, but not before noticing that the cat’s white spot is in the shape of a gallows. He is interrupted by Annabel, and the true horror begins.
Although the plot structure is mostly based upon “The Black Cat,” Argento’s interpretation is also a pastiche of Poe’s other works. When we first meet Usher, who is named for the narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” he is attending a crime scene where a woman was murdered via a descending blade, just as in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Later, he takes photos of a woman whose body was dug up by her cousin (an uncredited Tom Savini) so that he could remove her teeth, as in “Berenice.” The inspiration for Annabel’s name is obvious, while the couple’s elderly neighbors (Martin Balsam and Kim Hunter) have the surname Pym in honor of the main character of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only complete novel; yet another character takes her name from the title character of “Eleonora.” There are probably even more that I missed, and, as a love letter to Poe, the number of references packed into this relatively brief outing show how much Argento deeply cares about Poe’s work.
The primary issue here is that the truncated running time of the piece works both for and against it. Argento is, for the most part, forced to keep the focus tight and thus is allowed no weird and unnecessary digressions from the plot. On the other hand, Roderick’s downslide from safety-negligent pranking to drunken domestic abuse to coldly calculated murder cover-up occurs too quickly to incur the kind of gravitas that Argento is presumably hoping to invoke, which makes Usher’s indulgently overlong medieval dream sequence seem even more out-of-place upon reflection. I suppose he could have been banking on Keitel’s general “perpetually on the verge of losing it” aura, but Usher consequently seems like a horrible person from the beginning, so it’s hard to elicit the kind of sympathy that was present in the original text. There, the unnamed narrator struggles with his alcoholism, decrying it as something akin to a curse or a hex, which possesses and controls him in a way that he despises but cannot escape. Here, it’s just Harvey Keitel knocking back tequila shots at a bar and one scene in which he becomes enraged and hits Annabel, and then it’s on to full blown murder and sealing corpses up in walls.
Despite being based upon Poe’s narratives, there is Argento to spare here as well. The director’s giallo trademark of a character struggling to cognitively and consciously understand a clue that was passively observed is given a slight twist, in that the clue comes in a dream rather than the waking world. Instead of observing other characters talking and later discern what was said, the main character watches the Pyms and one of Annabel’s students discuss the possibility that he is a murderer, reading their lips in the moment. Still, there’s something quintessentially American about Poe’s work that shines through in this, the oddly culturally cryptic first film Argento made in the states. (I’ve heard conflicting stories about whether or not any part of Inferno was actually filmed stateside, with the primary point of contention being whether or not the scene at Central Park Lake was shot in NYC or Italy; most sources say NYC, but an interview with Inferno‘s SFX director on that film’s DVD seems to suggest otherwise.) The place where this is most notable however, is in the presence of people of color. Argento’s films are usually awash in white faces, even in crowd scenes. Part of that may largely be the result of ethnic homogeneity in the Italy of the era in which Argento was doing his primary work, but this film is a refreshing exception. John Amos’s character is very likable, as is the pastor with whom Annabel is friends. Even many of the extras are black, causing “Cat” to stand out among Argento’s other work. Overall, it’s definitely worth watching, despite its problems with pacing and tempo.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
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