What better way to gear up for Halloween than with a film created by two modern horror icons paying homage to a macabre pioneer of the past?
At the tail end of the eighties, Italian filmmaker Dario Argento ('The Bird with the Crystal Plumage' and 'The Stendhal Syndrome') set out to produce a motion picture inspired by the chilling yarns and haunting poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. Argento's original intention was to join forces with George A. Romero, Stephen King, and John Carpenter, where each would develop their own segment in an anthology of four stories based on Poe's works. While Argento's longtime friend Romero was game for the project, King's interests in directing had faded and Carpenter already had his plate full elsewhere. Since Argento still wanted to move forward anyways, the anthology was simply downgraded to this double-feature called, 'Two Evil Eyes.'
The film opens with a brief dedication to Poe captured on location at the writer's home and gravesite in Baltimore, Maryland. After that, the first tale begins where George A. Romero reunites with two of his 'Creepshow' stars Adrienne Barbeau ('The Crate') and E.G. Marshall ('They're Creeping Up on You') for 'The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar.'
Gold digger Jessica Valdemar (Barbeau) is desperate to liquidate the assets of her bedridden and terminally ill husband, Ernest (Bingo O'Malley). The only way she'll get her greedy hands on the three million dollars is through Ernest's shrewd attorney, Mr. Pike (Marshall). Pike, however, is no fool, and refuses to act on any unorthodox requests on behalf of his client. So Jessica's lover, Dr. Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), puts Ernest under a hypnotic trance to do their bidding and smooth things over with Pike. The ingenious scheme works brilliantly, that is until Ernest prematurely dies weeks before the paperwork is final. Now in order to avoid suspicion and still collect, Jessica and Robert must come up with a new plan... unless of course Ernest's restless soul has one of his own.
Despite being based on a classic Poe tale, Romero's take on 'The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar' tends to feel more like an extension of 'Creepshow,' all it's really lacking is the comic book interludes. The entry isn't particularly scary, but Romero wastes no time injecting his film full of a similar moody and eerie atmosphere. The hammy performances create caricatures that are so overly cheesy that they're just amusing to watch, and the queen of melodrama herself, Adrienne Barbeau, basically steals the show. Also maybe it's just me, but I can't help smirking every time I think about how the two men in Jessica's life are none other than 'Bert and Ernie.
Unfortunately, budget constraints forced Romero to cut corners on the production values… and it shows. The rather generic music generates little tension (if any) and sounds like a score ripped from older daytime soaps. Then "the others" have to take the prize as the absolute blandest ghostly apparitions I've seen in a movie to date. One thing I did like is that in the bonus features, Romero is pretty candid about how he wishes he could have done both of these things a lot differently. Most filmmakers give nothing but praise for their films like it's the best thing since sliced bread, so I have to give the guy credit for his honesty.
In Argento's 'The Black Cat,' Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) is an eccentric photographer who makes his living taking snapshots of gruesome crime scenes. Rod is stuck in a bit of a rut and seemingly finds the inspiration he's after when his girlfriend Annabel (Madeleine Potter) brings home a stray black cat. Rod doesn't like the cat and the cat doesn't like him much, either, but for some reason the cat unwittingly becomes a sort of muse. Rod's obsession with the mysterious feline marks the beginning of his descent into madness, ballooning into sadistic torture and eventually murder. Will Rod get away with his misdeeds, or will this cat be his downfall by letting itself out of the bag?
The writing for 'The Black Cat' is tighter and Argento cleverly tosses in a few more nods to other notable Poe works. For instance, there's a vicious looking 'Saw'-like pendulum apparatus at the beginning that is easily one of the highlights of the entire film. Argento mixes up his camerawork with different angles and points of view, such as a cat-cam showing the cat's perspective. I'm also inclined to say the acting here is considerably better too, as Keitel ignites the screen with his usual firecracker gusto (although the violin kid who has the hots for Annabel is downright awful).
On the downside, Argento's attempt to put his spin on Poe's tale and make it his own is essentially what ultimately derails the film. A bizarre medieval dream sequence goes on for far too long and tastes like filler more than anything else. I'm also not going to spoil the ending, but one of the two "twist" climaxes comes so far from left field that it feels like it's from an entirely different movie, and the other is a clumsily awkward resolution of convenience. While it ties everything together, realistically this set-up is so inane it's utterly mind-boggling. I'm definitely not a fan of the ending.
One last thing worth mentioning, the effects for both features are handled by legendary FX wizard Tom Savini, and they can proudly be called the real stars of the movie. I don't want to say too much about his creativity, but the mechanical cat that Keitel puts through the wringer is so incredibly realistic it's the reason for the enormous "no animals were harmed" message at the end. So be warned, those scenes may very well be too disturbing for some viewers.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Blue Underground presents 'Two Evil Eyes' on a dual-layered BD-50 Blu-ray disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase. The disc itself is reported to be region-free as well so there shouldn't be any problems playing it on any machine.
I spy with my two evil eyes... something that is rather ho-hum. If you guessed I was referring to the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (1.78:1 aspect ratio) encode of this Blu-ray, then you'd be right.
'The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar' has the brighter palette of the two films. Romero incorporates plenty of whites and grays, while tossing in the odd splash of a vibrant color like the yellow taxi or the red jacket of the kid running around at the zoo. Blacks are good, although not fantastic. The picture has a thin layer of grain, and the clarity of textures and detailing isn't bad, but could still be sharper. Skin tones are natural yet soft in places. Clothing on the other hand looks exceptionally clean and new--with an almost starchy appearance. This one has its moments with a nice dimensionality, too.
Argento's 'The Black Cat' is the weaker of the two visually. The palette here is much darker--with more browns, darker grays, and blacks coloring the image. The grain is thicker on this one, and detailing is about the same. 'The Black Cat' is flatter as well, and I didn't really notice any moments of a "pop" type of dimensionality as I did on the first one.
Both films show signs of noise that seems to fade in well-lit and exterior scenes. 'The Black Cat' is heavier of course, although still not as obtrusive as some other releases. There's also a bit of artifacting here and there, but I didn't catch any instances of banding, edge enhancement, or other pesky nuisances. In the end, I've seen much better transfers… and also much worse.
Blue Underground often includes more than one lossless option on many of their Blu-ray releases, and 'Two Evil Eyes' is one of them. It's just a shame that both the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 and Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtracks suffer from the same issues likely from a poor source.
Each of the two films comes with a front-loaded mix, and they are pretty tinny to boot. There's some barely noticeable score bleed to the rear channels and the only real effects that have any punch in the surrounds are the thunderstorm in Romero's film and the rain in Argento's. The cat meows also almost sound like a recording that was dubbed in later.
The main audio disturbance, however, is that there are occasions where the dialogue is out of whack. While sounding a bit hollow and lacking directionality, it also periodically comes through the center channel as well as other speakers slightly off sync, which in turn creates a kind of echo effect. This occurs briefly in 'The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,' but is much more rampant in 'The Black Cat.' I'm sure this may not bother some viewers, but I found it to be an annoyance.
The release also includes an alternate Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track as well as optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The Blu-ray does include some bonus items, although there really isn't anything new here. All of the supplements have been recycled from previous home video releases and are presented in standard-definition.
'Two Evil Eyes' isn't the best we've seen from horror masters Dario Argento and George A. Romero, but both entries are still watchable, plus the double-feature concept does heighten the overall value. While this Blu-ray has a nice arrangement of supplements, the weak video and problematic audio make it tough to recommend purchasing this title outside of a bargain bin… but it wouldn't make a bad rental come Halloween.