Two Evil Eyes (1990)

*. Damn, Adrienne Barbeau was good in a lot of junky little roles.
*. The first half of this Poe-inspired double-bill had me thinking about Barbeau, as there was little else to hold my attention. Poe’s story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is a one-trick pony, with little to recommend it to filmmakers aside from its ending, where Valdemar dissolves into a puddle of putridity. It’s a story that’s been filmed several times, beginning (I believe) with the Italian silent from 1936 Il caso Valdemar. Usually it’s done as a quickie. What makes Romero’s film stand out is both the fact that it takes its time (at 55 minutes it’s longer than any of the other versions I’ve seen) and that, despite Tom Savini providing the special effects, it doesn’t give us the satisfaction of seeing Valdemar’s liquefying corpse at the end.

*. Instead of a messy corpse, it has Adrienne Barbeau. She’s so fierce and intelligent, with a toughness that only makes her vulnerability more real. Even face-to-face with a zombie she’s the most frightening figure on screen, and she routinely upstages whoever she’s playing against, even behind sunglasses. There’s also something about her presence that hasn’t dated. While other stars of the 1980s now appear a bit ridiculous, Barbeau holds her own.
*. So George Romero’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” is watchable because of Barbeau. She isn’t given a lot of help though. I don’t see where Romero was inspired by this material, and it ends up being a pretty standard little story about scheming lovers getting rid of an unwanted rich old spouse. They stick his body in the freezer but he comes back. We’ve been here many times before (more imaginatively, and with humorous effect, in Asylum).
*. I think the ending is flubbed. Usually the shorts in an anthology horror end with a kind of gruesome punchline. This was a given with this particular text, but Romero doesn’t do much with it. As already noted, we don’t see Valdemar decomposing before our eyes, like, for example, David Warner does at the end of the Lovecraft Valdemar tale in Necronomicon: Book of the Dead. Instead, this whole sequence is done as a false climax before Ramy Zada gets his.
*. The finale lacks punch, and nothing about the film is very scary. There are some interesting ideas suggested, but they don’t go anywhere. Romero himself was unhappy with the result, thinking it could have been better if he’d been able to do sound work post-production and had more “bread” to do special effects. As it is, it’s got Barbeau and that’s about all.

*. Dario Argento’s “The Black Cat” has more zing. It takes Poe’s story as inspiration, and gives it a suitably ghastly climax (with a crazy twist!) as the body behind the wall is revealed. In addition, there are also various other nods to the Master. Harvey Keitel’s character is Rod Usher. His girlfriend is Annabelle. He visits crime scenes dressed up after “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “Berenice.”
*. I think there must have been another form of homage intended in the scene where Martin Balsam stands looking up the staircase in Usher’s house. Surely we’re all thinking he’s about to pull another Arbogast. And that would have been fun. Argento must have considered it, especially given how carefully constructed the stairway set was.
*. All things considered, this strikes me as one of the better horror shorts I’ve seen in any of these anthologies (though I say that while admitting that having only two films doesn’t really make this an “anthology”). Keitel seems a bit uncomfortable, but that actually helps. There are some good red herrings and misdirections, and the extreme parts come as real shocks. I was only left a little confused as to what Usher was up to at the end. Was he really trying to escape? Or just kill himself?

*. This isn’t the film anyone had planned. Argento (who was the driving force) originally wanted to do four stories but couldn’t get Stephen King and John Carpenter on board (I’ve heard Wes Craven was considered as well). Also, the two stories were at first going to be “The Masque of the Red Death” (as an AIDS parable) and “The Pit and the Pendulum” (set in a South American dictatorship), but these projects were abandoned.
*. I wonder, if they’d had four episodes, if they would have done more in the way of a frame. As it is there’s just a brief intro that visits some Poe sites in Baltimore but nothing else.
*. Two Evil Eyes didn’t get much of a release and did next to no domestic box office. I think it deserves a bit more credit. Most critics and audiences seem to agree (and I would as well) that Argento’s is the stronger half of the bill, but Romero’s piece is not without interest. In the lists of Poe adaptations and anthology horror films, which is admittedly setting a low bar, I think this one actually rates pretty high.

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