Director: George A. Romero and Dario Argento
Writer: George A. Romero, Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini and Peter Koper, based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe
Release year: 1990
Italian title: Due Occhi Diabolici
For the vast majority of horror fans, filmmakers Argento, Romero, Carpenter and Craven are very well respected figures in the history of horror cinema, having shaped the genre in the last half of the 20th century. And for many amongst that vast majority of horror fans, the idea of a project involving the four of them is certainly an immensely attractive one.
(small spoilers may follow…)
That is what the Italian master of horror, Dario Argento, thought in the late 80s (arguably, when the four were at their peak) as he crafted a project where he, along with the other masters of horror would produce a portmanteau film in which each one would direct a short movie based on a story by another master of the macabre: Edgar Allan Poe. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned as directors John Carpenter and Wes Craven were not really interested in the project; however, the master of zombie films, George A. Romero, decided to go on with Argento‘s project and the result was titled Due Occhi Diabolici (in English, Two Evil Eyes). The idea was ambitious but the result was, well, maybe not that successful.
Director George A. Romero opens Two Evil Eyes with his take on Poe’s ‘The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar’. In Romero‘s version, Mr. Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley) is an old man in agony, who is hypnotized by his doctor, Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), in order to make him give all his money to Valdemar’s wife Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau), whom in turn is having an affair with Dr. Hoffman. Things go wrong when Valdemar dies while hypnotized and, to the surprise of Jessica and her lover, Valdemar’s conscience remains pretty much alive, trapped in the dream between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Argento‘s segment is an adaptation of Poe‘s classic ‘The Black Cat‘. Starring Harvey Keitel as crime scene photographer Roderick Usher, it tells the story of a violent man who, after murdering his girlfriend Annabel’s (Madeleine Potter) black cat, gets obsessed with it to the point of having hallucinations after the animal’s death. Of course, when Annabel discovers what happened to her cat, the madness in Rod has reached the point of no return.
Dealing with the concept of life after death and being one of the most graphically detailed of Poe‘s stories, ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ certainly sounds like the best basis for a George A. Romero film. For his version, Romero adds a love triangle between Valdemar’s wife and his doctor, conspiring to murder him for his money. While this addition does give the story some interest points (and as expected, a social commentary on money and greed), it is far from the usually edgy output by Romero. Frankly, it feels too typical an effort and has some dull moments in it. On the other hand, writers Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini make an extremely interesting re-imagining of ‘The Black Cat’. As in Poe‘s tale, Argento and Ferrini keep insanity the key element of their story, and focus on the dehumanization of Rod Usher as he descends into madness. Usher’s growing conflict with his girlfriend also serves to showcase a contrast between fantasy and reality, and also, to a certain extent, on how both find their way into art (via Rod’s gritty photographs and Annabelle’s ethereal music).
One of the most interesting things in anthologies or portmanteau films, is the way one can compare different styles from the directors involved. Romero‘s segment is probably the most polished of the two, with cinematographer Peter Reniers creating a surreal atmosphere of nightmare that goes nicely with the subject of opening the door to the dead. However, in Argento‘s segment Reniers goes to the other direction and makes a harsh, gritty portrayal of the decay in Pittsburgh’s urban life. And yet, as different as they are, both segments do retain that atmosphere of dread that permeates through Poe‘s writings. Probably this is more apparent in Romero‘s more fantastical short, but Argento‘s carries the overwhelming sense of impeding doom and madness more effectively and to the point. The Italian master of horror creates also the most violent of the two segments, not only graphically, but also on an emotional and psychological level, with the painful descent of Rod Usher into darkness showing his talents at full. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Romero‘s segment.
The acting is also of a mixed bag, but given that one segment features better performances than the other, it shows that acting is also an element to relate to the director’s performance at the helm of each segment. ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ features a mostly unconvincing and overall mediocre work of acting. While Adrienne Barbeau does give her usual effective performance, for the most part the work done by the cast feels pretty average. Ramy Zada delivers a very poor performances as Valdemar’s doctor, easily the worst in the whole film. In Argento’s segment things are considerably different, with Harvey Keitel delivering a remarkable performance as the violent and ruthless Usher. Since ‘The Black Cat’ is essentially a character study about an alcoholic man and his own destruction, Keitel‘s work becomes instrumental for the success of Argento‘s segment. As his girlfriend Annabelle, Madeleine Potter offers an effective performance that rises up to the challenge of serving as the counterpart of Keitel‘s insane character.
As it could be noticed at this point, Due Occhi Diabolici is not exactly a successful experiment, with Romero‘s segment being a quite mediocre film while Argento’s even rises above some of his worst output. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Romero‘s ruins the film, or that Argento‘s saves it, that probably would be to exaggerate more than a bit. However, the difference between both segments is quite notorious. ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ may not be exactly what was expected from Romero, but it’s not really a bad film, just average; and the feeling of disappointment may be increased by Romero‘s own reputation as a master of horror. If one can pass the disappointment, it’s easy to discover that despite its troubles, the movie as a whole is still very entertaining, even at its slower parts. There is also a fair amount of gore in both tales, and the make-up effects are of truly high quality (the legendary Tom Savini supervised the effects).
Knowing that Romero and Argento are involved in a film certainly increases the disappointment as Due Occhi Diabolici fails to rise above the expectations. However, there are things to love about this little oddity. For starters, despite being made at the beginning of a dark time for the horror genre, the movie has a notable late 70s, early 80s feeling (definitely the result of both directors having the complete creative control over their projects) and it is quite violent for it’s time. The chance of having a direct contrast between both styles is also of great interest. While Romero’s segment may disappoint many people, the power and impact of Dario Argento’s tale is enough to make Due Occhi Diabolici a must-see for fans of horror in general. One can only wonder if something like this could be made again. And hopefully, in an improved way.
Running time: 117 mins
Audio: English, Dolby 5.1 & Dolby Stereo
Aspect ratio: 16/9 (1.85)
Trailer (Two Evil Eyes)
Trailers Mr. Horror Presents (They Are Watching Us, The Unknown & Frostbite)
Booklet (4 pages) with liner notes, pictures & terror trivia