On paper, it looked like a dream project horror masters Dario Argento and George Romero re-teaming for the first time since Argento served as producer on Romeros seminal splatter masterpiece Dawn of the Dead (1978) but this time each gentleman would be directing one half of an Edgar Allan Poe anthology.
Originally, Argento had planned the film to involve two other directors as well (reportedly John Carpenter and Wes Craven), but scheduling conflicts and other concerns caused Argento to pare it down to the more manageable duo of just he and Romero.
Even today, when expectations for their newer work has diminished some, I believe itd still cause plenty of fan excitement for Argento and Romero to be collaborating on a project like this but back then, Two Evil Eyes held the promise of being a true event. In addition, FX maestro Tom Savini was on board to supply his patented brand of grisly Grand Guignol so with that kind of killer talent and with such classic source material to work from, Two Evil Eyes looked like one of the most promising pictures of the increasingly horror-starved late 80s/early 90s. If anyone was going to show the world how it was done and put horror back on the map again, you couldnt do much better than the combined forces of Romero, Argento, and Savini with the spirit of Poe guiding them.
As anticipated as Two Evil Eyes was, though, it ended up shuffling quietly onto home video with zero fanfare in the fall of 1991. At the time, the general verdict on Two Evil Eyes was that it came dangerously close to giving Poe a posthumous black eye but with the Poe-inspired The Raven currently hitting theaters, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit Argento and Romeros tarnished team-up to see if its improved at all with age.
As far as Romeros contribution goes an adaptation of The Fact in the Case of M. Valdemar (previously adapted as part of Roger Cormans 1962 anthology Tales of Terror) the answer, unhappily, is no. This remains one of the flattest offerings in Romeros filmography. To be fair to Romero, his work on Two Evil Eyes seemed hampered from the start. His original choice for adaptation was The Masque of the Red Death, which he envisioned as an AIDS parable taking place in a high rise tower in the future, but even though he had completed a screenplay and hoped to cast Donald Sutherland in the lead as Prospero, Argento felt that Romeros take on Masque wasnt in the spirit of what he wanted the film to be and adding to that dubiousness, the news that Roger Corman was mounting his own remake of Masque of the Red Death caused Argento to use his position as producer to force Romero to choose a different Poe tale as source material.
Romero eventually settled on Valdemar less out of a passion for that slight tale than out of wanting to avoid any overlap with Argentos segment, which utilized so many familiar Poe plot elements that Valdemar was simply the rare Poe story that didnt share too much common ground. In contrast to the metaphorical richness and potential for social commentary found in Masque, however, Valdemar offered a somewhat hokey premise involving hypnotism that had to be fleshed out into an actual story.
The story that Romero hatched involving Jessica, the scheming younger wife of the wealthy, elderly (and near death) Ernest Valdemar, and her ruthless lover Robert (who is also Valdemars physician) was disappointingly routine, with its plotting lovers, reanimated corpse, and sense of ironic justice feeling more in line with EC Comics than with Poe. Because Robert happens to have Valdemar under deep hypnosis when the man passes away, Valdemar is suspended in a state between life and death. Until Valdemars business is settled, it cant be known to anyone that hes dead so in order to ensure that Jessica inherits her full due, Robert withholds the command for Valdemar to wake up. The catch is that having Valdemar existing in that limbo between this world and the spirit world serves as a gateway for what Valdemar describes as the others (a concept that brings a hint of Lovecraft to the story) to come through. These macabre elements are given a lackluster treatment with most of the running time devoted to the mundane machinations of the two money-hungry lovers. As Romero himself noted at the time (in an interview in Fangoria #95), it feels like Im directing an episode of Columbo.
While Romero corralled some of his best Creepshow veterans for Valdemar E.G. Marshall as Valdemars lawyer, Adrienne Barbeau as Jessica Valdemar, Bingo OMalley (who appeared in Jordys various visions in The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill) as Valdemar, and Tom Atkins in a brief appearance as a police detective sadly, none of the performances register as more than perfunctory.
Say what you will about Romeros later-day output but at least films like Bruiser (2000) and Survival of the Dead (2009) bear Romeros personal stamp whereas Valdemar seems like a work for hire assignment for which Romero had little feeling.
On the flipside of that, Argentos delirious, depraved The Black Cat is clearly one of his best works so much so that his full-throttle passion for the material only makes Two Evil Eyes feel more like a lopsided film. As Romero told Cinefantastique in CFQs December 1990 issue, As I was writing Valdemar, I had a few pangs of Gee, should I be more studious? And when I read Argentos script which is such a love poem to Poe with references to many of his stories I thought he was doing a much purer thing. I felt a little like I had been lazy. Whether Romeros assessment of his efforts is too harsh or not, its undeniable that Argento as a Poe scholar and aficionado simply schools Romero making one wish that Argento had either done the entire film on his own or that he had perhaps collaborated with someone closer to his own sensibilities, like Michele Soavi (Stagefright, The Church) then a protégé of Argento. In fact, Soavi briefly did some second unit directing on The Black Cat, followed by Luigi Cozzi (Alien Contamination).
Harvey Keitel stars as Rod Usher, an intense photographer who specializes in grisly crime pics. He lives in an upscale row home in Pittsburgh with his girlfriend Annabel (Madeleine Potter), a professional violinist. Rod and Annabels relationship is a testy one, with his hostile demeanor in conflict with Annabels dreamy, sensitive personality. Events take a turn for the worse when Annabel adopts a stray black cat that Rod takes an instant disliking to a feeling that is only acerbated by Annabels need to protect the animal. When Annabel is out one afternoon, Rod strangles the cat photographing the deed as he does it and disposes of the body. Annabel suspects Rod of killing the cat but cant prove it but when Rod later publishes a collection of his photos titled Metropolitan Horrors (briefly considered as a title for the film) with the cover photo being her cat being choked, she knows. A confrontation leads to Rod murdering Annabel and, in true Poe fashion, sealing the body behind a wall in his home an apparently perfect crime.
Using Poes tale only as a loose framework, Argento and screenwriter Franco Ferrini (who previously collaborated with Argento on Phenomena and Opera) turn The Black Cat into a true Poe-pourri of references to Poes entire body of work with images, names, and lines of dialogue lifted from a wide range of Poes short stories and poems including The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, Berenice, Annabel Lee, and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Argento is so thorough in paying tribute to all things Poe that a picture of the French poet Charles Baudelaire whose translations of Poes work were instrumental in advancing the critical appreciation of Poe can be spotted hanging on the wall along the staircase in Rod Ushers home.
An effective portrait of a tormented psyche, The Black Cat is hampered slightly by an odd sense of naiveté in regards to the kind of public reaction that Metropolitan Horrors would generate. If such a book were published, even with assurances that no animal was harmed, Usher wouldnt have time to worry about being tormented by a cat because hed have to deal with his home being picketed by angry animal rights activists.
Also, the concluding moments of The Black Cat are awkwardly staged. I understand that Usher must perish in the manner that was prophesized by the markings in the cats fur but I doubt that even the most distraught mind would think that trying to exit from a second floor window while handcuffed to a dead man weighing in the ball park of 300 pounds is a winning idea. I remember being confounded by these closing moments the last time I saw the film about twenty years ago and they make no more sense now. Argento and Ferrini shouldve sought a better way to end their tale but unfortunately it is what it is.
Luckily, what it is is still mostly great. The Black Cat was Argentos first film shot in America (he really revels in showcasing the city of Pittsburgh), it was his first film with big name actors, and the opportunity to pay homage to Poe (and perhaps a sense of unspoken professional competition with Romero) served to bring out the best in him.
When it comes to writing the book on Poe, cinematically speaking, that honor is likely to always remain with Roger Corman. But Argentos contribution to Two Evil Eyes endures as a heartfelt toast from one dark dreamer to another.