Friday, October 21, 2011

Night of Terror #21: 'Two Evil Eyes'

Edgar Allan Poe is kind of a weird figure in horror. He's a huge influence on the genre, writing truly shocking stuff that was generations ahead of its time. He's also really popular as old dead white guys go, which makes him a "draw" as far as Hollywood producers are concerned. And yet, none of his stuff is particularly "cinematic" in the usual sense. Not only was he writing stories and poems hundreds of years before cinema was even invented, but he was also most interested in the thing that movies have always had a hard time conveying: One person's innermost (and deranged) thoughts.

This makes adapting Poe kind of a weird proposition. The filmmaker is pretty much on his or her own in terms of approach, setting, even plot, since most of Poe's most famous works have barely enough plot to fill 22 minutes of TV, if that. The anthology film Two Evil Eyes, a collaboration between Dario Argento and George Romero, opts for a "fast and loose" approach to Poe's work, although compared to other Poe movies it's actually pretty slavish.

The first segment, based on Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," is directed by George A. Romero. It's restrained compared to his zombie movies and other horror movies, but it's still unmistakably Romero, particularly because of the social commentary present in the movie. The theme can be summed up thusly: The rich are psychopathic monsters, willing to do anything to get richer. The plot is a riff on Poe's idea, featuring a wealthy dying man's wife and her not-so-former boyfriend putting the dying man (Valdemar) under hypnosis in order to rob him of his assets. It's standard Romero - pretty entertaining.

The second segment, by Argento based largely on "The Black Cat" but combining elements of several other Poe stories, is quite interesting. It's not as coherent a piece as Romero's contribution, although why anyone would expect it to be given the director I have no idea. In addition to featuring several classic Argento "tricks," such as several "cat's-eye-view" shots, a "pendulum-eye-view" shot, and Psycho-alum Martin Balsam just beginning to climb up a set of stairs just like in Psycho but turning back at the last second, "The Black Cat" features what I can safely say is the best performance in any Argento film, from Harvey Keitel. I realize that being the "best performance in an Argento movie" is probably the faintest praise an actor can be given, but Keitel puts a lot of relish and verve into his role, giving him an actual character instead of just a human prop to deliver lines and get murdered.

Altogether, Two Evil Eyes is both an underrated horror movie and an interesting example of two horror auteurs at work. Oh, and Harvey Keitel gets impaled through his ass by a wooden stake.

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