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‘Two Evil Eyes’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 09, 1991

The movie is called "Two Evil Eyes," but one "Evil Eye" is clearly better than the other. Inspired by two Edgar Allan Poe short stories, it was to have been a quartet of mini-films directed by George Romero, Dario Argento, Wes Craven and John Carpenter, but only Romero and Argento came through (Argento, the Italian horror auteur, also produced).

Poe, of course, has been a perennial genre inspiration -- from the silent era to the '60s, when Roger Corman used the author's classics as a cornerstone for his film empire. Recently there have been intriguing feature-length adaptations (notably Stuart Gordon's "The Pit and the Pendulum"), but Poe's short stories should logically be best served by short films. In Romero's hand, though, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" is reduced to a poor man's version of HBO's "Tales From the Crypt." The original story -- about a man hypnotized at the point of death and suspended between the two worlds -- was essentially a mood piece. It is fleshed out by Romero to embrace a scheming wife trying to cheat her dying husband out of his millions and an unethical doctor-lover morbidly fascinated by his undying patient. This being the work of George "Living Dead" Romero, the undead try to come through the suddenly ajar door of eternity. But the effects are surprisingly mild: These undead are fluttering visions (perhaps the spirits were willing, but the flash was weak). The acting is generally undistinguished, particularly that of Adrienne Barbeau, who is threatening to become the Barbara Steele of the '90s. "I have been sleeping and now I am dead," the corpse complains; viewers may have a similar problem waking up for the better half of "Two Evil Eyes."

That's "The Black Cat," which has more visual shocks in its first minute than Romero's entire segment. It stays surprisingly close to Poe's tale of an alcoholic artist descending into madness who kills his wife and buries her behind a cellar wall, only to be revealed to the police by the inopportune screech of the pet left with her.

Argento extrapolates that fable into the rise and fall of the house of Rod Usher, a Weegee-like photographer obsessed with capturing scenes of violence for a book called "Metropolitan Horrors." He shows up at the grisliest of murder sites (the work of gore-master Tom Savini), snapping away at scenes that will turn a few stomachs and certainly explain his penchant for alcohol.

Usher (played with appropriate dissolution by a black-bereted Harvey Keitel) shares his home with a wispy violinist (Madeleine Potter) who brings home a stray black cat and thus sets off a chain of events including the torture and killing of the cat and the violinist, and, down the road a ways, a moral denouement that the old movie ratings board would surely have appreciated.

But where Romero goes for the cheap, linear approach, Argento's storytelling is painfully poetic, with ever-shifting points of view and asides. It's not unusual for him to drop a Middle Ages dream sequence in the middle of things, rely on the unpredictability of a cat to advance the plot, or resort to pure shock that's no less shocking because it's expected: There's a madness in Argento's method and it's always appropriate.

"The Black Cat" also boasts better casting, even in minor roles (John Amos, Kim Hunter, Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam and Potter, who has a benign witchiness about her). As for Keitel, he does wonders for the falling Usher, and it's easy to trail him on his descent into madness, to appreciate both his obfuscations and his confessional signals. Argento is a longtime Poe devotee, and in a recent preface to an Italian Poe anthology wrote, "Can a mind exist in peace that takes its inspiration from hell?" For Usher and Argento, the answer is obviously no.

"Two Evil Eyes" contains some scenes of explicit gore.

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