(17/03/08) – The 1980s were a harsh time for directors of serious horror films. The decade started off well enough but by the time rampant consumerism and vacuous teen entertainment had taken its toll it was a miracle that anyone produced anything even half decent. It was especially harsh on those who had made their mark in the dizzying free-for-all of the 1970s – Tobe Hooper was still reeling from the disastrous returns on Lifeforce, Wes Craven had seen his genuinely scary Freddy Krueger turned into a pantomime freak and even the big hitters, George A. Romero and Dario Argento, were struggling to find reasonable funding for their projects.

This is where Two Evil Eyes (1990) comes in, a kind of portmanteau-lite that allowed Romero and Argento to pool their resources and each produce a shortish (around an hour) film. These are both adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories within a contemporary setting, but there the similarities end because the directors pursue their individual stories in strikingly different ways. The outcome is a bit like Grindhouse in that the films both have the same intentions but the end results are poles apart.

In Romero’s The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar Adrienne Barbeau plays Jessica, a former air hostess who married into money. Husband Ernest, however, has little time to live and Jessica realises that any will, however favourable, will be hotly contested, so she and her lover Robert plan to liquefy as much of Ernest’s assets before he shuffles off his mortal coil. They hypnotise him in order to get him to convince his snooty lawyer that he genuinely wishes to give his vast wealth to his wife. Unfortunately for the conniving couple Ernest pops his clogs prematurely so they are forced to pretend he’s alive until the money clears, even as his body is rapidly solidifying in the basement freezer. However Ernest passed away mid-hypnosis, and it appears that he is not as dead as a pulseless human ice-lolly really should be.

Romero’s piece centres firmly on the tensions and dilemmas of the story, rarely straying too far from Ernest’s mansion in order to increase the sense of claustrophobia and isolation. Robert’s use of hypnosis, both on the unwitting Ernest and on himself to gain much needed sleep, is revealed slowly in order to make its relevance not so obvious, at least initially. Despite the emergence of Ernest as a fully fledged zombie and a swift but brutal denouement The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar is a low-key affair which, as with many Romero films, is as concerned about class differences and the gulf between rich and poor as it is about head-shots and frozen cadavers. An enjoyable tale with plenty of ideas it does feel a little as though Romero is directing a missing segment of Creepshow, albeit without the humour or the outré lighting.

Right from the opening Argento’s The Black Cat doesn’t pull its punches as Harvey Keitel’s Rod Usher (the film is littered with allusions to other works by Poe) photographs the naked body of a girl dissected by a swinging pendulum blade. Usher is a photographer who revels in photographing victims of brutal murders. Nothing seems to faze him – not even the collection of teeth pulled from the gaping mouth of a defiled corpse – except for his girlfriend Annabel’s cat, a black beast with a strange white marking. He and the cat soon become bitter rivals (notable in one scene that cleverly cuts between Usher and the cat’s respective point of views), culminating in him using the cat as the centrepiece for his book of photographic atrocities, strangling the beast in a series of increasingly disturbed shots.

Annabel is decidedly unimpressed with this behaviour and decides to leave him for good. And that’s when passively photographing the aftermath of murder turns into a more proactive preoccupation. Keitel’s performance as Usher is pitch perfect, his descent into madness and paranoia not blatantly sign-posted but slow and insidious – for an Argento film, renowned for broad expressionistic displays of over-indulgence, this is a revelation. Argento throws all the Poe elements he can muster in his limited screen time – live burial, animal cruelty (a post-credits certificate from the Humane Association assures you that no cats were harmed), descent into madness, nightmares. The camerawork is inventive and occasionally startling, although it does fall apart slightly with Pino Donaggio’s wildly diverse score. An enjoyable romp but one that sees Argento’s love of graphic death, particularly of beautiful women, fall foul of an abrupt and unsatisfying denouement that somewhat blunts the overall effect.

Two Evil Eyes is a curio of a film, it is perfectly entertaining but the strange lack in characterisation is baffling given that both films aren’t too far short of feature length. The contrasting styles between Romero and Argento’s film-making make the transition from the more focussed The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar to the more excessive The Black Cat seem quite jarring. Ultimately an interesting, if not entirely successful, experiment in modernising Poe that highlights its two auteurs’ strengths and weaknesses.

Two Evil Eyes is released today in the UK by Arrow. Please follow links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.