Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1990-1993)

10. Two Evil Eyes (with George A. Romero)
Segment: The Black Cat

Edgar Allen Poe invented the modern horror story, of course. His work being adapted by two of the biggest names in the genre was an exciting prospect. “Two Evil Eyes” should have been a real blast for horror fans. Instead, it’s rarely spoken of today and is overlooked in both Romero and Argento’s career.

Following George Romero’s somewhat bland take on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemir,” a shot of frenzied Argento horror would have done the film good. His take on “The Black Cat” isn’t quite that, but it isn’t half-bad either. If nothing else, his half features a bit of the ol’ Italian style. There are a number of cool shots. The camera is attached to the swinging blade of a pendulum, a swinging noose, and a falling set of keys. More then once, the point-of-view prowls around the floor, like a cat. There’s more then a few sequences of roaming, sliding cameras. It’s not quite classic Argento but, in the post-“Opera” era, I’ll take what I can get.

Beyond the cinematography, there’s other elements here. Midway through the film, there’s an odd, extended dream sequence, featuring dwarves, pagan dancing, Renn-Fair style dress, and eventually an impalement. More then any other adaptation of “The Black Cat,” the fate that befalls the protagonist seems to be directly the result of his cruelty towards the titular feline. The score has some child choir singing in it too, even if it’s mostly unlike your typical Argento score.

What’s really odd about this half of the movie is its main performance. Harvey Kietel is a great actor and has given many fine performances over the years. But there’s something very off with him here. In the role of a crime scene photographer who proves to be very twisted himself, Kietel is frequently very flat. Flat in an off-putting way that, when it comes time for him to cover up his crime, leaves little doubt he’s guilty. When Harvey isn’t speaking in a creepy, flat monotone, he’s yelling and swearing. The script has him doing odd things like making a fake car passenger out of a large photograph and some paper and then using it like a puppet, adding to the off-center mood. The only time Kietel works in the film’s favor is when he’s delivering the brief narrations, which reminded me of the sinister opening narration of “Tenebre.”

Maybe the odd performance was just the result of an Italian-speaking director working with English speaking actors, because Madeleine Potter gives a strange performance too as Kietel’s often abused girlfriend. The only self-assured actor in the movie is John Amos in a small part as a police detective.

Neither half of “Two Evil Eyes” is particularly gory, though both segments have brief moments of blood. While there’s a clever murder and a bathtub full of bloody water, the real focus here is on post-mortem crime scenes. We get to see the nasty aftermaths of two gruesome murders. The first is a gory take on “The Pit and the Pendulum” (really, more pendulum then pit) while the second involves some improper use of dental tools. It’s pretty gross and was one of the first signs of Argento obsession with dead bodies.

“Two Evil Eyes” is fairly forgettable and doesn’t live up to its potential. Argento’s “Black Cat” is definitely the superior segment of the two but even it is mostly a trifle. The film seems to have been more a half-serious lark then a legit attempt to adapt Poe.
The Black Cat: [B-]
Film as a whole: [C+]

11. Trauma

“Trauma” wants to be “Profondo rosso.” It plays like a patchwork of Argento’s films, taking elements from as far back as “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” to as recent as “Opera,” but it obviously wants to emulate “Deep Red” more then any other. The film shares far too many elements for it to be coincidence. The opening surreal scene of childhood toys, the use of animal motifs, a psychic talking about the killer, the romantic subplot, the presence of a curious child and a creepy old house, the way a tiny detail becomes a serious clue later, how visual memory can be misleading, the convoluted way the killings are investigated, how the mystery seems to resolve itself before really resolving itself, even the identity of the killer and way said killer is dispatched are curiously similar to that earlier film. Many of these are the reoccurring idiosyncrasies of the filmmaker but I doubt Dario didn’t intend the similarities. (Indeed, according to the excellent commentary track on the Anchor Bay DVD, the movie was almost called "Deep Blue.")

“Trauma” is frustrating that way. It’s Argento out of balance. The anorexia subplot, though clearly a personal subject for the filmmaker, doesn’t really go anywhere. It seems to me that the disease is something Dario wanted to tackle and instead of building an entire story around it, he inserted the concept into a giallo. Disconcertingly skinny young women show up several times throughout. It’s obviously meant to have subtext but I don’t see how it connects.

The affair between Chris Rydell and the anchorwoman seems to be setting up something that never happens. (We at least get a gratuitous sex scene out of it.) Pino Donaggio’s Hitchcockian score is nice at times but overly whimsical at others. The psychotropic berry scene is thrown in seemingly for the hell of it. The story wobbles in the last act and the main character’s drug relapse is really odd.

This is all the more frustrating because “Trauma” works really well at times. The séance scene is great, though it feels more Soavi then Argento. The steady-camera is fantastically used throughout. The way it swoops around the environment, like in the hospital or the murder scene house, is simple gorgeous, classic Argento. The whole movie looks beautiful on DVD, the rich blues and black coming through for the first time. The scene on the lake is my favorite, its dreaminess emphasized by the haunting musical theme.

The electric garrote is a unique murder weapon. Its use becomes more graphic as the film goes on, more being revealed each time. The first few deaths lack punch but each consecutive death is more intense. I love the head talking after decapitation, such a surreal sight. Tom Savini’s gore is top of line.

Brad Dourif’s death scene starts out fantastically but ends with laughable digital effects, totally breaking the mood. The little boy subplot pays off excellently. The closet scene is cracking intense, Nicolas’ origin is hypnotic, and the final death almost tops “Deep Red’s” climax. The murder mystery admittedly kept me guessing.

Chris Rydell and Asia Argento both give solid performance and have believable chemistry. (And, yes, she does have an underage nude scene, filmed by her dad. I don’t want to entertain the implications of that.) Piper Laurie is naturally operatic in her part. Nobody does over-the-top horror mom like her.

“Trauma” is grossly uneven. It’s so fucking good at times and then so out-of-shape at others. I can’t quite decide how much I like it or how disappointed I am. It's all down-hill from here. [Grade: B-]

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