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A Modern Take On a Poe Classic

by Tony Nash

(Euro Witches & Madmen Intermission 1)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(Mild Spoilers)

(This review is of the original Italian language premiere version)

(Author’s Note: While I do like to keep these reviews pre-1990’s, I’m making one of my exceptions as I was curious from stills of Romero’s take on Poe)

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Due Occhi Diabolici: I Fatti nel Caso di Mister Valdemar (Two Evil Eyes: The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar) (1990) **** R

Adrienne Barbeau: Jessica Valdemar

Ramy Zada: Dr. Robert Hoffman

Bingo O’Malley: Ernest “Ernie” Valdemar

E.G. Marshall: Steven “Steve” Pike

Tom Atkins: Detective Grogan

Chuck Aber: Mr. Pratt

Johnathan Adams: Hammer

Christine Forrest: The Nurse (as Cristine Forrest)

Jeff Howell: The Policeman

Written & Directed by: George A. Romero (Direction credit as George Romero), loosely based on the short story The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe

Synopsis: An unhappy and scheming trophy wife and her doctor lover use hypnosis to get her dying husband to sign over all his assets to her. When the man unexpectedly dies, the lovers put him in a freezer until all the money is legally transferred. Soon, they realize he died while under hypnosis, and though his body is dead, his mind and spirit are still floating around, under the control of spectral beings called The Others.

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In the late 1980’s, Italian producers Achille Manzotti and Claudio Argento wanted to do a throwback to the Horror Anthology films of the 60’s and 70’s, and wanted to pick the top directors of the genre of the period to adapt the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Claudio enlisted his younger brother Dario for a segment, and the trio then sought out American directors George A. Romero and John Carpenter to possibly work them on the film. John Carpenter was interested, but other commitments forced him to decline the offer (he later would host and direct his own Anthology film Body Bags). Romero accepted as his last couple of projects didn’t do as well as he wanted, and a couple others ended up in “development hell”. The result was a fairly successful fare that showed Romero still had a lot of creativity in him and Argento was out of his deep depression from Opera. While produced and backed by Italians, the film was shot in English and shot primarily in Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh PA.

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Romero chose to adapt Poe’s little done short story The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and transitions the story from 19th century Paris to 20th century Pittsburgh. Taking inspiration from Roger Corman’s version of the tale in his Anthology Film Tales of Terror, Romero has Valdemar as a terminally ill man who chooses to pass away while under hypnosis rather than suffer a painful and agonizing death, only to find himself stuck between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Romero adds his own twists by having the wife and doctor be the villains, former lovers who conspire to take all of Valdemar’s money when he dies, and later revealing that Valdemar is possessed by evil ghostlike beings called The Others.

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Romero utilizes Poe’s themes of guilt, suffering, greed, and forces from the beyond really well. The character of Jessica is clearly conflicted about her plan to trick Ernest out of his money, but at the same time remembers how Ernest was regarding his money, and his at less than husbandly affection for her, though at times it’s shown both had some affection for one another. Little is shown of Valdemar and even less dialogue is given to him, but it’s shown he’s in consistent pain, and fearful of his own demise, hence his willingness to undergo hypnosis, but is completely oblivious and unaware of the dangers lurking beyond should he die while hypnotized, though he prefers death to pain. The doctor is a real piece of work and also a series of contradictions in that he wants revenge against Valdemar, but at the same time was willing to bide his time though it’s clear he yearned to screw over Valdemar like he did to years earlier. Even though the lovers are determined to be together, it’s clear each is looking to keep most of the money for herself or himself, possibly looking to cheat the other. The dark depths of horrifying depravity aren’t as on display here as Romero instead focuses on otherworldly apparitions being behind the scenes in what is happening, which while works in its own way, takes away a little from Poe’s style.

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Adrienne Barbeau, an actress and Scream Queen of the 70’s and 80, gives a good dramatic performance as Jessica Valdemar. Whether she signed on to the project when her ex-husband John Carpenter was still involved in pre-production (they still got along well even after their divorce) no one can really say, but what is certain Romero decided to cast her against type of the standard heroine/Scream Queen and instead has her playing a calculating shrewish wife looking to get even. Barbeau plays the part to the hilt and does it very well, mixing self-assuredness with pure and utter fear, leaving some essence of the Scream Queen persona as the character soon realizes she’s in danger and has gone too far.  The other actors do very well too, particularly character actor stalwarts E.G. Marshall in the non-horror related scenes as the Valdemar lawyer and Tom Atkins as the perplexed Detective who investigates the Valdemar’s and their doctor. Ramy Zada and Bingo O’Malley, two smaller actors, also give fine performances as the doctor and title character respectively, particularly Zada, who offers a mix of loathsome charm and guilt.

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Romero also trades in his usual trope of gore and violence for a more atmospheric and mood based look and feel to the film, which definitely makes this feel like audiences are seeing a modern variant of Poe’s style. Only three scenes towards the climax of the film contain gore, and even then, it’s very brief and not overwhelming in any way.

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Romero, with Mr. Valdemar, showed he was able to do other things besides violence, gore, and zombies with his films, though some would argue that Bingo O’Malley’s reanimated Valdemar is a solid hint to Romero’s classic zombie, and gives audiences a good suspenseful, foreboding, and genuinely eerie film that harkens back to the days of the films made by Val Lewton, Roger Corman, and the people at Universal and Hammer. Romero does give audiences brief glimpses of the violence and gore that made him famous, but keeps it at a pure minimum and doesn’t make those scenes the focus of the film, and instead focuses on the atmosphere and tension.

(Out of the two 1 hour shorts on Due Occhi Diabolici, I would definitely recommend George A. Romero’s adaptation of M. Valdemar highly over Argento’s Black Cat adaptation any day. Romero is actually very faithful to the mood and atmosphere Poe liked his Horror tales to emit to readers, and translates it to the screen very well. He certainly takes a small aspect of Corman’s 1960’s version of the tale, but completely makes the tale his own in a way that fits the material Poe liked using in his Horror fiction. The entire cast, especially Adrienne Barbeau, does an excellent job and again fit the kind of characters Poe wrote about. Argento, from I’ve seen of stills of his short, totally went for gore and shock effects, and looks to have little, if anything to do with Poe, save for the supernatural revenge that comes at the climax. 88 Films from the UK does a really fine job with the transfer of the film, and gives viewers both the English soundtrack, and the original Italian premiere audio with translated subtitles. The extras include the original Italian opening credits and title cards, and an interview with filmmaker and Argento assistant Luigi Cozzi. Blue Underground offers the ultimate edition of the film, but sadly lacks the Italian audio option, but makes up for it with exclusive new extras. I prefer the 88 Films edition myself because it’s cheaper, and offers both audio tracks.)

all images courtesy of Images and their respective owners

for more information

Buying options

Two Evil Eyes – The Italian Collection 43

The 88 Films 1st pressing with slipcover and booklet can be found on ebay

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