Two Evil Eyes (Due occhi diabolici) (1990)

Marco Lanzagorta

Romero's films often feature a family that is fragile, a prime target for destructive forces.

Two Evil Eyes (due Occhi Diabolici)

Display Artist: George A. Romero and Dario Argento
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Adrienne Barbeau, Ramy Zada, Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, John Amos, Kim Hunter, Madeleine Potter
Studio: Pittsburgh Films
Distributor: Blue Underground
MPAA rating: Not rated
First date: 1973
US DVD Release Date: 2003-04-22

Director: George Romero
Cast: Lane Carroll, W.G. McMillan, Harold W. Jones, Lynn Lowry, Richard Liberty
(Pittsburgh Films, 1973) Rated: R
DVD release date: 22 April 2003 (Blue Underground)

by Marco Lanzagorta
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Madness Rules

George A. Romero is best known as a horror movie director, but he is also a politically conscious auteur. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead (1969), most of his films examine the disintegration of social institutions, offering sharp criticisms of human selfishness. Such is the case with The Crazies (1973) and Two Evil Eyes (co-directed with Dario Argento, 1990), two of Romero's most accomplished productions, and perhaps his most neglected. Except for expensive Japanese and European editions, both films have long been unavailable for purchase in the U.S. Fortunately, Blue Underground Home Entertainment has recently released them as two first-rate DVDs.

The Crazies has a plot strikingly similar to Night of the Living Dead and its sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). It takes place in Pittsburgh's Evan City district, a small and mostly rural community, where a military plane transporting a potent biological warfare agent crashes to the ground. The accident releases a highly contagious virus, rendering victims insane and aggressive: during the opening scenes, a man murders his wife, threatens to kill his children, and sets his house ablaze. This sets up a theme typical of Romero's films: the family is fragile, a prime target for destructive forces.

When an Army bio-warfare unit is deployed to quarantine the entire community, the troops impose severe martial law. Sent to maintain "order," they look much like alien invaders from outer space, wearing protective white biochem suits and bulky black respirators, and carrying guns and flame-throwers. The soldiers engage in brutal fights, not only against those who have been infected by the virus, but also the terrorized civilians who are just trying to escape a terrifying situation.

The Army's shocking violence against civilians is such that the viewer has to wonder who are the "crazies." And this behavior has obvious associations with what went on during the Vietnam War. (In one scene, a soldier shoots a civilian (Harold Wayne Jones) in the head, similar to the 1968 Eddie Adams photo of the execution of a Viet Cong suspect.) If Night of the Living Dead metaphorically brought the horrors of the War to America, then The Crazies makes that case explicit.

At the same time, and somewhat subversively, the infected people represent "freedom." The madness caused by the virus releases repressed desires, allowing (even forcing) victims to break social taboos regarding sex and violence. When Artie (Richard Liberty) and his daughter Kathy (Lynn Lowry) are infected, she becomes sexually aggressive, and her father exhibits incestuous desires and tries to rape her.

The would-be heroes are also broadly drawn, including ex-Green Beret David (W.G. McMillan), who leads a small group of civilians attempting to escape the quarantined zone; Dr. Watts (Richard France), a scientist seeking a cure; and Colonel Peckham (Lloyd Hollar), in charge of the military unit. For all their differences, these men are also similar: fighting each other and ignoring what others have to say. Indeed, along with these protagonists, the surrounding institutional representatives -- police officers, doctors, scientists, and priests -- also fall into total disarray. A cure for the disease slips through the fingers of the Army not once, but twice. The film's terrible finale only underlines its initial premise: social structures are bound to fail under the weight of panic and self-interest.

Two Evil Eyes makes a similar critique, but starts with very different materials. It consists of two segments, loosely based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The fist segment is adapted from "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" and was directed by Romero, while the second emerges form "The Black Cat," directed by Romero's longtime friend and collaborator, Italy's Dario Argento.

Although both Argento and Romero are famously willing to showcase blood and gore, their styles and sensibilities could not be more different. While Romero's oeuvre is characterized by storylines that reflect moral and political problems, Argento's work is distinguished by highly stylized images of violence where narrative and theme are secondary.

In Romero's piece, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," Jessica (Adrienne Barbeau) is the greedy wife of the much older and immensely rich Valdemar (Bingo O'Malley), who is on his deathbed. Jessica has her ex-lover Robert (Ramy Zada), who is also Valdemar's doctor, hypnotize Valdemar so that he will sign over his estate to her. When Valdemar dies, the couple places his body in the basement freezer. Since he dies while under hypnosis, he is in limbo, surrounded by creatures from beyond. Before story's end, you can be sure that Jessica and Robert will pay for their avarice.

The segment is more reminiscent of the moralistic EC horror comic books from the 1950s (such as the classic Tales from the Crypt) than Edgar Allan Poe. On the other hand, Argento's segment is closer to Poe's spirit, highlighting the protagonist's psychosis, while seeming similar in tone and rhythm to the notorious gialli, or Italian thrillers.

In "The Black Cat," Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a photographer obsessed with gruesome images of death and torture (the film opens as he's photographing a woman who had been cut in half, and later photographs a corpse whose teeth have been pulled out). Slowly sinking into dementia and alcohol, he uses his girlfriend's (Madeleine Potter) cat as a model to photograph images of animal cruelty, which leads to a more dire circumstance involving his girlfriend. "The Black Cat" here turns into a morality tale about the allure of the grotesque, with Usher standing in for the horror film viewer.

If Two Evil Eyes acknowledges a troubling attraction to the monstrous, then the DVD presentation of both The Crazies and Two Evil Eyes recognizes the horror film fan's obsessive desire for behind-the-camera details. The Crazies DVD includes an insightful commentary track with Romero where he details the making of the film. Equally revealing interviews with Romero, Argento, and makeup special effects maestro Tom Savini are included in the Two Evil Eyes DVD. Even more important, thanks to the restorative efforts of Bill Lusting, Blue Underground's founder and the director of the splatter extravaganza, Maniac (1980), both films are presented in uncut and pristine condition.

Even though The Crazies and Two Evil Eyes were made 30 and 13 years ago, respectively, their cultural critiques remain relevant today. And as corporate scandals and fears of biological attacks proliferate, their warnings look alarmingly prophetic.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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