Edgar Allan Poe anthologies had been a fixture of Sixties horror, most memorably in Roger Corman’s campy Tales of Terror (1963) and the European classic Spirits of the Dead (1968). Italian horror maestro Dario Argento sought to revive this tradition but after John Carpenter and Wes Craven proved unavailable for a proposed quartet of tales, he opted for this double-feature with George A. Romero. For their second collaboration, following Dawn of the Dead (1979) of course, the fan favourites chose to tackle a pair of Poe tales that Corman previously adapted, very loosely, in his anthology project.
After some shots of Edgar Allen Poe’s house in Baltimore and a dedication to the author once dismissed by snooty literati as “the great American hack”, Romero kicks things off with his version of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”. Scheming adulteress Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau) conspires with her lover Dr. Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada) to hypnotise her far older, ailing husband Ernest Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley) into signing over his vast fortune. When Mr. Valdemar dies while under hypnosis, the schemers pack his corpse inside the refrigerator, but caught between this world and the next the dead man proves a conduit for dark forces intent on revenge.
Romero’s segment retreads old ground covered in his previous anthology movie, Creepshow (1982), only with far less zest and fun. In fact it’s something of a Creepshow reunion, with not just Barbeau and O’Malley returning to the Romero fold but also E.G. Marshall as a suspicious lawyer and Tom Atkins as a cigar-chomping, retro-Fifties styled cop. Romero’s wife Christine Forrest also crops up in a memorable turn as a disgruntled nurse. The story benefits from a strong turn from the ever-reliable Adrienne Barbeau but is small scale and surprisingly lacking in atmosphere, more suited to an episode of Romero’s Tales from the Darkside television series.
Aspects of the plot recall Les Diaboliques (1955) or even, dare one say it, Nightkill (1980), while the hardboiled dialogue further enhances the flavour of film noir by way of EC comics. Romero touches on Poe’s usual preoccupation with catalepsy and hypnosis, but though the raspy voice coming from Valdemar’s corpse is unsettling, things limp along to a dull finale featuring another rampaging zombie and spectral forces that look like the Mummenshatz puppeteer troupe.
Fortunately, Argento redeems the enterprise with “The Black Cat”, a full-throttle grand guignol driven by a maniacal performance from Harvey Keitel and crammed full of weird references to an array of Poe stories. Crime photographer Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) captures gruesome murders on film for his pretentious art book and is tormented by a creepy black cat belonging to his violinist girlfriend Annabel (Madeleine Potter). Driven over the edge, he strangles the unfortunate feline then when Annabel discovers he has used this snuff image for the front cover of his book, murders her too. He walls her corpse inside a secret annex, but can’t elude the attention of his nosy neighbours (Martin Balsam, from Psycho (1960) and Kim Hunter, from Planet of the Apes (1968)) or the strange cat sounds that eventually seals his doom.
Fellow countryman and rival Lucio Fulci had previously filmed The Black Cat (1981), which interestingly also featured a perky Pino Donaggio score, but where that film (though fun) felt impersonal, here Usher comes across like another alter-ego for the obsessive Argento - a tortured artist plagued by unsettling dreams and whose editor urges him to dwell on something besides morbid murder scenes. It is tempting to read the reworked plot as an allusion to his own fraught relationship with actress and scriptwriter Daria Nicolodi - who was less than complimentary about Madeleine Potter’s performance here.
As with a lot of Argento’s work the drama is overwrought to the point of seeming almost comical, but he tightens the screws and builds to a suitably suspense laden and quite grotesque finale. Meanwhile, gasp - as his camera swings on pendulum through a bisected corpse and adopts the roving cat’s P.O.V. and draws us further into his nightmare. Like Roger Corman, Argento includes dream sequences that allude to other Poe stories, notably Rod’s bizarre medieval nightmare where Annabel cavorts with dancing, snake-waving witches and he is impaled on a wooden spike. The man responsible for that special effect, Tom Savini cameos as a necrophiliac caught extracting a dead woman’s teeth.
American writer/director and one of the most influential figures in modern horror cinema, whose ability to write strong scripts and characters match his penchant for gory chills. The Pittsburgh native began his career directing adverts before making Night of the Living Dead in 1968. This bleak, scary classic ushered in a new era of horror film-making, but Romero struggled initially to follow it up - There's Always Vanilla is a little-seen romantic drama, and Jack's Wife was butchered by its distributor. The Crazies was a flop but still an exciting slice of sci-fi horror, and while the dark vampire drama Martin again made little money but got Romero some of the best reviews of his career and remains the director's personal favourite.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.