Color, 1990, 120m.
Directed by George A. Romero and Dario Argento / Starring Harvey Keitel, Adrienne Barbeau, Remy Zada, E.G. Marshall, Madeleine Potter, Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam, John Amos, Tom Atkins
Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DTS-ES/DD5.1 EX, DD5.1, Anchor Bay (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1, Creative Axa (Japan R2 NTSC), Laser Paradise (Germany R2 PAL), GCTHV (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) / DD2.0

The idea of horror anthologies based on Edgar Allan Poe stories had already been around for decades by the time Dario Argento decided to embark on an ambitious project in which noted directors would each tackle one of the Baltimore scribe’s most famous stories. After John Carpenter and Wes Craven proved unavailable for a proposed quartet of tales, Argento teamed up with George Romero for two hour long adaptations. Originally interested in “The Masque of the Red Death,” Romero changed gears for the more reasonably scaled “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” filmed before in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror. Reuniting with Romero after her iconic uber-shrew in Creepshow, Adrienne Barbeau plays another scheming wife, this time married to the much older, much richer, and very comatose Ernest Valdemar. He’s being treated by Dr. Hoffman (Ramy Zada), who happens to be Jessica’s lover and is using hypnosis to prolong his patient’s life. However, together they come up with a plan to induce his premature death without being caught, though of course the scheme winds up failing with quite horrific consequences.

Argento then takes the reins for hour two with a loose adaptation of “The Black Cat” (filmed even more loosely in the aforementioned Corman film, not to mention Luigi Cozzi's wackazoid sci-fi version), with bad-tempered crime photographer Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) not taking too kindly to the arrival of a new cat in his home. His girlfriend, Annabel (Madeleine Potter), decides to keep the feline, which Rod secretly kills for a series of snuff kitty photos in his next book. However, the cat soon returns again… or does it?

The Romero segment has often been criticized as sluggish and half-hearted, and with good reason; even at an hour it moves along like a legless turtle and only pays off with a brief, zombified ending that plays more like an episode of his earlier TV show, Tales from the Darkside. The actors try their best but an air of lethargy hangs over the proceedings, making it a sad misfire. Fortunately Argento’s segment redeems the film, packing in references to a jaw-dropping number of Poe works (“Berenice,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” among many others) while integrating several bravura set pieces, violent and otherwise. Fresh off his hyperactive camera experimentation in Opera, Argento continues his sweeping POV shots here; the camera swoops around apartment buildings, takes on a cat’s perspective, and swings on a pendulum through a bisected corpse; in short, it’s one of his most compact, entertaining, and tightly plotted works. The Pino Donaggio score also perks to life here, from the haunting main “Dreaming Dreams” theme to some rousing suspense cues. Interestingly, the more subdued and American-shot "The Black Cat" also unofficially marks the highly controversial swerve in Argento's career from super-saturated gialli towards more psychologically dense and visually austere works which continued well through Trauma and The Stendhal Syndrome to, surprisingly enough, The Mother of Tears.

Several DVDs of Two Evil Eyes have circulated through different countries, most containing the standard two hour cut which played theatrically and was released on laserdisc by Media. All are letterboxed but only the US and UK discs offer anamorphic transfers; not surprisingly for a film of its vintage, the appearance is stellar with beautiful depth and detail. The UK disc has a solid 5.1 mix from the original Dolby Stereo stems, while the US double-disc set goes one better with six channel DTS-ES and 5.1 EX mixes to boot. The difference isn’t that radical as the film doesn’t have a terribly aggressive mix, but audiophiles will want to take note. More significantly, the US disc contains a few extra frames during the pendulum sequence, lingering longer on the split torso. It doesn’t add up to much more than an eyeblink's worth, but technically the extra footage is there. However, the US disc is mysteriously missing a line of dialogue at the end of the film, in which the gagging police officer reels back from the opened wall and, beginning to wretch, gasps out, “They’re eating her!” (You’ll have to see the film to understand what that means.) On the Blue Underground disc, the cop simply turns away and a quick “—er!” is heard on the soundtrack, in each audio mix. Disc one contains the main feature along with an international theatrical trailer (not present on the other discs); apparently the US trailer has disappeared for good, though it’s not much of a loss.

Also included are the usual well-written talent bios and a poster and still gallery, which contains two shots from the “Murders in the Rue Morgue” sequence which was written and filmed for the Argento segment but ultimately excised. In this scene, Usher arrives to take photos at a crime scene where two sisters lie on the floor of their home with their necks slashed open. Upon further inspection he discovers animal feces in the fireplace, indicating the culprit was actually a gorilla. While many sources claim this bit was never actually shot, this DVD proves otherwise (though none of the supplements address its existence). In the limited two-disc edition, disc two kicks off with “Two Masters’ Eyes,” a 32-minute featurette including interviews with Romero, Argento, FX supervisor Tom Savini (who seemed to have a lot of fun on this film), executive producer Claudio Argento, and the omnipresent Asia Argento. Most interesting is the inclusion of behind the scenes highlights from footage shot during filming by Robert Marcucci, including some amusing footage of Argento in sports-playing mode. Then Savini steps into the spotlight for the 12 minute “Savini’s EFX,” showing him at work on the pendulum corpse and those memorable kittens. “At Home with Tom Savini” covers many of the props he’s kept over the years from his films, a veritable checklist of major gore groundbreakers since the late ‘70s. Last up are a Barbeau interview segment jettisoned from the original cut of Roy Frumkes’ Document of the Dead (though she is visible in his later revised video cut), along with an Easter egg containing brief comments from Christine Forrest/Romero about her small role as a nurse.

Most if not all of the extras are carried over for Blue Underground's Blu-Ray release, which marks their third trip to the Argento well. Obviously the film isn't a visual dazzler on the level of their Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but the presentation here is quite admiarble and film-like with the edge enhancement which was somewhat visible in their DVD edition subdued into oblivion here. Daylight scenes are very crisp and clean-looking, and while Romero's segment has almost no outstanding visual style to speak of, even the darker scenes in Argento's fare well (note the blood-red lighting in Keitel's darkroom, which is far easier to watch here). The uncompressed audio presented in both Dolby Digital and DTS variants (specifically, Dolby TrueHD 7.1, DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio, and Dolby Digital 5.1-EX Surround, with optional English, French and Spanish subs) is still restrained for the most part, but the occasional cat yowls and shrieking violin strings certainly sound nice when they do pop up in the ancillary speakers. (The "eating her" line is still absent on all the tracks, by the way, which really makes one wonder at what point in post-production it was added in.) All of the extras are carried over except the still gallery (a shame in this case, for obvious reasons) and talent bios; presumably the Easter Egg is absent, too, but it'll take a far more savvy Blu-Ray hunter than I to verify that for sure. Flaws in the film aside, fans of either director (or both) will find plenty to enjoy savor here as this oft-debated film is put into its proper context, and any self-respecting Argento fan should find the Blu-Ray an essential purchase.

Color, 1988, 105 mins.
Directed by Dario Argento / Starring Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson
Anchor Bay, Blue Underground (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD EX/DTS-ES, Arrow (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Cecchi Gori (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

In many respects the last full throttle Dario Argento film to date, Opera pushes his stylistic tendencies into overdrive right from the opening Steadicam shots through an opera house from the point of view of a temperamental diva. Both melancholy and vibrant as a fond farewell to the '80s should be, the storyline encapsulates many of the successful elements from Argento's previous films while packaging them in a disturbing, sexually twisted package laced with some unforgettable murder sequences. Who could ask for anything more?

After an unfortunate car accident makes a career casualty of opera star Mara Cecova, young understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is pressed into service as the new lead by her director, Marc (Ian Charleson), a horror movie pro trying to move upscale. Betty's agent, Myra (Daria Nicolodi), feels nothing but enthusiasm for her young star in the making, and indeed Betty's debut turns into a smash success. Unfortunately an usher is murdered in one of the theater boxes during the performance, indicating that one of Betty's new fans may have homicidal tendencies. Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini) investigates the mysterious goings on, while Betty's celebratory but unsuccesful opening night tryst with the stage manager (William McNamara) turns nasty when the killer arrives and performs gruesome acts while pinning Betty's eyes open with taped needles. Terrified and confused, Betty plunges into a disoriented state in which she acts as the pawn of a devious mind with violent ties to Betty's past.

Many of Opera's highlights have already passed into gorehound legend, including a jaw-dropping slow motion bullet sequence that cannot be adequately described in words. As with most of Argento's other films, Opera is also a treat to watch as his camera performs ungodly acrobatics: swirling up staircases, thumping along with the killer's palpitating heartbeat, and swooping through the opera house itself from the point of view of a raven. Most complaints about the film center on its bizarre, appropriately operatic ending, which begins with a tongue in cheek homage to Phenomena and winds up on a disturbingly ambiguous note. The preceding climax is actually more difficult to justify, as it features more logic loopholes than the rest of Argento's ouevre combined. The soundtrack is equally daring and likely to turn off inexperienced viewers as it weaves back and forth from Claudio Simonetti's haunting, Goblin-style music to lashings of heavy metal and classical opera. Beautiful, shocking, frustrating, and thoroughly entertaining, Opera has only become more fascinating with time and easily deserves a spot as one of Argento's most revealing and accomplished efforts.

The video history of Opera is one of the most tangled and confusing in the director's career so far. Some necessary spoilers from the film have been included here for clarification, so anyone who has not seen the film would be well advised to skip down to the next paragraph. And now, let's proceed. The Italian language VHS release eliminated several violent sequences (most of McNamara's death, the scissor tracheotomy performed on Demons 2's Coralina Cataldi Tassoni, and the raven eyeball swallowing). The film's original English dub was greeted with laughter by exhibitors, so Barberini's original fey dubbed voice was relooped, though alas this left much of his climactic monologue difficult to decipher. Orion picked up international distribution of the film and changed the title to Terror at the Opera, allowing frustrated Argento fans to finally see the forbidden gore courtesy of RCA/Columbia's gorgeous full frame laserdisc. Alas, this version was also heavily compromised as Orion removed several expository passages (the perfume pouring into the sink, several linking bits of footage and dialogue, the scene between Charleson and his girlfriend, and the entire "happy/crazy" epilogue with Betty shuffling through the grass, to name but a few). Contrary to the DVD packaging, a full, uncut version of Opera (under the revised title) was released on VHS in an unrated edition from Southgate; in fact, apart from those unlucky few who checked out the slightly edited R-rated cut at Blockbuster, none of the DVD versions now available will be anything new, content-wise.

Now here's where things get complicated. Opera was filmed in Super 35, so the aspect ratio has varied wildly on both the big and small screens. Orion's theatrical edition (intended for U.S. release but never fulfilled) was struck in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which exposed a huge amount of dead space and distracting details at the top and bottom of the frame, such as Marsillach's underwear throughout her bed scene with McNamara. The same version was used for the mildly cropped Japanese laserdisc, and the Italian DVD release from Cecchi Gori (which looks terrific but has no English subtitles, alas) is also from this "opened up" 1.85:1 edition. However, a bootleg tape of the first English dub has circulated for years in Argento's preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the director himself has exhibited the film this way at several public appearances. The "scope" version is a markedly different experience and really feels more like an Argento film. The opera sequences in particular benefit from the tighter framing; just check out the shrouded figures immediately before the "raven attack" sequence, or the rectangular stage framing during Betty's first stage appearance.

Anchor Bay's DVD edition contains the second, revised English dub, letterboxed at 2.35:1 version. Despite the THX certification, the image is too bright during normal playback. However, viewers with a "black enhance" control on their DVD player or a good grasp of the contrast and brightness controls on their TV can tweak the image until it looks just as vibrant and rich as the Japanese laser. The DD and DTS-ES audio mixes actually sound pretty much the same as the theatrical surround version; rear channel activity is surprisingly sparse given the aggressive nature of the film, offering mostly ambient support and some musical carryover during the louder passages, along with the expected squak or two from the ravens.

Despite the minor reservations about the image brightness and soundtrack, the Anchor Bay disc is a solid introduction to the film and, as the most easily accessible for many consumers, will suit the casual horror fan just fine. (Note that the first pressing was defective, but replacements are available directly from the company.) The imaginatively designed menus lead to some eye-popping (ahem) extras, beginning with the mediocre European trailer (in 2.35:1) and Orion's excellent, striking trailer for the scrapped U.S. release (at 1.85:1). Oddly, Southgate's marvelously well-edited video trailer is not included. The disc also contains a very good 36-minute documentary, "Conducting Opera," featuring on-camera interviews with Argento, Nicolodi, cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, Simonetti, and a particularly good Barberini, whose appealing English-speaking voice would have been much better suited for his role than either of the dubbed options. All of the participants have notable things to say about the production and offer candid observations about the difficulties behind the scenes, including the tempestuous behavior of a noticeably absent Marsillach. Interestingly, no one mentions another actress problem; according to Argento expert Alan Jones, Vanessa Redgrave reportedly backed out of playing Cecova at the last minute, leaving a voiceover and subjective camera to play her role instead. The documentary also includes the Argento/Taylor car commercial filmed prior to Opera, which had previously been available only on PAL VHS video. However, owners of the Italian DVD will be pleased to note that only that version contains the film's original, "coming for Christmas" theatrical trailer designed for Italian audiences.

Anchor Bay's limited edition of 30,000 units offers a double-disc set of Opera with the CD soundtrack. The second disc incorporates the complete Simonetti score (previously available only on vinyl from Cinevox) as well as the two heavy metal songs by Steel Grave. However, the opera selections from the original album have been dropped in favor of the Daemonia "Opera" theme remix (also featured as a music video on the first disc), accompanied by the Rollerball Daemonia cue from their earlier albums and Simonetti's overused "I'll Take the Night" song from The Versace Murders. The score proper is really the best reason to spring for the set; even without a cue listing, it now completes the entire music availability from Opera on CD when paired up with Cinevox's official CD release (containing the Brian Eno cues and other musical odds and ends).

A fascinating pair of alternate audio versions of Opera can be heard on the UK DVD release from Arrow, which has only marginal text extras but is nevertheless an essential part of any Argento digital library. Featuring superb, colorful picture quality and similar scope framing (16:9) to the Anchor Bay presentation, the DVD contains the original dub track with Barberini's prissier voice, which fits far more organically into the soundtrack. Note that the music mix is also slightly different, featuring yet another variation on the radio music during the first eye-taping scene. Best of all, the DVD contains the original Italian audio in a very robust surround presentation which even outclasses the Italian DVD. The front and rear speakers are the most active of any available mix, and the disc also includes optional English subtitles, making this the first legitimate subtitled edition of the film's most satisfying aural rendition. Completists will also note that only the Italian version concludes with a male narrator relating most of Betty's pro-nature speech at the end, though it's still translated in the first person for some reason. (The subtitles appear to be translated from the Italian track, not transcribed from the English one.) Several passages of music in the Italian version are nonexistent in both English ones; for example, during Ian Charleson's bedroom conversation with his girlfriend in which they read the early newspaper reviews, Simonetti's "Crows" can be heard playing on the radio in the background, and Betty's stroll through several hallways of red curtains after the air duct sequence and Ian Charleson's Hamlet reverie are accompanied quite audibly by Simonetti's "Confusion." In the English version, both scenes are severly muted down nearly to the point of silence. Also in the Italian version, an ironic song gurgles on the radio during Betty's first needle experience, though here the only music during the scene is a barely audible Brian Eno piece. For PAL-friendly viewers, the UK disc offers an invaluable opportunity to evaluate Argento's masterpiece in two different incarnations, both effective and worthy of enjoyment on their own terms. (Note that the packaging advertises the film under its alternate Terror at the Opera title, an alteration also made to the otherwise intact Italian opening credits.)

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