Written by: Roger Vadim, & Pascal Cousin, Louis Malle, Clement Biddle Wood, & Daniel Boulanger, Federico, Fellini & Bernadino Zapponi, and Edgar Allan Poe
Directed by: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini
Starring: Jane Fonda, Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Edgar Allen Poe's ultimate orgy!
When I first heard about Spirits of the Dead some years back, I was shocked that it wasn’t on my radar sooner. Not only is it an anthology film comprised of a trilogy of Poe adaptations, but it also features three legendary directors at the helm in Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. Even more intriguing is the choice to adapt some of Poe’s lesser-known tales; whereas AIP exhausted the stock of popular stories, you won’t find many pits, pendulums, ravens, black cats, or casks here. Because of all this, Spirits of the Dead seems like a surefire, can’t-miss prospect, but this only proves to be true of Fellini’s segment, which ends up being a minor little masterpiece to completely justify the film’s existence.
That probably comes off a bit harsh, as Vadim and Malle’s segments are altogether fine, but both seem to be lacking the gothic air you’d expect with Poe. Vadim kicks the film off with a take on “Metzengerstein,” which casts Jane Fonda in the role of a young countess who spends her days amidst the aristocratic debauchery of orgies and parties. One day, she finally finds true love (or true infatuation) when her distant cousin (Peter Fonda) frees her from a trap, but his resistance of her advances sends her down an obsessive, destructive path. While perhaps a bit unfamiliar compared to Poe’s other tales, “Metzengerstein” obviously carries over the common themes of dark, forbidden love (which is made all the more incestuous by the casting of siblings in these roles) and obsession. Jane Fonda is quite fantastic as she moves from being cold and unfeeling to a tragically forlorn lover. Her costumes make her appear as if she’d just walked off the set of Vadim’s Barbarella (which she had) and create an odd, anachronistic clash of styles between her unbridled sexuality and the prim period setting. Said dissonance is about the only thing that’s truly jarring, though; Vadim’s film is artful and well-shot enough to be considered one of the most elegant passes at Poe to date, but it almost feels too removed from the author’s ominous morbidity, despite the presence of the deterministic vibe overhanging the proceedings.
Malle’s segment, which translates “William Wilson” to the screen, is similarly an aesthetic fetish piece that doesn’t quite leave an impression. It begins with the title character (Alain Delon) attempting to outrun a man’s body as it falls from a bell-tower. When he’s arrived at his destination, we’re a bit bewildered that it seemingly lies at the base of another tower. This dizzying, disorienting starting point kicks off the theme of doubles in Wilson’s tale about his life-long battle with his own doppelganger (also portrayed by Delon). “William Wilson” is perhaps even more fatalistic than the opening tale--it opens with a confession of murder and works its way back up to that point and ends in a clever twist that makes the tale take on the quality of a parable about a man constantly at war with himself. When he attempts to carve open a live girl as a medical student, his foil appears; the same is true when he attempts to cheat a high society woman (Brigitte Bardot). The card-playing scene between Delon and Bardot is terrific, with the latter especially being fascinating to watch as she begins to lose her grip on the situation. Her icy, predatory sexuality gives way to a submissive look of concern, particularly when she realizes how sadistic her foe is.
Oddly enough, Verdin and Malle’s contributions end up being sort of like doppelgangers of each other. Both are obviously concerned with the hedonistic morass of the over-indulged upper-class, and each presents its own form of comeuppance. Verdin and Malle employ a detached sort of aesthetic that’s unusual for this sort of material; while these are no doubt horror tales, they rarely feel like one, even with death shadowing the proceedings. Viewers are positioned with both protagonists’ psyche, as relayed by voice-over narrations that preserve Poe’s original first-person approach; if these segments do anything to do Poe justice, it’s in creating a couple of memorable screen versions of these characters. One just wishes they’d been committed to stories that weren’t turgidly wrought and suppressed under the weight of their directors’ propensity towards style over substance. That these films fall victim to excess is both appropriate and ironic.
Fellini rectifies this disconnect in “Toby Dammit,” though, as it’s a dazzling display of both style and substance. The former is immediately apparent upon the anemic, almost vampiric title character’s (Terence Stamp) descent into Rome, where he’s greeted by a surreal airport scene that’s seemingly engulfed in the flames of hell. He wanders through a crowd that’s composed of both actual people and cardboard cutouts, and we soon learn that this is how he likely sees the world through his perpetually drunken haze. With his career sufficiently drowned in alcohol, he’s come to Rome to star in a film that re-imagines the story of Christ as a spaghetti western (that Fellini never actually made that film is a massive disappointment). “Toby Dammit” is the loosest of all these interpretations of Poe; in fact, it’s just barely a take on Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.”
This is well enough, as Fellini is less concerned with the actual devil (here represented by a supremely creepy young girl, which probably says a lot about our title character), but the demons that plague Toby’s mind, such as his alcoholism and nihilism (taken together, these two -isms eventually combine to form fatalism). He’s surrounded by a similarly deranged world, one that allows Fellini to also meta-fictionally explore one of his favorite subjects: film-making and its industry, here overrun by incessantly babbling producers whose chatter is an obvious parody of how art had become too processed and over-intellectualized--I can only imagine how Fellini would react now, 45 years later. My guess is that he’d eventually develop the devil-may-care attitude of his protagonist here, whose only escape from this mad world is his Ferrari (which is also the only reason he’s agreed to do this ridiculous spaghetti gospel in the first place). In fact, it’s kind of hard to argue that Fellini wasn’t already on Toby Damnit’s side at the time since he’s sort of presented as the least of all evils here--and I dare say maybe even a victim of this underworld of sycophants and debutantes.
On that note, Spirits of the Dead works quite well thematically since all three episodes dissect and expose upper class hedonism for its vapidity. Fellini’s work is clearly the best since it captures this existence as a nightmare, whereas the other two feel like half-remembered dreams (which may actually be more in the spirit of Poe). The anthology has been released a couple of times, once by Image and then again by Home Vision; the latter is still in print but presents the film only. Its presentation is fine--the anamorphic transfer is clean and just hazy enough to preserve the film’s original dream-like aesthetic, while the mono French track is soft and thin. If not for Fellini’s segment, Spirits of the Dead would have been a bit of a disappointment, and it still may be in a sense; however, “Toby Damnit” is easily worth the price of admission. Buy it!
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