Random Film of the Week: Spirits of the Dead

spirits of the deadI’d only heard of this horror anthology film a few years back thanks to a friend who saw the restored final third and raved about it. Of course, I never got the chance to check that, nor the rest of this film out until recently when the movie popped up on TCM and after a sluggish first segment, had me glued to the couch taking in the assorted sights and sounds.

Spirits of the Dead (or Histoires extraordinaires if you happen to be French and want an alternate title) is an offbeat selection of three Edgar Allan Poe stories that’s best known today for its incredible (and completely bizarre) final chapter directed by the great Federico Fellini that has to be seen to be believed. I’ll get to that below, but I need to bury one corpse and beat a dead horse for a bit…

Roger Vadim, coming off his previous work, Barbarella, directs then wife Jane Fonda and her brother Peter in “Metzengerstein”, the least impressive of the segments. Once you get over the stunt casting of the brother and sister Fonda playing lovers (eww), it’s clear that Vadim wasn’t much of a horror director, at least in this case. That said, he certainly got mileage out of some nicely stylized visual elements and decent acting from his cast. And of course, Jane Fonda, circa 1968? Well, that’s one reason to watch for some, I’d say. Still, this chapter seemed as if it was made on a holiday for everyone and isn’t quite as frightening as it could have been under the hands of someone like a Jacques Tourneur or hell, even a Jean-Luc Godard. It’s not a completely terrible little retelling of the Poe story at all – it just doesn’t do all that much other than tempt you with pretty faced and falling asleep before you’ve seen the rest of the film…

On the other hand, Louis Malle’s “William Wilson” is a nicely crafted tale of a horrible man who gets his just desserts in a bizarre manner. Granted, Alain Delon plays William as a pretty scummy woman-abusing jerk and wholly unlikable man (handsome looks aside) and there’s a bit of Brigitte Bardot to drool over for the viewers who want to do so. I’ll warn you that her character gets a sound whipping in this segment, but I’d gather a few of you are into that sort of thing, so I won’t make it a big deal. Malle gets some great performances from his cast and period setting and the doppelgänger theme and “surprise!” finale is a nice shocker that’s been borrowed more than a few times by other books and films since it was initially written. At this point, I was feeling much better about setting aside time to watch this and then the Fellini segment came around and cemented the deal by knocking me off (and under) the couch.

“Toby Dammit” is a complete modernization and supremely original reworking of Poe’s “Never Bet The Devil Your Head” and from beginning to end, it’s 34 or so minutes of some truly striking (and frightening) imagery that only Fellini could have come up with. At turns weird, funny and unbalanced, the great Terence Stamp plays Toby as a washed-up alcoholic actor whose talents have been wasted as he’s been sieved through the studio system. When he signs on to star in a religious-themed western in trade for a new Ferrari, it’s a downhill spiral as Dammit drunkenly pours himself out in front of the cameras in a blur of memorable sequences. Actually, the entire segment feels like one extended nightmare as everything around his is either gaudily lit, presented as half-real/half fake or just has you hitting the reverse button on your remote to check out some of Fellini’s stellar, creepy shot setups.

The best way to experience this one is straight through on the first go, then going back to review, pause and peek at the stuff that had your brain swirling. Were those real people mixed with life-sized photos of real people in that stunning airport sequence? How about that wild TV station interview and that Italian “Oscars” segment? As in Fellini’s best work, the faces, shapes and shadows are beautiful even when ugly, the editing adds to the relentless restlessness of Toby’s mind and then there’s that devil… that damn scary as hell devil.

the devil In Toby’s mind, it’s a little blonde girl with a white ball and each time she’s seen in this segment, you’ll want to run from the room or go hide under something. Seriously. Fellini gets such a great deal of menace out of a few quick shots of her just looking sideways at the camera that you’ll feel how Toby feels each time she makes an appearance. Even when she’s not onscreen, a simple shot of the ball she holds bouncing UP an escalator is enough to get your bladder buzzing. The only sore spot in the segment is Stamp’s dubbed voice, but even then, it actually adds to the crazy pace and tone of the segment. Nino Rota’s perfect score for all this madness, by the way, is incredible and adds to the sense of tension and delirium on screen.

The finale is a wee bit too long as Toby gets his Ferrari and drives around like a madman, but by then, you’re hooked in until the ending that’s still a total freak-out as well as a great use of minimalism. You know it’s coming, but the director sets up and pulls off a chilling close that sits in your head as the film closes. Well, at least you still have a head, as in case you didn’t guess by that original title, Toby doesn’t by the ending. Sure, compared to more modern horror flicks, this one’s tame by comparison. On the other hand, watching this final segment at night with all the lights off is like stepping into someone’s head and not being able to leave while they’re having the worst night possible.

I’d pair this up with something like Fellini’s 8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita for a bit of contrast (and necessary humor) or perhaps Vadim’s Barbarella if you want more of his work to ogle (or just want to ogle Jane Fonda and feel sleepy while doing so, as the film is a bit on the draggy side). As for a Malle paring, try to track down his Elevator to the Gallows if you can – it’s a great little chiller that’s a nice murder mystery with a Miles Davis score. You’ll probably have better luck locating his Black Moon instead, which is pretty unique in its own right (and pops up on TCM on occasion)…

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