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Spirits of the Dead

Spirits of the Dead(1969)

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Home Video Reviews

You would think that a movie bearing the title Spirits of the Dead would be a ghost story, pure and simple. But this macabre anthology adapted from three short stories by Edgar Allan Poe is not a typical horror offering by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it's a morality play depicting the consequences of decadence with each episode rendered in a distinct style and genre. The first tale, "Metzengerstein," is a lush period piece, "William Wilson" comes across as a dark, brooding psychodrama and "Toby Dammit or Never Bet the Devil Your Head" works as a modern day allegory that appropriates the look of a LSD trip. Utilizing the talents of three world class directors (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini), all of them at the top of their game when the film was made in 1968, Spirits of the Dead (now on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment) not only provides an entertaining demonstration of each director's style but also serves as a showcase for Europe's most hip and desirable film stars. What cast could rival this for the top screen icons of the sixties? Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Jane Fonda (married at the time to Roger Vadim), and Terence Stamp.

Anthology films, by their very nature, are often uneven and that's certainly the case with Spirits of the Dead. The first story, Vadim's contribution, is generally considered the weakest with Fellini's concluding entry emerging as the most memorable. But it's all a matter of taste really and unless you're expecting a traditional horror film, there's much to savor here.

In terms of campy excess, it's hard to resist Vadim's extremely loose take on Poe's "Metzengerstein." Jane Fonda, looking like some 16th century Barbarella on horseback (she would actually play Jean-Claude Forest's comic strip heroine the same year), seems to take a special delight in her sadistic role as a female Caligula. Her kinky personality is succinctly revealed in an opening scene where she gallops up a hilltop and pauses before a rotting corpse hanging from a scaffold. Taking in the desolate view, she exclaims, "I love this place!" In its original English dubbed version, this line always got a big laugh from audiences but the comic effect is lost in the Home Vision DVD edition, which tastefully presents the film in French with English subtitles. Still, there is no shortage of unintentional yuks as Jane's perverse aristocrat commands her evil minions to do her bidding, whether it's procuring a new sexual plaything or torturing a peasant just for fun. But she grows bored with the relentless decadence and sets her sights on a new conquest - her humble cousin (Peter Fonda). When he rejects her, she decides to punish him by burning down his horse stable, accidentally killing him in the process. From this point on, the tale enters the realm of the supernatural as the countess becomes obsessed with a mysterious black stallion that suddenly appears on her estate one day.

Much more somber in tone than "Metzengerstein" is Louis Malle's take on "William Wilson," the story of a cruel and manipulative military officer (Alain Delon) whose sadistic impulses are continually thwarted by a mysterious "double." Delon is well cast as both the arrogant debaucher and his masked doppelganger and the film's cold, grey look vividly captures the story's malevolent tone. Brigitte Bardot, in a rare appearance as a brunette, also stands out as a cigar-smoking socialite who challenges Delon to a card game but loses to him (he cheats); as part of their bet, he gets to flog her in front of his fellow officers. At times Malle's attention to detail seems overly clinical but some of the disturbing images stay with you long after the segment is over: a frightened schoolboy being lowered into a pit of rats, a terrified young woman strapped to an autopsy table and teased with a scalpel; a body falling from a high tower onto the cobblestone streets below.

Most viewers of Spirits of the Dead will feel that the best is saved for last - Fellini's adaptation of Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head." It's hard to imagine a more perfect textbook example of the director's style than this visually dazzling black comedy that follows a drug and alcohol fueled actor (Terence Stamp) on a publicity junket in Rome. Stamp, who recently recounted the sometimes chaotic filming of this segment in the documentary, Fellini: I'm a Born Liar, gives one of his finest performances as Toby Dammit, conveying a sense of deep despair and reckless self-abandon topped off with a wicked sense of humor. Of the three stories in Spirits of the Dead, this final segment probably comes the closest to qualifying as a horror film with its unique depiction of the devil: a demonic little blonde girl who appears periodically with a big bouncing ball. Nino Rota's playful score adds immeasurably to the segment's dreamlike atmosphere and Fellini even manages to work in Ray Charles's rendition of "Ruby" in one hauntingly memorable moment.

The Home Vision DVD of Spirits of the Dead doesn't really offer much in the way of extras though the new widescreen digital transfer (enhanced for 16X9 televisions) looks good. And the liner notes by Nathan Rabin (of The Onion) offer some interesting observations like the writer's comment that "Spirits of the Dead uses the stories of Edgar Allan Poe to attack the amorality and permissiveness of the sixties through three tales of libertines who pay the ultimate price for their transgressions." Not to quibble, but it would have been fun if Home Vision had included the English-dubbed version of the film on the disk as well with its Vincent Price narration and the occasional cod dialogue that made the Vadim piece so entertaining - and for all the wrong reasons.

Released in Europe as Histoires Extraordinaires, a much more appropriate title, this was not the first Poe film adaptation under this name; there was a 1949 version which showcased two of Poe's tales ("The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado") with Thomas de Quincey's "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." Perhaps that version will surface on DVD some day.

For more information about Spirits of the Dead, visit Home Vision Entertainment.

by Jeff Stafford