skip navigation
Spirits of the Dead
Remind Me

Spirits of the Dead

There was a popular trend in European cinema in the sixties to attract wider audiences with the "omnibus" film which showcased numerous big name stars and directors in a collection of short stories or vignettes. While many of these were usually comedic (Le Bambole [1965]), dramatic (Paris vu par... [1965], Love at Twenty [1962]) or a mixture of the two (Boccaccio '70 [1962], Ro.Go.Pa.G. [1963]), there were occasional exceptions and one of the more offbeat and intriguing examples was a homage to Edgar Allan Poe - Spirits of the Dead (1968), which was released in Europe as Histoires extraordinaires. A trilogy of supernatural tales with an international cast (Brigitte Bardot, Terence Stamp, Jane Fonda, Alain Delon, Francoise Prevost, Peter Fonda, James Robertson Justice) and three high profile directors - Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini - the movie was initially much more ambitious in scope and design.

French producer Raymond Eger wanted to make a movie featuring seven Edgar Allan Poe stories with a different director for each episode but only three of his original choices accepted and two of them had great reservations about the project. Among those who declined the offer and their assigned stories were Orson Welles ("The Masque of the Red Death" combined with "The Cask of Amontillado"), Claude Chabrol ("The System of Doctor Tar and Professor Feather"), Joseph Losey ("Il Contratto"), and Luchino Visconti ("The Tell-Tale Heart" combined with "Maelzel's Chess Player"). Roger Vadim agreed to direct an adaptation of "Metzengerstein", but had to postpone shooting it until he could complete the filming of Barbarella (1968) starring his wife at the time Jane Fonda for producer Dino de Laurentiis. Louis Malle was given carte blanche over his choice of story ("William Wilson"), crew and cast (with the exception of Alain Delon who brought him the project) and he agreed to the conditions if he could film in Italy instead of France where filmmaking had become a source of frustration for him. Fellini was lured into Spirits of the Dead by co-producer Alberto Grimaldi because he hadn't worked in two years and needed the money. He also had been told Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles, both of whom he greatly respected, would be directing segments of the movie. By the time he found out that Welles and Bergman had not signed on, he was already committed to the film.

Vadim's take on "Metzengerstein" added a gender twist to Poe's original story, transforming the cruel protagonist, Count Frederick, into Contessa Frederica, a decadent aristocrat who lusts after her distant relative, Baron Wilhelm. When he spurns her advances, she burns down his stable not realizing he is inside it. A favorite wild stallion of Wilhelm's survives the blaze, however, and Frederica becomes obsessed with it. She eventually tames the horse and coaxes it into letting her ride him not realizing it will be her last gallop. Vadim played up the perverse aspects of the story by casting his wife Jane and her brother Peter as the would-be lovers and expanding the brief narrative with visual details about the assorted orgies and sadistic games being conducted at Frederica's castle. "It was the first time - and to this day, the only time - that brother and sister made a film together," Vadim remarked in his memoir, Bardot Deneuve Fonda. "The film was original and interesting, in my opinion...I didn't think of it at the time, but it must have been very strange for Jane to go without any transition from her futuristic costumes [in Barbarella] to medieval robes...It's also the only film in which Jane appears in period costume."

"Metzengerstein" was filmed in Roscoff, a small town in Brittany, and Peter Fonda recalled in his autobiography, Don't Tell Dad, that when he wasn't needed for filming, he "spent roughly four hours a day working on the story of Easy Rider (1969) while watching the tides" from his hotel room. "But I became bored with this bucolic life, and began heading to the set, where the food was terrific, and free. I had many great lunches with the famous British character actor James Robertson Justice. The production headquarters were in a very old castle, as were the dressing rooms, wardrobe, makeup, and even several sets. It was a true castle, spooky and kind of fun, with a moat, now dry, a drawbridge, and a very large courtyard. Sometimes I would get in costume, ready to shoot, but the shot would be put off, or the scene being shot would be apparently endless. I had already earned more in my per diem than I was paid for the gig." And once novelist Terry Southern arrived on the set for a friendly visit, Peter drew him in as a collaborator on the screenplay of Easy Rider, which they worked on when Peter wasn't needed for filming.

"William Wilson" is set in 19th century Bergamo in northern Italy and the title character is a malevolent French soldier who is constantly shadowed and thwarted in his evil deeds by his doppelganger. The story follows Wilson and his double from his boarding school days at Eton where the former traps a fellow student in a pit filled with starving rats to medical college where the two lookalikes clash over a prostitute who is threatened with live dissection. A major turning point occurs when Wilson cheats at cards in order to punish Giuseppina, a high society woman, whom he brutally beats with a whip. But when his double appears and exposes him as a complete fraud, Wilson is expelled from the university and the town. Enraged, he fatally stabs his doppelganger but is unable to feel any relief from his actions and seeks out a priest for confession. When that too fails to calm his anxiety, he commits suicide.

In Malle on Malle, the French director admits that actor Alain Delon was the one who recommended him to the producers of Spirits of the Dead. Malle hadn't worked with Delon before but knew he had a difficult reputation. He agreed to direct "William Wilson" anyway but would later admit he "didn't much enjoy doing it" and that "Delon, like a number of male actors...basically resents being directed...Also, I had great doubts about Delon's sincerity and talent. So we were having arguments and it became very difficult." On the positive side, Malle enjoyed shooting in Italy and "got tremendous help from my Italian cameraman Tonino Delli Colli, who later worked with me on Lacombe, Lucien (1974) and was one of the cameramen, with [Henri} Decae, Sven Nykvist and recently Renato Berta, who have been really important to my work."

It is also interesting to note that Malle didn't originally consider Brigitte Bardot for the part of Giuseppina in "William Wilson." "I wanted to cast Florinda Bolkan, who was very beautiful, very enigmatic and hadn't then worked in films," the director said. "But she was unknown and the producers did not want her. After we'd started shooting they came to me and said, "What about Bardot? I'd heard that Bardot was away somewhere on a cruise and was so convinced that she wouldn't be available that I said, 'Sure, why not?' However, she'd had a row with her boyfriend and come back to Paris, and she said, 'Oh, I'd love to work again with Louis and with Alain Delon.' So I was stuck. I tried to do what I could - putting her in a dark wig and so on. But it was terrible casting, unforgivable. But somehow, the casting of Delon worked - because the anger he had against me served the character - and I made sure I kept him angry all the way through!"

The final segment of Spirits of the Dead was Fellini's version of Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," a satirical attack on Transcendentalism by the author in which the story's narrator tries to curb his vice-ridden friend Toby Dammit from constantly making ill-judged bets. The producers initially offered Fellini "The Tell-Tale Heart" but that story failed to interest him. Instead Fellini suggested adapting a tale from Gobal, a collection of short stories by Bernardino Zapponi, an author he admired. The producers insisted, however, that he must choose a Poe story so as a creative compromise, he was allowed to hire Zapponi as his screenwriter and together they worked on an adaptation of "Never Bet the Devil Your Head."

The duo "wandered through deserted trattories and luncheonettes on the outskirts of town," Zapponi told [Fellini's assistant] Liliana Betti (in Fellini: A Life by Hollis Alpert). "They strolled the boardwalk of Ostia, the beach empty and desolate with winter coming on. Such hopelessness gave birth to the story of a mad, drug-addicted actor who comes to die in Rome."

Peter O'Toole was Fellini's first choice for Toby Dammit but the actor quickly changed his mind after first accepting the part. Then Richard Burton was briefly considered until stories of his drunken behavior on film sets discouraged that decision (Marlon Brando was also a rumored possibility). Eventually, Fellini chose Terence Stamp and had him "made up to look like a man ravaged by drugs and alcohol, his eyes unfocused, his hair unkempt and stringy."

Of the three stories in Spirits of the Dead, Fellini's episode is probably the loosest interpretation of the Poe original. The director even admitted that "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" was "only my jumping-off point, the devil is a man with a black cape and a beard. I didn't like that; it seemed too eighteenth century to me. Moreover, I thought this was the wrong kind of devil for a drugged, hippie actor. His devil must be his own immaturity - hence, a child." To find his ideal "devil," Fellini placed advertisements in Rome newspapers. "From the crowds that responded, Fellini was unable to find the girl he wanted. In the end, he solved the problem by making two into one: the face and the ashen hair belonged to a twenty-two-year-old Russian woman; the body to a tiny dance student." (from Fellini: A Life by Hollis Alpert).

The public and critical reception of Spirits of the Dead was mixed which was not unusual for an omnibus film but the Fellini episode was clearly the favorite with its black humor and surreal view of the Italian film world seen through the eyes of a LSD casualty. Most hardcore horror fans found the film to be too arty, preferring the Roger Corman Poe adaptations, and most art film connoisseurs found it to be uninspired and beneath the talent of its renowned directors. "Metzengerstein," the most maligned of the episodes, however, can be enjoyed as a campy, baroque diversion, the tone of which is established near the beginning when Jane Fonda, riding a horse, gallops into the frame, surveys the stark landscape which includes a rotting corpse hanging from a post, and proclaims joyfully: "I love this place!" Luckily, Claude Renoir's evocative cinematography (despite an overuse of the zoom lens) and the locations in Brittany balance the tongue-in-cheek decadence and convey a sense of the ominous. Regarding the setting, the director said, "It is a landscape evoking the end of the world, a landscape of legends, especially in winter, when the wind is howling and when dark, twisted clouds spread out and regroup a hundred yards from the ground as if they were a backdrop for some mad opera." Louis Malle's "William Wilson" is equally atmospheric and brooding with a disturbing streak of cruelty underlying everything plus there is the novelty of seeing Brigitte Bardot as a brunette, smoking a cigar and being whipped by the biggest box office male star in France.

Fellini's contribution, however, truly achieves a sense of the fantastic and prefigures the futuristic look of his later film, Fellini Roma (1972). It also features one of Terence Stamp's most offbeat and haunting performances. Ironically, it was Fellini's episode that needed some re-editing before Spirits of the Dead could be distributed in America. According to American International Pictures mogul Sam Arkoff in Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants, there was a scene in "Toby Dammit" that spoofed the Academy Awards and seemed "like a private joke on Fellini's part." Arkoff insisted it should be cut since it didn't really have anything to do with the story but the producers were too intimidated to ask Fellini to delete the sequence. So Arkoff called the director personally and requested the edit. Fellini agreed, saying "I'm a realist. I'd like this film to be seen by American audiences, even if it means cutting a few minutes out of it." Arkoff recalled, "In less than a month, Fellini delivered his portion of the film, cutting out the unnecessary scene...We retitled it Spirits of the Dead [from the original title of Histoires extraordinaires], added some narration by Vincent Price and a song by Ray Charles ["Ruby"], and released it in the U.S."

Producers: Raymond Eger; Alberto Grimaldi (segment "Toby Dammit" uncredited)
Directors: Federico Fellini (segment "Toby Dammit"), Louis Malle (segment "William Wilson"), Roger Vadim (segment "Metzengerstein")
Screenplay: Roger Vadim, Pascal Cousin (both adaptation and segment "Metzengerstein"), Louis Malle, Clement Biddle Wood (both adaptation and segment "William Wilson"), Federico Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi (both adaptation and segment "Toby Dammit"): Daniel Boulanger (dialogue segment "William Wilson" and "Metzengerstein"); Edgar Allan Poe (stories and segments "Metzengerstein,""William Wilson," as Edgar A. Poe "Ne pariez jamais votre tĂȘte avec le Diable"/"Never Bet the Devil Your Head," segment "Toby Dammit")
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli (segment "William Wilson"), Claude Renoir (segment "Metzengerstein"), Giuseppe Rotunno (segment "Toby Dammit")
Art Direction: Fabrizio Clerici (segment "Toby Dammit"), Carlo Leva (segment "William Wilson")
Music: Diego Masson (segment "William Wilson"), Jean Prodromides (segment "Metzengerstein"), Nino Rota (segment "Toby Dammit")
Film Editing: Franco Arcalli (segment "William Wilson"), Suzanne Baron (segment "William Wilson"), Ruggiero Mastroianni (segment "Toby Dammit"), Helene Plemiannikov (segment "Metzengerstein")
Cast: Brigitte Bardot (Giuseppina, segment "William Wilson"), Alain Delon (William Wilson, segment "William Wilson"), Jane Fonda (Contessa Frederica, segment "Metzengerstein"), Terence Stamp (Toby Dammit, segment "Toby Dammit"), James Robertson Justice (Countess' advisor, segment "Metzengerstein"), Salvo Randone (priest, segment "Toby Dammit"), Francoise Prevost (friend of Countess, segment "Metzengerstein"), Peter Fonda (Baron Wilhelm, segment "Metzengerstein"), Marlene Alexandre (segment "Metzengerstein"), Marie-Ange Anies (segment "Metzengerstein")
C-122m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir by Peter Fonda (Hyperion)
"I Know What It's Like To Be Dead...", Peter Fonda Interview by Lowell Goldman, Psychotronic Magazine
The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty by Peter Collier (G.P. Putnam's Sons)
Fellini: A Life by Hollis Alpert (Atheneum)
Federico Fellini by Fabrizio Borin (Gremese)
Bardot Deneuve Fonda by Roger Vadim (Simon and Schuster)
Fellini by Charlotte Chandler
Bardot by Glenys Roberts (St. Martin's Press)
The Films of Federico Fellini by Claudio G. Fava & Aldo Vigano (Citadel Press)
Federico Fellini: Interviews Edited by Bert Cardullo (University Press of Mississippi)
The Films of Louis Malle: A Critical Analysis by Nathan C. Southern with Jacques Weissgerber (McFarland)
Malle on Malle Edited by Philip French (Faber & Faber)
Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants by Sam Arkoff with Richard Trubo (Birch Lane Press)