Spirits of the Dead
Cast & Crew
METZENGERSTEIN: Dissolute Countess Frederica fancies a distant relative, Baron Wilhelm; but, spurned by the nobleman, she sets his stable afire. While attempting to save his favorite stallion, the baron dies. Thereafter, the countess is mesmerized by the steed, which has survived the blaze. She mounts the horse, which rushes into a blazing heath. WILLIAM WILSON: An Austrian officer confesses the murder of his "double" to a naive country priest. Wilson describes the shadow's persistent intrusion into his life and his own sadistic activities in school, including lowering a schoolmate into a tub of rats, performing surgery on an unwilling young girl, and flogging Giuseppina, his card partner. Unable to find solace in the sacrament, Wilson despairs and throws himself from the steeple of the church. TOBY DAMMIT: When a cynical, liquor-soaked English superstar is lured to Rome to make a film by the promise of a Maserati automobile, he is haunted by a lewdly smiling, small, blonde girl, who bounces a large white ball. Upon completion of the first Catholic western, Toby receives the car during a grotesque film award party. He gets drunk and leaves the party, roaring off in the Maserati; attempting to jump over a ruined bridge and muttering, "Let the Devil take my head off if I don't make the jump," Toby is decapitated by a wire strung across his path. The girl nonchalantly picks up his head.
Audoin De Bardot
Tonino Delli Colli
Clement Biddle Wood
Spirits of the Dead
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 tête 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")
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)
Spirits of the Dead
Spirits of the Dead - Available from Home Vision on DVD
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
Spirits of the Dead - Available from Home Vision on DVD
Opened in Paris in June 1968 as Histoires extraordinaires; running time: 123 min; in Rome in 1968 as Tre passi nel delirio.
Released in United States 2008
Released in United States Summer July 1969
Shown at Tribeca Film Festival (Restored/Rediscovered) April 23-May 4, 2008.
Fellini's episode was also distriobuted separately.
Released in United States 2008 (Shown at Tribeca Film Festival (Restored/Rediscovered) April 23-May 4, 2008.)
Released in United States Summer July 1969