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Spirits of the Dead

Review by: 
Histoires Extraordinaires
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Federico Fellini
Louis Malle
Roger Vadim
Jane Fonda
Peter Fonda
Brigitte Bardot
Alain Delon
Terence Stamp
Bottom Line: 

 When one thinks of Edgar Allen Poe's work as it has been portrayed on screen over the years, one immediately thinks first of the Roger Corman classics from the 60s, usually starring Vincent Price but also featuring the likes of Barbara Steele, Peter Lore and Boris Karloff. Cheaply-made but visually extravagant b-movie Technicolor melodramas that have only grown more loveable over the years as they've aged. Strangely less well known, though, is this rare curio which emerged at the tail end of the Sixties, which features three of European cinema's best known names each tackling a separate Poe tale in the classic format made so popular by Amicus Films - the anthology portmanteau. Not only does this French-made triptych give us Fellini unveiling his take on the Italian horror genre, but, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda and Terence Stamp appearing in the same film (but not in the same stories, unfortunately). This is clearly a film that screams to be seen by all cineastes, and one third of it does, indeed, alone prove itself worth the price of the DVD: for Fellini's segment is a work of unparalleled genius, a tour-de-force which any self-respecting fan of Italian horror should not be without.
The other two tales which kick off this two hour collection don't even come close of course to matching Fellini, but they aren't necessarily without merit either. What you feel about Roger Vadem's take on "Metzengerstein" depends largely on your tolerance for "Barberella"-era Jane Fonda, as Vadem's then-wife is the main attraction here rather than any of Vadem's half-hearted directorial ideas on translating Poe's tale of supernatural revenge through equestrian possession, for the screen. Fonda plays Countess Frederique, an evil noblewoman who makes up for her debauched moral turpitude with copious amounts of cute, sex kitten posturing and skimpy, midriff revealing leather costumes. After she is spurned in love by a neighbouring nobleman (played, weirdly, by her brother, Peter Fonda) she takes revenge by burning down his castle, and then gets all lovesick and despairing when she learns the object of her desire has perished in the blaze she herself has caused! However, a black horse and a ruined tapestry seem to hint that strange, supernatural forces are at work.
 Although shot, as are most Poe adaptations, as a period piece, this is a highly stylised piece of work, short on dialogue and action, more intent on showing-off the bizarrely a-historical costumes of Jane Fonda than re-creating any authentic period feel. The story unfurls in a highly ponderous manner but the film does present the picturesque, autumnal colours of the French countryside rather splendidly and ends up coming over in rather a pleasingly languid Rollin-esqu style. Fonda doesn't really get a chance to do anything too outrageous despite her skimpy peek-a-boo "Barberella"-look outfits: we're merely told in a voice-over about her character's supposed satanic orgies and her alleged sadistic doings, unfortunately — meaning Euro-sleaze fans might go away disappointed, despite the heavy Franco/Rollin scent that hangs over this episode.
Next out of the traps is Louis Malle with "William Wilson", in which the director takes a much more straightforward approach to narrative storytelling. Of all the films, it probably follows Poe's original tale — about a military cadet turned medical student whose life is unraveled by an alter-ego with the same name — the most closely. French "heartthrob" Alain Delon plays the title role; the film is structured as a flashback with Wilson recounting his life story to a priest in the confession box. The twist is that Wilson's life has been upended, not by an evil double (as is usually the case in alter-ego stories) but by an embodiment of good who turns up to thwart the "bad" Wilson's  nefarious intentions, always in the nick of time. All throughout his life, Wilson's attempts to employ his sadistic tendencies end in total humiliation: first in his schooldays, when he encounters his double for the first time; then as a medical student; and finally, in the army, where his cheating at the gambling table ends in disgrace.
Malle's effort has more of the feel of an early-70s British horror flick than any of the three stories. The sequence where Delon straps a naked woman to the demonstration table in his medical class in order to indulge in the kind of sexual sadism more usually found in a Jess Franco movie looks like it could have come out of any euro sleaze offering from the period! The fact that this has a considerably 'higher' province only becoming apparent when Brigitte Bardot turns up in the gambling sequence as a wealthy countess Giuseppina, whom Wilson tricks into allowing herself to be whipped after cheating her out of her wealth. "William Wilson" is watchable if unremarkable, even including such Euro Horror staples as a very floppy looking body being thrown from the top of a tall building. It proves to be merely the warm up for an exquisite piece of cinematic imagination, though: Frederico Fellini's "Toby Dammit"
The fantastique genre is such an obviously suitable venue for Fellini's particular brand of surrealist carnival grotesquery that one wonders why the director had never ventured into this realm more often. The closest he had come previously was with 1965's sumptuous, two hour surrealist daydream "Juliet of the Spirits." Here though, Fellini packs more ideas into thirty-five minutes, and carries them off with more frenzied energy, than most directors display in an entire career. With its stylised sets, perpetually roving camera work and offbeat characterisation, it's hard to resist the idea that Fellini was unknowingly setting a ground-plan for the baroque tendencies in Italian horror which were soon to find expression in the cinema of Dario Argento (did the 'Italian Hitchcock' take the climax of "Four Flies On Grey Velvet" from this very film, one wonders?). Fellini, who was apparently a fan and a friend of Mario Bava, blatantly references one of that director's most floridly strange, yet beautiful Gothic masterpieces, "Kill Baby ... Kill!" and inadvertently provides a link that ties the sedate colour-drenched Gothic melodramas of Bava to the more modernist approach of the young Argento. "Toby Dammit" is very loosely based on Poe's "Never Bet The Devil Your Head", in which the Devil appears as an old man in rags. Fellini dispenses with most elements of the original tale and his is the only segment of the film which takes place in the modern-day (although its a very peculiar version of the present). Here, Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) is a vain, effete actor in the grip of alcoholism who arrives in Italy to promote his new film, a Western which is also supposed to be a Catholic allegory. Fellini follows his progress from the airport through to cloying television interviews, on to his acceptance speech at something called "The Golden She-Wolf Awards" — and documents his mental unraveling as he slides into a typically Felliniesque hallucinatory world, only slightly more disturbing than the dislocated real one he appears to be inhabiting. The most memorable image, for all the many inventive and bizarre tableaux Fellini stages throughout this piece, remains what many will recognise as a direct lift from Mario Bava: instead of an old man, here the Devil is shown as an angelic little girl with a bouncing ball! 
"Toby Dammit" is a real gem and its a shame that this DVD presentation from the UK's Arrow Films is so mediocre, as one really feels it deserves to be experienced in all its sumptuous glory. Instead the French language version included here looks rather washed out in parts, although each segment of the film tends to start off looking quite poor and get gradually better as it goes along. There are no extras whatsoever included, though. Still, anyone who ever loved the films of Bava or Argento, or appreciates visual extravagance in their cinema will be sure to love Fellini's last segment, and the other two are more than watchable, also.        

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