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Spirits of the Dead (Blu-ray)

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Release Date: 
Arrow Films
Art House
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Directed by: 
Roger Vadim
Louis Malle
Federico Fellini
Jane Fonda
Peter Fonda
Alain Delon
Brigitte Bardot
Terence Stamp
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When one thinks of the work of Edgar Allen Poe in terms of the diverse attempts by film-makers to interpret it for the cinema screen over the years, one probably thinks first of the Roger Corman classics from the 60s; usually starring Vincent Price, they often also featured the likes of Barbara Steele, Peter Lore and Boris Karloff in enjoyable but sometimes quite campy roles. They were cheaply-made but visually extravagant b-movie Technicolor melodramas, which have only grown more loveable over the years. But after the last of them, “The Tomb of Ligeia”, was released in 1966, their distributor, American International Pictures, was forced to look elsewhere for its next attempt to milk profit from the works of Poe. Which brings us to the less well known French/Italian co-production that is “Histoires extraordinaires” (released as Tre passi nel delirio in Italy, theatrically as “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” in the UK and “Spirits of the Dead” in the US – the latter also becoming its title on home video in English speaking territories): a once rare curio which emerged at the tail end of the Sixties. It features three of European cinema's most prestigious name directors, each of them tackling a separate Poe tale in the classic format made so popular by Amicus Films: the anthology, or portmanteau, feature. Not only does this French/Italian-made triptych give us Fellini unveiling his Gothic-modernist pop culture take on the Italian horror genre, but it also brings together Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda and Terence Stamp in the same film  - although not in the same story, unfortunately.

This is clearly a work that screams to be seen by all cineastes. Fellini's segment alone is a work of unparalleled genius; a tour-de-force which any self-respecting fan of Italian horror should not be without. Arrow previously released the film on DVD with a murky French language print which did the film few favours in a number of areas. Now this new Blu-ray release makes considerable amends. There are two different transfers of the film included on the disc: the previous French one (as seen on the older DVD), in standard definition, now becomes more an extra feature for the curious than anything else, featuring the French language dub and removable English subtitles as before. The disc’s brand new high definition transfer radically transforms the experience of seeing the film for anyone who (like myself) had previously only seen it via the old French Language version: brighter, sharper and with a much more accurate colour balance than the blurry copper sheen which that old DVD print had yielded, this new Blu-ray also finally gives us the opportunity to watch each segment with its optimum language track, since multiple audio versions have been prepared (although you have to watch the film in standard definition if, for some obscure reason, you should still want to watch Vadem and Fellini’s segments in French). Fellini’s classic segment, “Toby Dammit”, gains the most from these new language options, since it made very little sense in blanket French. Now you can watch it in Italian with English subtitles – a respectable version which retains Terrence Stamp’s bravura post-synched English language performance – or else, finally, you can watch it with its Fellini-supervised English language dub. This version is, if anything, even better, and is probably the most authentic way to watch this particular segment of the movie since it still retains spoken Italian where appropriate, capturing the dislocation of feeling out of place in a foreign culture; a mood which Stamp’s performance conveys, but which was undermined in the French language version, where all nationalities speak French throughout.

 The other two tales making up this two hour collection don't even come close, of course, to matching the strength of character of Fellini’s effort. Nevertheless, watching them both again with this transfer has radically altered my assessment of at least one of them. Previously I had been slightly underwhelmed by Roger Vadem’s take on "Metzengerstein"; and it is certainly true that one’s feelings about the work will to a large extent depend on one’s appreciation of the pulchritudinous virtues of a Barberella-era Jane Fonda, as Vadem's then-wife is the main attraction of the piece. Previously I wrote that Vadem's directorial ideas on translating for the screen Poe's tale of supernatural revenge through equine possession, seemed rather half-hearted and weak; but I’ve actually grown to like this peculiarly sixties take on feudal horror a lot more the second time round! Jane Fonda plays Countess Frederique, an evil noblewoman who makes up for her debauched moral turpitude with copious amounts of doe-eyed sex kitten posturing and skimpy, midriff revealing leather costumes. After she is spurned in love by her cousin, neighbouring nobleman Baron Wilhelm Berlifitzing (played – weirdly - by her own brother, Peter Fonda, just to add an extra fillip of incest to proceedings,) she takes her revenge by burning down his castle, and then gets all lovesick and despairing when she learns that 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 sort of cod period piece, this is a highly stylised piece of work, short on dialogue, narrative or action, and more intent on showing-off the bizarrely a-historical costumes of designer Jacques Fonteray  than re-creating any kind of authentic period feel. It’s not for nothing that the film starts by quoting the opening line from Poe’s written story: “Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to this story I have to tell?” Thus the tale unfurls in a highly ponderous, dream-like manner (voice-over narration filling in the narrative gaps), without the distraction of a specific time, place or setting; but with the fairy tale ambience of a far-off fictional medieval age, Jean Prodromides’ lilting madrigal-like score making a most fitting accompaniment. But the film does present the picturesque, autumnal colours of the French countryside rather splendidly, and ends up forging rather a pleasingly languid style that, with its mix of crumbling childhood castles, erotically charged costumed romps and beguiling pastoral scenery, anticipates the later work and themes of Jean Rollin, whilst conjuring a mise-en-scene that suggests a sort of psychedelic pop art “Witchfinder General”. Fonda doesn't really get a chance to do anything too outrageous despite the implied fetishism of her skimpy, peek-a-boo Wonder-Woman-meets-Barberella outfits: we're mainly told in a lazy voice-over about her character's supposed satanic orgies and her alleged sadistic doings, unfortunately — although there are one or two scenes suggestive of her cruelty, such as when she’s seen on horseback surveying a public hanging on her grounds whilst gravely intoning the words: ‘I love this place – it is beautiful!’ Nevertheless, Euro-sleaze fans might go away disappointed, despite the heavy tang of Jess Franco’s ‘erotica-historic’ films of the late sixties, when he produced works such as “The Bloody Judge” and “Justine” for Harry Alan Towers. However, repeat viewings help to make sense of the piece alongside its apparently more serious companions; there are many themes, recurring motifs and symbols throughout all three films, although whether they were ever planned that way is a moot point. The disc’s default language option now presents the film in English rather than French. Both audio tracks work just as well: Fonda seems to have performed the role in both French and English depending on who was in any particular scene with her – and both she and Peter Fonda post-synched their own performances for the French track. Thus either audio track has moments when it does not synch up with the lip movements of the actor. On balance, I prefer the film with the English track though.

 Next out of the traps is Louis Malle with his interpretation of "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 unravelled by an alter-ego with the same name — the most closely. French "heartthrob" Alain Delon plays the title role with Bridget Bardot in her prime as his adversary in a Paris gaming room. The film is structured as a flashback with Wilson recounting his life story to a priest in the confession box of a Catholic church. 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 through his life Wilson's attempts to indulge his sadistic tendencies end in total humiliation for him at the hands of his shadow: first in his schooldays, when he encounters his double for the first time, then as a medical student when a murderous night-time escapade ends in disgrace, and finally in the army, where his plotting at the gambling table ends in humiliation when he is exposed as a cheat in front of his colleagues.

 Malle's effort has more of the feel of an early-70s British horror flick than any of the three stories, while 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' provenance only becoming apparent when Brigitte Bardot finally 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. To me, this now seems to be the weakest of the three films (although it is still well worth watching); the gambling sequence slows it down to much in the latter half and, in any case, It proves to be merely the warm up for an exquisite piece of cinematic imagination: Frederico Fellini's "Toby Dammit". The film is presented in its original French language as the default option, but it is also available to view in a dubbed English version, which none of the stars had anything to do with. The French dub is thus the optimal version, still.

 The fantastique genre is such an obviously suitable venue for Fellini's particular brand of surrealist carnival grotesquery that one wonders why the director has not ventured into the realm more often. The closest he had come to doing so previously was in 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 creating the blueprint for all 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 inextricably to the modernist approach of the young Argento.

"Toby Dammit" is very loosely based on Poe's tale "Never Bet the Devil Your Head", in which, originally, the Devil appears as an old man in rags. Fellini dispenses with almost all the elements of the original tale, and this is the only one of the three segments to takes place in a contemporary sixties setting (although it’s a very peculiar cartoon version of the era). Here, Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) is a vain, effete English actor in the grip of alcoholism, who arrives in Italy to star in a new film -- an Italian-made Western which is also supposed to be a Catholic allegory of the Resurrection. But, we learn, he’s only doing it because he’s been promised a golden Ferrari! Fellini follows Dammit’s progress, from arrival at an eerie orange-tinged airport lounge, through the riotous streets of Roma, and on to the soundstage of an off-kilter television show where he takes part in a cloying and absurdly insincere interview. Then it’s onward to the smoky confusion of a fashion show-cum-Awards ceremony; then, later, he finds himself forced in to making a pained and drunken acceptance speech at the Italian Oscars -- something called "The Golden She-Wolf Awards". From here, the film documents his mental unravelling as Toby slides into a typically Felliniesque hallucinatory world, only slightly more disturbing than the dislocated real one he appears to inhabit anyway. There’s a virtuoso high-speed joyride through the fogbound outskirts of Roma at night, the streets becoming an obscure landscape glimpsed through blinking illumination from the headlight’s of Dammit’s golden Ferrari: a gaudy psychedelic pop-up book of cardboard cut-out landmarks and looming waxworks pedestrians. 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 silent bouncing ball! It has to be said though, that Fellini’s rendering of the image -- an eerie grinning child-pixie in phantom white -- is unerringly creepy and malevolent in her appearance.

The default soundtrack on the disc is the Italian language track, which is perfectly fine; Stamp still speaks his part in English in that version while the Italian actors are subtitled. Interestingly though, the English soundtrack, which dubs the main speaking Italian parts into English but leaves the background chatter and minor speaking parts in the original Italian but without subtitles, works better for promoting the dislocated, out-of-place, stranger-in–a-strange-land feel which the film aims to create and which Stamp’s performance works to suggest, making this the preferred audio option for many fans of the film. The English dub is now available as an option on this Blu-ray disc, either with or without subtitles.

When I last reviewed the DVD version, I regretted that we weren’t able to see the film presented in the sumptuous condition it deserved. The standard definition French language print was less than ideal, with poor, washed-out colouring and a brownish tint giving a false view of the true appearance of the film. Now, we can finally see “Spirits of the Dead” as it was meant to be seen. Although this is hardly a showcase for the Blu-ray format, and there are variable levels of grain and differences in the quality of the print at various points, this is unquestionably a vast improvement on the former DVD presentation (which of course, is still present on the Blu-ray for you to compare). “Metzengerstein” in particular leaps to life on this high definition print, with vivid detail and eye-popping colours. “William Wilson” is the most consistent of the three films, maintaining a pleasing level of clarity and strong colour; while “Toby Dammit”, with its heavy use of opticals and its vast amount of smoky and mist-shrouded scenes, suffers from the most grain, but not to the detriment of colour and clarity; this is a huge improvement on the murky visual mix with which we had to fare on the DVD version.

The disc includes the original trailer and the US opening titles, in which AIP attempted to tie the film in with the Corman Poe cycle by employing Vincent Price to read a voice over narration at the beginning and end of the film!

Arrow Films also treat us to a 60 page booklet that includes the text of all three stories alongside poster art and production stills, as well as Tim Lucas’s fine essay for Video Watchdog, “Spirits of the Dead Revisited”, which examines the themes and motifs that unite these three seemingly dispirit films.  Scholar and author Peter Bondanella’s essay “Literature and Cinema” provides a detailed analysis of Fellini’s view of, and approach to, the adaptation of literature in cinema, alongside some of Fellini’s own production sketches and cartoons.

Arrow have finally given this intriguing film the showing it always deserved and I don’t hesitate to recommend an upgrade to anyone who owns the DVD version.

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