Spirits of the Dead (1968)
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#1, "Metzengerstein," directed by Roger Vadim. A cruel nymphomaniac countess (Jane Fonda) destroys the one man she can't have (Peter Fonda). That's right, this segment's biggest distinction is that it features a romance between real-life siblings Jane & Peter. Maybe I'm just a boor with no appreciation of high art, but watching those two gaze longingly at each other gave me the serious skeeves. Somewhere amongst the implied incest, the near- implied bestiality, and Jane's leftover costumes from Barbarella is the very thinnest of plots and narrative structure. Vadim doesn't seem to have any comprehension of suspense or what it takes to present a story that, if not scary, is at least spooky. You'll be constantly looking at your watch, but don't let "Metzengerstein" discourage you from seeing the other two stories.
#2, "William Wilson," directed by Louis Malle. An angel-faced but throughly rotten and sadistic man (Alain Delon) is hounded by a mysterious man that shares his name. This was a tight, satisfying little story. In contrast to Vadim, Malle is so talented at the art of suspense that he can make a simple card game exciting. Some reviewers have been put off by the scenes of misogyny--and to be honest, they did seem to spill over into exploitation. But I think it was necessary to present just how horrible the main character was, and to contrast it with how attractive he is physically (which to me was the most fascinating aspect of the segment). I found the ending slightly confusing, but still effective & tragic.
#3, "Toby Dammit," directed by Federico Fellini. This segment is so virtuoso and packed with Higher Meaning and Symbolism and Commentary On The Nature Of Man, God and the Devil that it really feels like its own movie. A jaded, alcoholic actor is invited to Rome to film a spaghetti western based on the life of Jesus Christ and attend a bizarre Italian version of the Oscars. The world as seen through Toby's eyes is populated with freaks, liars, and soulless puppets-- no wonder he prefers the Devil (uniquely and quite chillingly presented as a little girl). The scene where he is driving the Ferrari is a little overlong, but the ending is quite jarring and the last shot one of the unforgettable images of cinematic horror. The only real negative is that Terrance Stamp, who gives an incredible performance, has his voice completely dubbed by a French actor. If only we could have heard his own voice! It would be nice if Criterion could put this segment out on its own and give it the attention & study it deserves.
Vadim's segment (Metzengerstein'), starring Jane and Peter Fonda, is a real stinker. Has Vadim ever made a truly good film? Not really, so at least he's being consistent here by turning Poe's tale into a dull, silly mess. Striving hard for art's sake, he misses the mark each time. Q: Who wants to see Jane Fonda falling in love with Peter Fonda? A: Not me.
Malle's segment (William Wilson') is solid but not worth repeated screenings. Of note: Brigitte Bardot gets naked, verbally abused and whipped. No comment as to the merits of these actions or her presence; nevertheless, the tale's ending doesn't quite work.
Fellini's 'Toby Dammit' is classic, freakshow Fellini. Terence Stamp stars as a wasted British film star (looking like an effeminate junkie) and gives an awesomely convincing performance. Ultimately, his character gets a bit out of hand and, uh, loses his head. Good stuff that. It's probably fortunate that Fellini's is the longest and last segment; it is easily the film's strength and highlight. Unlike the first two tales, Toby Dammit' was also released theatrically on its own, yet it is not available separately on dvd.
The Spirits of the Dead' dvd first hit the market as an Image release. This is not the version to purchase. Image used a less-than-satisfactory source print, and the transfer looks crummy. Also, the menu is poorly designed and doesn't work quite the way one wants it to. Later, Home Vision released a higher quality version with four additional minutes of footage, using much finer source material. --- david ross smith
I found all three films interesting and involving in their own terms. I don't agree with the comments that call Vadim's adaptation a failure - it is certainly not. If anything, it is beautiful to look at and listen to and any film featuring Madam Roger Vadim (Jane Fonda was married to the director at the time) wearing the costumes that were certainly inspired by or even reused from "Barbarella" that was released in the same year, 1968 is worth watching. Vadim changed the short story by transforming a protagonist, 18 years old Baron Frederic Metzengerstein into 22 years old Contessa Frederica but he did not change her character. She is rich, bored, corrupted, and ruthless, a "petty Caligula", until she meets her cousin Wilhelm (played by Jane's brother, Peter Fonda). Making siblings playing cousins in love tells us something (or maybe a lot) about Vadim and his mysterious Slavic soul and reminds about Poe's own dramatic love for his first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm, whom he married when she was only 13 and whose death at the age of 25 from tuberculosis could have let to decline of his own mental state and his untimely death less than three years after her.
Poe explores in "William Wilson" very popular in the Art and literature subject of a man and his double that represents his conscience, his dark and hidden side. The short story brings to mind such famous works of literature as Hans Christian Andersen's "The Shadow", Adelbert Von Chamisso's "Peter Schlemiel: The Man Who Sold His Shadow", Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray".
In Louis Malle's short film, Wilson (Alain Delon) confesses his sinful and dreadful life to the priest recalling the outrageous and vicious deeds that have been prevented or disclosed by his exact double whose name is also William Wilson. Two scenes of the short film stand out. The first is a simply chilling Wilson's attempt to perform an autopsy on a living woman and the second Wilson plays cards, cheating shamelessly, with rich and arrogant Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot almost unrecognizable in a black wig that does almost impossible makes her look ugly). While it may be not the best Poe's adaptation and perhaps the weakest of three films in the anthology, two Delons for the price of one is reason enough to see it. I am glad that I finally saw the film that has achieved a cult status with years but is not easily available (I had to wait for several weeks for it from Netflix even after I had bumped it to the top). What started with my interest in the musical score by Rota, ended as a memorable watching experience.
"William Wilson," by Louis Malle, is an entertaining reworking of the old doppelganger theme starring Alain Delon as a pure lout AND his better half, a exact copy who drives him crazy by putting a halt to his evil impulses. Odd story structure here and Brigitte Bardot (in a black wig) is good support during a fateful card game. And then comes the really good stuff.
"Toby Dammit" (released separately as "Never Bet the Devil Your Head"), a brilliant and sometimes chilling piece of enigmatic film-making from Federico Fellini. Terence Stamp is a marvel of facial expressions as boozy, obnoxious British movie star Toby Dammit, who falls apart at the seems upon arriving in Italy to start production on a Western reworking of the story of Christ. Instead he becomes imprisoned in his own personal hell. In every possible technical department, this segment is a triumph and the creepy finale (borrowing a key image from Mario Bava's KILL, BABY, KILL!) has lost absolutely none of its impact.
The score by Nino Rota and cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno deserve special recognition, as well. The version I saw (titled TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION) is subtitled, but a dubbed version also exists featuring narration by Vincent Price.
- Skip the first one. Just do it. If you really must ogle the young Jane Fonda, get Barbarella.
- Your call on the second one. Okay, but not memorable.
The third story makes the film. It's "Fellini-esque"! Fellini's wild imagery makes narrative sense (well, sort of), when applied to the story of an addled English actor stumbling around Rome at breakneck speed. The segment also features a startlingly original image of evil (an "Anglican devil," I think that's the Terence Stamp character's phrase). Maybe it's just me, but the segment's conception of the devil is among the spookiest things I've ever seen on film; and when you get right down to it, it makes a lot more theological sense then ugly, scaly guys with tails.
The second story, William Wilson, is directed by French film-maker Louis Malle. It tells a familiar doppelgänger story of the wicked William Wilson (Alain Delon) who is also interrupted by his 'better half' who shares his name and his appearance, but none of his evil ways. After winning a card game against Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot) through repeatedly cheating, his other half exposes him, and the two face a duel. The third, directed by Federico Fellini and entitled Toby Dammit, follows alcoholic Shakesperean actor Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) who is brought to Rome to star in an adaptation of the story of Christ, re- imagined as a western. Haunted by visions of a blonde girl who has lost her ball, he goes on a drunken ride through Rome in a Ferrari.
The biggest problem with this film is the variations of quality in the different episodes. Vadim's opener is a pretty poor effort, with a strange storyline focusing on a woman's obsession with a horse. It seems to be nothing more than an excuse to get Jane Fonda into some skimpy medieval outfits. That is all well and good (it was one of the key reasons why I loved Barbarella!) but it's a silly story and a waste of some beautiful cinematography. Malle's second story is a big improvement, but it is clear that his heart is not really in it. Apparently he agreed to take on the job in order to raise money for Murmur of the Heart, and compromised to make the film more accessible to mainstream audiences. But the eroticism of the card game, and the strange atmosphere that is evident throughout make it an enjoyable 40 minutes.
Fellini's final segment is very much the director's own vision. It is so far gone from anything resembling Poe's original vision, it could be easily called Fellini's own. Thematically similar to most of his key works, Terence Stamp's crumbling lead character is the main focus, and his disintegrating sanity is laid out on the screen with a collection of flashing images, bizarre characters, and unconventional camera-work. It is also an attack on celebrity, as the characters that Dammit comes across don't react or flinch at his increasingly strange and unpredictable behaviour. It's a shame that Fellini is restricted to a 40 minute portion of a 2-hour film, as I would have quite happily watched Toby Dammit as a full-length feature. An enjoyable, if unspectacular overall film, with the stories getting notably better as the film goes on.
This erotic female version of Caligula shows the delicious Jane Fonda, who was married to Roger Vadim at that time, wearing sexy costumes very similar to "Barbarella" (of the same year). But the story is weak. My vote is five.
"William Wilson": the sadistic and cruel soldier of the Austrian army William Wilson (Alain Delon) confesses to a priest the cruelties he committed along his sinful life and the participation of his double also called William Wilson in specific moments of his dreadful life.
This short directed by Louis Malle is the certainly the best segment of these adaptations, showing the fight between the dark side and the human part of the same character. Brigitte Bardot is very different with black hair. My vote is six.
"Toby Dammit": the cynical alcoholic and decadent English actor Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) travels to Rome to make a Catholic Western, but only interested in receiving the Ferrari promised by the production.
This messy segment directed by Federico Fellini uses stylish images and a great performance of Terence Stamp, but the story is confused and the boring conclusion is too long. My vote is four.
My global vote for these adaptations is five.
Title (Brazil): "Histórias Extraordinárias" ("Extraordinaries Stories")
Malle's film, on the other hand, starts with a classic scene of dread -- a bloody-faced man running, quick cuts, loud music. Malle is the one director who gives into the classic Poe sense of foreboding. He delves immediately into childhood and summons up a strange, sadomasochistic and almost sexual perversion of the young Delon amidst the boarding/military school, torturing for fun, always with his bemused, blank face. At times the film tests your patience -- Why does Delon constantly have a group of followers around him wherever he goes? Why is there a seemingly real operation? Why is he permitted to whip a woman? -- but its logic oddly works, even though it makes very little literal sense. Delon's performance in the film is, as usual, very good: he doesn't get much to do, but he manages to be psychotic, insane, bemused, sexually frustrated, and sublime at different points throughout the film. I think Roman Polanski must be a Delon fan and must have seen this, as the ending (not to give anything away...) is very similar to that of "The Tenant," and there's a hilarious image in Fellini's film that also shows up in Polanski's film. (And aside from that, his "Knife in the Water," though stylistically and tonally different, has similarities in content to "Purple Noon.")
And a pop culture Fellini! His segment is quite reflexive, to the point that it does a twofold honoring of Terence Stamp: his character is a great British actor honoring Italian cinema, with mentions of Dreyer and Pasolini (who Stamp worked with that same year). It's partly a mockery of awards and film academia, with babble about conceptualizing and structuralist film. As is often the case with Fellini, it's hard to separate the genuine weirdness from the comedy, and with Stamp he finds an actor who can slide into the role of a harried actor with the same ease and gift for buffoonery as Mastroianni. It's hard to see any relation to Poe until near the end, when the film morphs into an interesting highway ghost story, complete with a ludicrous punctuation mark of comic goriness. 8/10 (for both Malle and Fellini's films).