Spirits of the Dead (1968)

As the Shaggs would say, it’s Halloween! and as such we have big plans here at the cult. We’re working on theme weeks for the month, and this first week is all about Edgar Allen Poe. We’ll be talking about some adaptations of his stories for film from throughout the history of cinema, as well as posting a few Poe-influenced short stories. Also, we’ll probably be drunk. Kicking things off in a stylish manner is an anthology entitled Spirits of the Dead, or¬†Histoires extraordinaires in the original French.¬†Both trilogy-style films and Poe adaptations for the screen were plentiful in the sixties, most notably the Roger Corman/Vincent Price films, so it’s a relief to see three of Poe’s lesser-known stories get the film treatment in 1968’s Spirits of the Dead. The first, Roger Vadim’s version of Metzengerstein, casts Jane Fonda as a sadistic countess who uses her inheritance to satisfy her decadent whims. I’m obviously on board for that. All this pales, however, once she meets her cousin, played by Jane’s brother Peter, who wants nothing to do with her or the world at large, content to befriend animals and generally be a monk. An attempt at revenge goes awry and the countess is haunted by a huge black stallion. This sort of thing isn’t everyone’s tea (I’ve heard this part described as “Jane Fonda rides a horse for half an hour”) but I certainly like it — it stays true to the original story while allowing Vadim to satisfy his love of the long take. It’s worth noting that while shooting this film, Peter Fonda met Barbarella screenwriter Terry Southern, who tagged along to Rome after shooting, and the two of them first discussed Easy Rider.

Jane Fonda’s costumes look like leftovers from the Barbarella shoot, vaguely repurposed for medieval times. I don’t mean this as an insult at all. In fact, my favorite thing about Metzengerstein is Fonda’s wardrobe: the cut-to-the-navel one-piece with a cape and high-heeled boots that she toys with a knife in; the brown leather shorts and boots combo she forces an unwilling girl into a threeway in; the 70s-anticipating sheer white nightgown she rides her horse into the distance on; and, my favorite, the totally Barbarella-esque tunic and leather leggings she goes to see her cousin in. Metzengerstein is at least a visual treat, even if nothing really happens.

William Wilson, directed by Louis Malle, also stays relatively true to the original, in which scumbaggy William Wilson is thwarted in his attempts at cruelty throughout his life by another William Wilson, whom he eventually kills. Malle captures a solid sense of dread here, and makes great use of Bergamo as a backdrop.

What more to say about William Wilson, which, in my opinion, is a little dry, particularly when compared to the other two films. Brigitte Bardot, however, is totally radiant a Wilson’s card game opponent; she wears a dark brown wig and is constantly smoking cigars, and you can’t take your eyes off of her. Which is probably why Wilson won at cards.

Originally Orson Welles was to direct The Cask of Amontillado, but after he withdrew Frederico Fellini took his slot for Toby Dammit, certainly the best known (if barely a Poe adaptation) of the three films. Terrence Stamp plays a drunk actor celebrated by Italian society, and the film definitely feels of a kin to Juliet of the Spirits and 8 1/2: fans of either Fellini or Stamp definitely should check it out.

I almost wish Toby Dammit wasn’t in this omnibus, because it so clearly outshadows the other two films, as to make them seem almost boring in comparison. Toby Dammit is Fellini as his most Felliniesque; I would go so far as to call the film Gilliam-esque (to use a later comparison) in its utterly bleak, hilarious parade of human grotesquerie. Terence Stamp looks like a zombie, is haunted by Satan (as a creepy little girl! That’s good stuff), and recites Shakespeare at an awards dinner while having a nervous breakdown and sweating profusely. While Metzengerstein has Jane Fonda riding a horse for half an hour, Toby Dammit has Terence Stamp driving a Ferrari for half an hour, trying to get away from…well, everything. It’s absolutely, stunningly gorgeous (the first scene in the airport, particularly – are we in the future, or simply Fellini’s 60s?), and enduringly creepy. I think Poe would have dug it.

One of the downsides to the trilogy format is it’s easy for one story to overshadow the others, particularly when that episode so perfectly captures a director’s style at the time: Fellini’s postneorealist Jungian style is perfectly encapsulated in Toby Dammit, which makes it not only a lot of fun to watch but useful for viewers interested in him as a director. Malle’s William Wilson, on the other hand, is an example of a director in mid-stream, working on methods he’d more successfully use in films like Lacome, Lucien. Vadim is Vadim, basically, and having come off Barbarella the style is certainly different but the structure is certainly similar.

Spirits of the Dead: definitely worth seeing for fans of the aforementioned directors, or fans of omnibus horror films; if nothing else you should certainly catch Toby Dammit. More soon!

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