One of many 1960s movies of its kind, Spirits of the Dead is a three-part anthology of Edgar Allan Poe´s lesser known short stories, each of them directed by a different European filmmaker – Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini.
Quoting Poe at the beginning (“Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to the story I have to tell?”), this movie set his stories in three different historical periods, from medieval times to then present day, in chronological order. More as two romantic mysterious melodramas and one sardonic satire than as horrors in a traditional sense, all three of these adaptations share a sense for visual beauty as well as attractive cast. However, in terms of an effective storytelling, their quality is uneven.
Directed by Roger Vadim, starring his then wife Jane Fonda and co-starring her brother Peter Fonda as her love interest, the adaptation of a first ever published story of Edgar Allan Poe could be easily described by only three words: visually stunning mess. If you previously saw some other films directed by this man, you probably know what I mean. Mr. Vadim could have been a great swinging sixties fashion guru. But as a filmmaker, he should be also a good storyteller, which he was not, I´m afraid.
So, based on its costumes, set designs and makeup, one could think that his segment is about Barbarella, mysteriously finding out her way to the past, where she pretends to be a bitchy baroness, secretly trying to influence the fashion trends of the medieval times. And, of course, to seduce some men along the way. But Jane Fonda actually plays a different character (or at least, desperately tries to) who just happens to share a similar taste in fashion and gender politics with the space heroine mentioned above.
Even if her baroness Metzengerstein is of an aristocratic origin and female sex, one can´t really use the word “noblewoman” in her case, because there is nothing noble about her. This is partly because of the character itself as she is – and is meant to be – a cruel, ruthless bitch torturing her fellows just for fun of it.
But partly also because Jane Fonda plays her as a redneck cowgirl who won some lottery and now gives everyone a big show of how much money and power she has. I believe Jeanne Moreau could be much better casting choice for this part, but I can understand the comercial motivations to make another Vadim-Fonda vehicle instead of a good movie.
So, this ovidian story about a man metamorphosed in a black horse after his accidental death, and a woman who then finally realizes how badly she behaved to him, was over fourty minutes long torture to watch for me. And the increasing stack of a shallow wannabe-freudian symbolism certainly did not help this.
The second segment has its highs and lows, but generally, the result is much more coherent in each component. Directed by Louis Malle, the story focuses on a sociopathic young man (Alain Delon), who wants to confess a murder he commited. In an unevenly interesting line of flashbacks, he tells the priest about a mysterious man whose name is exactly the same as his – William Wilson – and who keeps following him since their childhood.
Whenever the original William Wilson commits something really bad (and, being an obvious sadist, he does such things on a daily basis), this second William Wilson shows up as some sort of a romantic hero from “cloak and dagger” genre, ready to rescue the victim and punish the offender. Both William Wilsons are played by Delon, except for shots in which they physically interact with each other. In order not to disturb the illusion of two Delons, the chivalrous Wilson wears a mask covering half of his face, so Delon´s double remains anonymous.
The longest part of this segment is devoted to a card game Wilson plays with some noblewoman, played by Brigitte Bardot. And even if a huge amount of money is at stake, as well as is their privilege to punish the other in case of win, it´s really, really long and I am convinced that this is only because of Brigitte Bardot was cast in the part. She´s beautiful (actually, wearing a black wig, she looks more like Claudia Cardinale) and unlike Fonda, she knew how to act impressively without any external manifestations of it.
However, the sadomasochistic tension in a subtext of their game can not be stretched indefinitely, and more cutting would be of great benefit to the result. Especially when you can see the denouement of the story from afar.
I am generally a fan of Anglo-Saxon concept of cinema rather than of the Italian one, so I was seriously surprised that it was Federico Fellini segment which I enjoyed the best. His very loose adaptation of Poe´s short story Never Bet the Devil Your Head, starring Terence Stamp, is clearly the winner here. The titular character is a British actor, asked to star in Italian film, whose producers proudly present it as “the first ever Catholic western“.
We never see anything from this prepared masterpiece, because the whole segment captures a time elapsing between Toby´s arrival to the Italian airport and his night after, spent out at some bizarre award ceremony. Fellini´s obsessive contempt for television is hugely present here, but it´s not as snobbish and annoying as in some of his later films. It definitely makes much more sense in a story about an actor, devastated by his profession.
The anxious hero, probably not coincidentally resembling Edgar Allan Poe in a way, seems to be completely exhausted and disgusted by everything and everyone around him, so what we see along through his eyes, is just a dellusional pulsating carneval of grotesque. Fellini managed to capture so many people, surroundings and situations, some of them just barely overlooked for a few seconds, that I believe his present-day segment could have cost more money than both previous period dramas altogether.
In Toby Dammit (and some may argue that also in Fellini´s work in general) all people look and behave like a bunch of variously shaped and coloured insects, buzzing around the hero´s head and slowly killing him with their stings of words, asks and wishes. With each camera flash irradiating his face and each spasmodic smile he receives, Toby is closer and closer to be done with this world. And more and more prepared to leave it soon.
Even if the source material could be only an obligatory excuse for something different, more “auteurish” in this case, I appreciate that Fellini took from Poe something what the majority of his adaptators usually ignore, and that´s his dark, misanthropic humour. If for nothing else, watch the Spirits of the Dead for this last segment.