Spirits of The Dead is a lively sideshow curiosity from 1968, a freakish triple-header of separate episodes from the fevered brains of Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. Each tale in this compilation film, very loosely adapted from a selection of short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, exhibits a morbid and fascinating spectacle of poetic license, licentiousness, and the delirium of self-delusion. Each episode, despite a disconcerting dissimilarity of style, tone, and historic setting, depicts the downward trajectory of a soul in anguish, corroded by sin and inexorably drawn to its own horrific end.
- Liner note essay
- Chapter stops
The film opens with Metzengerstein, both silly and unsettling. Supposedly set in medieval times, this episode by Roger Vadim stars Jane Fonda as a depraved aristocrat who rules her castle with autocratic whim and cruel caprice. Countess Frederique inflicts unspeakable infamies on everyone within her domain, who serve only to satisfy her ruthless pursuit of pleasure which she indulges without conscience or constraint. Fresh from under the curling iron and trussed up in animal hides and go-go boots, she’s a kitten with a riding crop, a nasty chatelaine with a taste for chastisement and naughty amusements.
Frederique has everyone pinned under the heel of her boot, with the exception of Baron Wilhelm, her cousin, adversary, and thwarted love interest (played by Fonda’s very own brother Peter!) The two cousins engage in a blood feud steeped in centuries of inherited infighting. Frederique sets fire to the family tree by burning down her cousin’s stables.
Wilhelm perishes in the blaze as he attempts to save his most beloved horse. Soon after, Frederique is haunted by the apparition of a mysterious stallion with which she develops an unhealthy animal attraction. She saddles up, tames the beast, and abandons all other cares and desires, obsessively strapped to her horse.
The object of her equestrian desire, already a figure of dark foreboding, has its pictorial counterpart in one of Frederique’s tapestries. At the very moment of the stables’ destruction, the corresponding image of a horse in the tapestry is burned out in silhouette.
Desperate to repair the image, Frederique summons an artisan to weave the horse back into the tapestry. The artwork is possessed by a will of its own and resists the effort, although it finally yields to the reconstruction. Frederique herself has a simultaneous unraveling; as soon as the picture is complete, she and her beast ride off into an inexplicable conflagration, where both are consumed by roaring, licking flames.
The most supernatural aspect of Metzengerstein is that its perversity doesn’t completely spoil its power as a visual depiction of evil and retribution. So many of the elements in this segment maliciously work against themselves: lutes and harpsichords backfire as background music and historic reference, when an electric guitar could have sparked the same jolt. The costumes, while antiquated, have a certain mod panache that would not look out of place in Vadim’s own Barbarella or the strawberry fields of Woodstock.
Jane Fonda’s Americanized, star-mangled French is more Southern California than Middle Europe. The film flirts with such sure-fire shockers as incest and bestiality (somewhat akin to a child’s gleeful mouthing of obscenities in the company of grown-ups). Its static orgies have the all the limp audacity of a Versace ad campaign – debauchery is depicted as a heap of languid bodies in spent repose.
If one can turn a blind eye to the time warp anachronisms of “Metzengerstein,” and focus instead on those moments when the film is harnessed to horse and fire, it becomes apparent that a strange power has been unleashed. In fits and starts, the film has the intermittent yet paralyzing velocity of a nightmare at full gallop.
Triumph of the Wilson
Louis Malle enters the fray with William Wilson, a 19th century portrait of the degenerate as a young man (Alain Delon). The protagonist, tormented by hallucinations of a body falling from a bell tower, rushes into a church, disrupts mass, and demands that a priest halt everything and hear his confession.
The story unfolds in flashback, and the priest is seized by the unbeliever’s desperate tale of unrepentant pride and murder. Harking back to his school days, William Wilson offers a peek at his childhood as the schoolyard sadist. With the self-assurance of the Anti-Christ and endowed with a corruption mature beyond his years, little William enforces his tyranny by torturing his classmates: one hapless student finds himself suspended by a rope over a rat-infested well.
The only challenge to his despotic rule comes in the form of his double: a new student shows up one day, bearing little physical resemblance but sporting the same name: William Wilson. His only rival is now himself, with whom he refuses to share power. William’s immoral equilibrium has been thrown off balance like a faulty inner ear.
William’s unfeeling, unsentimental education continues after he enrolls in medical school. For him, the human body is less a temple of life than an object of desecration. The classroom becomes an amphitheater of cruelty in which the professor’s dispassionate dissection of a cadaver holds William rapt with morbid fascination. His depravity is as clinical, cold, and precise as a medical textbook.
Aroused by the scholarly demonstration, William re-stages the lesson on a writhing young woman, whom he abducts and ties to an operating table. Taunting her with a sickening array of surgical instruments, William titillates his companions and onlookers with treatments of sexual agony. Far more unyielding than the passive corpse in medical class, the young woman struggles to be freed and dies when William’s scalpel goes astray in the scuffle. William flees and seeks anonymity in the last refuge of the scoundrel: the army.
Now an officer in full regalia, William attends a masked ball and gambling party where he encounters a new nemesis in the form of Brigitte Bardot, yet another challenger who holds up a mirror to his cracked, imperious vanity. Chomping on a cigar and unafraid to mince words, Bardot is a sharp-mouthed card shark who takes one look at the newcomer and decks him with a withering assessment of his shortcomings. He’s all “bluff and window dressing,” a phony that loves an audience, but who “puts on a poor show.” The two face off in a fight-to-the-finish game of cards, which William wins by cheating.
Fate deals him a fatal hand, however. Wilson’s double suddenly appears again, this time identical to him in appearance despite the mask that obscures his features. The double exposes Wilson as a fraud, and the two challenge themselves to a dual. His pride has turned inward against himself. Wilson thrusts a sword into his avenging twin, committing suicide by default. Each man kills the one he loves.
Louis Malle’s tale of fractured self-importance is deceptively understated and paradoxically self-effacing. William Wilson is the least showy of the three segments in Spirits of The Dead, despite its metaphor of the theatricality of evil and the unity of the self as an empty projection. Alain Delon conveys desperation without histrionics, as if Hell were a slow burn of quiet anguish (as opposed to the wild fire of all-consuming torment at the tail end of Metzengerstein).
The inevitability of spectacular retribution is all the more disturbing here due to the fact that the supernatural is characterized as an abnormal psychological state. Early in the episode, William sits in class with an open notebook and inkwell brimming with red ink. He pours the ink over his homework and claps the notebook shut. When he reopens it, a symmetrical, gory pattern has emerged, prefiguring his adversarial double and violent death in the image of a bloody Rorschach test. Bats in the belfry really are bats in the head.
Stamp of Approval
The link between Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit – Or Don’t Bet The Devil Your Head and its source, a short story by Poe, is as tenuous as that of a decapitated head to its former body. Fellini’s adaptation may be loose, but it’s not slack: of all three episodes in this self-contained trilogy, Toby Dammit is the most chilling and true in spirit to its literary progenitor.
Terence Stamp is dreamy as the nightmare protagonist who jets to Rome to star in a spaghetti Western based on the redemption of Christ – Jesus in jodhpurs, if you will. Toby, dispirited and disheveled, is an unholy mess. The burned out, boozed up actor is a paragon of dissipation and resignation: his only salvation is the Ferrari that the film’s producers have dangled over his head like a carrot on a stick-shift, hoping to wrangle a performance out of him.
The minute he steps off the plane, Toby is attacked by a pack of wild Paparazzi, whose flashbulbs stun him like a sacrificial lamb caught in the headlights. It’s as if the glare of fame has drained him of all color and vitality. He’s overexposed, washed out and washed up.
Hounded by the press, Toby consents to a television interview in which he’s grilled on every subject from his drug habits to religious convictions. The inquisition is conducted to a chorus of canned applause, in which he confesses that he doesn’t so much believe in God as he does the devil, whom he pictures as a pin-curled little girl with a bouncing ball.
Toby has sold his soul to the media, and Hell is an awards show in which he is being honored with a “Golden She-Wolf” in recognition of his achievements on film. Fellini wipes his feet on the red carpet of self-congratulation by turning the proceedings into a literal fashion show. The handing out of statuettes is preceded by a parade of statuesque models in outlandish creations who prowl the same catwalk as those actresses who leap to the podium to snatch their awards. In the end, talent is proportionate to the size of one’s ass and the skirt that hoists it up.
When Toby’s moment arrives, the spotlight catches him in a drunken haze. He staggers to the stage, where he struts and frets and spits out snippets of Shakespeare in a barbed, mock-soliloquy. Full of sound and fury, Toby is a poor player signifying nothing but contempt for himself and his adoring public.
His monologue spent, Toby makes a fast exit and dashes off to fetch his Ferrari. He hops in the car and floors it. He’s on a collision course with fate: careening out of control in the darkness, his headlights illuminate the emptiness speeding towards him. Burning rubber on the lost highway to Hell, Toby meets his end in a violent, spiritual smash-up. There’s nothing quite like the exhilarating rush of despair.
In this tripped-out triptych, Fellini’s episode is the most compelling by virtue of its contemporary setting. This in no way implies, however, that it is familiar or comforting by virtue of its temporal immediacy. Fellini’s world, while seemingly of our own time, is disconcerting, disorienting, and frightening. Everything is twisted beyond recognition in a demonic carnival of grotesqueries and delirious visions in which delusion is heralded as enlightenment. Fellini’s Toby Dammit scrutinizes the cult of celebrity and our tabloid theocracy with unflinching clarity: it’s a canvas of modern society seen through the distorting lens of Hieronymous Bausch & Lomb.
Although Spirits of The Dead has been previously released on DVD by Image Entertainment, this particular edition, while virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor, is handsomely produced. Overall image quality appears somewhat sharper. If one is susceptible to such trifles as cover art, this version’s dark, purple-tinted photograph of an intemperate Terence Stamp is preferable to the other’s pen and ink rendering of the film’s roster of stars.
One significant improvement, however, distinguishes this latest release from its prior digital incarnation. The viewer here is able to access each tale through an individual menu whereas the old version had the disadvantage of lumping all three episodes together in an unbroken series of chapter numbers without providing a clear demarcation between them.
Bonus-material bells and whistles are non-existent, alas. While this is not necessarily a detriment, the film does have the extra burden of resting on its own merits. The only add-on here is an insightful, multi-layered liner-note essay by Nathan Rabin, head entertainment writer for The Onion.