Logline: Three of the 1960s' most acclaimed European filmmakers take on the horror genre by adapting a trio of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser-known works, adding their own idiosyncratic twists to the source material. Roger Vadim has Jane Fonda fall in love with both her brother Peter and a fiery ghost horse in "Metzengerstein;" Alain Delon plays a kinky form of poker with Brigitte Bardot and has his sadistic whims foiled by his double in Louis Malle's "William Wilson;" finally, Terence Stamp plays a Poe-tinged actor/director ravaged by fame/drugs/booze and led into a nasty bet with a creepy little girl in Federico Fellini's hallucinatory waking nightmare "Toby Dammit."
In my admittedly limited experience, Spirits of the Dead (a.k.a. Histoires extraordinaires) is the definitive Poe film. It's never as pulpy or as blatantly, opulently horrific as American International Pictures' earlier slew of Poe adaptations helmed by Roger Corman, but the three interrelated segments that make up the composition of Spirits of the Dead do manage to capture that other side of Poe's work: the side dwelling upon melancholy reflections of death and the slow, agonizing disintegration of self felt by tortured souls. Corman's films nailed the cheap thrills and bitter situational ironies found throughout Poe's oeuvre; Spirits of the Dead aims for those metaphysical, existential ironies that peek out from between the lines. It seems to me that the uninitiated would get a better sense of the feeling of Poe's writing (both his poetry and prose) from these three brief episodes than from any other single filmed adaptation. Moreover, as an anthology of independent interpretations by vastly different creative minds, the stories blend together astoundingly well. All three share the fundamental thematic concern of irredeemable protagonists searching for a redemption that only comes through self-annihilation. Where the shorts diverge from one another is on the issue of style, which goes a long way towards keeping the film fresh over its two hour length. (I failed to notice the drag of minutes elapsing). Vadim's is the overly-serious yet extravagant costume Gothic, Malle's is the realistic narrative that degrades into psychological delusion, and Fellini's is the uninhibited fever dream. The psychological progression these segments exhibit together (probably unintentionally) from ordered control of the external world ("Metzengerstein") to the loss of one's control of the self ("William Wilson") to the evacuation of order and sense from both the internal and external worlds ("Toby Dammit") is a thematic movement that could not be accomplished by one story (or even one sensibility) on its lonesome. Spirits of the Dead, as a whole pie, is more satisfying than its individual slices. But I suppose I should jot down a few ideas about each serving, too:
Critically, Roger Vadim's "Metzengerstein" is the runt of litter, but I think this segment has received far too much misplaced ire from its detractors. True, it does miss some of the subtlety and artistic flair of the two following episodes, but I think "Metzengerstein" is best viewed as a sort of bridge between the decade's earlier Poe films and those yet to come within the remainder of Spirits of the Dead. Vadim switches the gender of Poe's titular "petty Caligula," and we end up with Jane Fonda strutting about in garish Barbarella costumes playing an advanced game of "William Tell" with her subjects and petting her baby cheetah. Like Corman's Poe films, it's played for the most part straight, in spite of its frequent flashes of absurdity (my favorite: the brooding, hunky Peter Fonda feeding a baby owl). This commingled seriousness and absurdity lends the segment a curious effect when it begins to unravel in the second half, as Fonda's Metzengerstein meets her ghostly black steed and the segment lapses into an approach almost abstract and impressionistic (a stylistic touch that finds a curious elliptical note in the short film's startling first shot, which seems to have no discernible bearing on or explanation in what comes after). This segment allows for us to witness as European sensibilities transform the aesthetics and concerns of the cinematic Poe adaptation into a beast more pointedly psychological. Some Rod Serling-esque narration throughout the episode is its only glaring flaw-- I reckon that Vadim's visuals are strong enough to stand on their own, unencumbered by the pat exposition and analysis that the voice over provides.
Louis Malle's "William Wilson" is, for me, the most problematic effort, being both predominantly brilliant and occasionally dull. The most impressive aspects are its casual integration of extreme sadism and the sheer effortlessness it expresses in making the antiquated doppelganger scenario genuinely unnerving. Most of the credit for the first of these can be left to to fall upon Alain Delon, whose character's sadism arrives (in both execution and confession) with his patented steely cool. The early examples are disquieting in their ruthlessness: stringing a child classmate up by a rope and lowering him into a bucket full of ravenous rodents and preparing for a live dissection of a frightened nude woman in front of a cadre of his medical school colleagues. It's brutal stuff, and his nonplussed admittance of these deeds to no less than a priest renders his sociopathic tendencies all the more chilling. This all leads into that second strength I mentioned: the success of its implementation of Delon's conscience-like double. This double (whose face is wisely kept off-screen until the final moments, even though we are fully aware he is Delon himself) commands attention simply by walking into a room, and Delon's sturdy exoskeleton cracking at the mere sight of him helps make their scenes together memorable for their uneasiness. All of this internal/external tension crescendos in a sabre duel and a vanquishing, but not before the segment diverts too much energy to a largely superfluous card game played between Delon and Brigitte Bardot-- it goes on for too long, the sadism that rears up (a whipping) seems far too mundane in comparison to previous events, and the double's interruption lacks the surprise or power of past encounters. It's a small quibble, as this is a strong portion, so let's forget I even mentioned it.
Lastly and never leastly: "Toby Dammit," Fellini's surreal, psychosis-fueled, "liberally adapted" reinterpretation of Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," is even better than I'd been led to believe (and I'd been led to believe it was incredible; rather, I'd call it exquisite). Labeling it as beholden to the cinematic world of Mario Bava would be an understatement (Fellini's ball-bouncing blonde devil child has quite literally been swiped from Bava's Kill Baby Kill!), but it would be equally foolish to claim that Fellini adds nothing of his own to liven the stew. "Toby Dammit" features the overall film's only contemporary setting, and that setting is populated by locations showcasing a Rome of foreign nightmares: gaudy, blinding, disorienting, and incomprehensible (a translator, working her magic on the spoken drivel of a film executive, relates to Toby at one point that "there was something about bison there, but I didn't quite get the point"). It is a pointed, surreal satire of the Italian film industry at the same moment that it is a sad dirge for the decline of the creative mind. Terence Stamp is a sight to behold, imbuing Toby with a sort of beleaguered artist pathos that is simultaneously repugnant and attractive-- he's a soul awash and drifting at high speeds through a version of Rome populated by literal cardboard cut-outs where the people should be, reaching out towards a conception of innocence that is, while almost certainly demonic, preferable. At one juncture taking place at the Italian Academy Awards, Toby is invited to give a speech on stage and begins that famous soliloquy from Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5, but stops short of telling us that his life, which has been "full of sound a fury," signifies nothing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. It is perhaps this lingering hope that drives him (and his loaned Ferrari) to his late night dance with the devil (one which, in opposition to Poe's tale, ends in a provocation towards suicide rather than a rigged bet): the hope and desire to obtain tangible proof of innocence divorced from the bleak landscapes of life, to discover significance. Nevertheless, while "Toby Dammit" is assuredly full of cinematic sound and fury, I believe we can rest certain that it signifies something. The sole facet of disappointment surrounding "Toby Dammit" is the fact that Fellini never went on to direct more horror. But then again, what else could he have had to say in the form? In one forty minute attempt, he perfected the horror film. Asking for more would be both greedy and redundant*.
*And I suppose we'll always have La Dolce Vita's seance. A small comfort.