Blu-Review: Spirits of the Dead

Directed By Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini
Starring Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot and Terence Stamp


Assembled in 1968, Spirits of the Dead (a.k.a. Histoires Extraordinaires, a.k.a Tales of Mystery and Imagination) takes three stories from legendary literary spookster Edgar Allan Poe and puts them in the hands of a trio of notable European directors – Roger Vadim (Barbarella), Louis Malle (Au revoir les enfants) and Federico Fellini (8½). The results are par for the course when it comes to anthology films; Spirits of the Dead is an unfortunately uneven selection of stories, with two shorts that fail to do justice to their inspiration and one work of visually arresting surreal genius that demands to be seen.

Not exactly starting the film with a bang, Roger Vadim’s vaguely incestuous reworking of Poe’s Metzengerstein is undoubtedly the weakest segment in the anthology. Taking the original tale of reincarnation and revenge amongst two warring cousins, Vadim gender-swaps the lead role in an attempt to sex up the story, depicting Jane Fonda as a spoilt heiress whose life consists of decadent hedonism, throwing orgies in her ostentatious castle and sadistically using those around her as she sees fit.

She chances upon her estranged cousin (Jane’s real-life brother Peter Fonda) in the woods and quickly becomes both incensed and enraptured by him. Though she quickly develops feelings for him, the noble stable-boy is immediately dismissive of her due to her cruel, debaucherous ways. Driven to rage by his defiant nature and his lack of interest in her, she lashes out and orders his stables burned to the ground, accidentally killing him in the process. Realising her mistake, she becomes hopelessly despondent until a strange black horse appears on the grounds – apparently the reincarnation of her dead love.
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Unfortunately Vadim doesn’t manage to conjure adequate inspiration from Poe’s story and subsequently fails to craft enough character or story to justify the length. Instead, he resorts to lengthy self-indulgence, relying on laughably tame orgy scenes and prolonged, loving shots of his then-wife Jane Fonda to carry the film along, without much success. Metzengerstein has lush cinematography and extravagant costume design to offer, but sadly they aren’t enough to mask the aimless pace and considerable padding that burdens the film.

Slightly more successful is Louis Malle’s adaptation of William Wilson, which recounts the reprehensible life of the titular soldier (Alain Delon) – a sadistic, despicable man with a fondness for torturing others, whether it be hog-tying classmates and letting rats nibble on them when he was a boy or attempting to surgically dissect a kidnapped young girl as an adult. Throughout his life, though, he’s been plagued by the appearance of a mysterious man who shares his name and appearance, and seemingly exists only to put an end to Wilson’s vicious games.

Louis Malle’s entry in the trio of shorts takes the decadent themes of Metzengerstein and runs with them into more exploitative territory. The hedonism of Jane Fonda’s aristocratic orgies and sociopathic games is replaced by more extreme, misogynistic torture as Wilson’s sadistic tendencies escalate unchecked by the men around him, who watch and participate without reservation, while Brigitte Bardot’s character exists primarily to be cheated, whipped and almost raped.
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Unfortunately, like the opening entry, there’s not enough substance in Malle’s short to really make it truly worthwhile. As Wilson is plagued by his doppelgänger – the manifestation of his own conscience – it works well enough as an uncomplicated moral fable about the weight of guilt, but there’s not much to the character or story beyond that, and the climactic capper doesn’t have the desired impact as a result. It does, however, boast a great performance from Alain Delon, who oozes chillingly detached, cold-hearted menace.

While I found the first two segments lacking, the stunning Toby Dammit, Frederico Fellini’s adaptation of the story ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’, more than makes up for those comparatively weaker parts. Bearing practically no resemblance to its source material and ditching the period settings of the preceding stories in favour of a then-contemporary 1960s setting, Fellini crafts Poe’s tale into his own unique beast: a nightmarish satire of fame and celebrity.

The Toby Dammit of Fellini’s story is an English movie star – played to weary perfection by a ghostly Terence Stamp – driven drunk and more-than-slightly mad by the privileges and falsities of fame. Coaxed to Rome to promote his upcoming film (the first “Catholic Western”) with promises of a free Ferrari, the booze-addled actor stumbles through a progressively surreal press tour with growing contempt as his descent into drink-fuelled madness increases, all the while haunted by the spectre of a devilish young girl with a bouncing ball and a demonic smile.
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A visual masterpiece, Fellini’s short plays out like an extended fever dream as the clammy, gaunt, paler-than-a-Cullen-sibling Dammit is trapped in the hellish nightmare of fame and its fawning, sheepish hordes. Surrounded by pretentious drones, Dammit becomes increasingly dismissive of the parasitic press, producers and fans who blindly idolise him, who only praise him further for it, oblivious to his words and more interested in basking in the glow of his fame. As he boozily navigates through the throngs of increasingly monstrous leeches, it’s not hard to see Fellini’s film as a damning critique of celebrity, and a damn good one, too.

But Toby Dammit works equally well as a horror film. The surreal imagery (which often feels like a contributing inspiration for the drug-soaked depiction of Las Vegas in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Fear and Loathing…’ adaptation, or the ethereal netherworld and character design of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice) escalates to unnerving levels as Toby finds himself trapped in Rome, all attempts to drive his Faustian Ferrari out of the city ending in roadblocks and dead-end streets. Freaky-as-hell figures leer on from the pavements as he speeds through the city trying to find a way out – unnervingly inhuman meldings of mannequin, cardboard standees and motionless mimes who linger in the frame just long enough to make an eerie lasting impression. The child-like devil’s appearances and her perpetual sinister grin only compound the immense creepiness.

Like most anthologies, Spirits of the Dead suffers from being uneven in quality, with Metzengerstein and William Wilson failing to reach the inspired heights of Fellini’s closing segment. Even so, Toby Dammit is the main attraction; a mesmerizing mini-masterpiece, Fellini’s short is essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in European cinema.
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On the Blu-ray:

The disc comes from Arrow Video, who continue to be one of the most impressive home video publishers around. Part of me wishes they’ll stop lavishing cult movies with such astonishing care and attention so I can stop spending money on their awesome Blu-ray releases and spend it on things like food and shelter instead. Sadly that’s not to be just yet; the Blu-ray treatment afforded to Spirits of the dead is amazing as usual.

The three films each have their own relatively unique visual styles, which are only enhanced by the wonderful 1080p 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer. Metzengerstein is all gaudy, colourful costumes lush scenery and woodland tones, which look especially beautiful here. William Wilson, like its character namesake, has a colder, more restrained palette with plenty of grey, white and black tones, while Toby Dammit is a visual phantasmagoria with extensive use of colour filters and smoke effects to attain a carnival nightmare aesthetic.

The films’ visuals mean they each have their own strengths as far as the Blu-ray is concerned; William Wilson is the most consistent and detailed in quality, Metzengerstein is the most vibrant, exposing the gorgeous colours of the film’s transfer most evidently of the three, while the chaotic nature of Fellini’s film make it a visual tour-de-force. Natural grain is evident throughout, most prominently in Metzengerstein and Toby Dammit, though very minor print damage is visible during the ride from the airport in the latter. On the whole, though, Arrow have assembled a gorgeous transfer for the film, surely the most beautiful the film is likely to look.
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A choice of two mono PCM audio tracks are available, one with the original multi-lingual tracks and one dubbed in English, both of which are clear and free from major problems. There’s also the choice to play English subtitles purely for the foreign language parts, or to have subtitles throughout the English dialogue, too.

While the special features aren’t quite the extras extravaganza that Arrow usually lavish their discs with, there’s a lovely minor assortment for fans. Included on the disc is Arrow’s last release of the film – a French version for which Fonda and Stamp recorded their own lines in the language. It looks like an upscaled version of the standard definition release without the extensive remastering that benefits the main film on the Blu-ray, but it’s a great inclusion nonetheless, especially for completists.

A wonderful excised Vincent Price voiceover for the opening and closing credits is included as a standalone extra, along with the original theatrical trailer. Added kudos goes out to Arrow for their fun, creative menu design, too; the set-up section is renamed ‘Projection Booth’, ‘Kiosk’ is for the special features, while ‘Reel Change’ gives the usual chapter points, along with the incredibly welcome option to view each film individually.

Included with the package itself is a fantastic 60 page booklet that contains the three original Poe stories which inspired the film, along with the essays ‘Spirits of the Dead Revisited’ critic/author Tim Lucas and ‘Literature and Cinema’ essay by scholar/author Peter Bondanella, which are fascinating and include a couple of Fellini’s pre-production sketches. Re-prints of original lobby cards and posters are also included. It’s light on extras compared to the usual Arrow offerings, but fans of the film will be delighted with the disc all the same.


The Film:

The Blu-ray:




Spirits of the Dead is available to buy on Blu-ray in the UK from 15th November 2010.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk.

(Note: The images above were captured and saved at a reduced quality, and though they give an idea of how the film looks, they aren’t intended to reflect the true quality of the Blu-ray image itself.)