SPIRITS OF THE DEAD - Blu-Ray / Review

Spirits of the Dead (AKA Histoires Extraordinaires) is a strange French-Italian co-production made in 1968, fashionably cashing in on the portmanteau horror film cycle, arguably created by films such as Dead of Night (1945) and that reached its zenith with the AIP and Amicus productions of the 1960s and 1970s. It freely adapts three of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, 'Metzengerstein: A Tale In Imitation of the German' which is regarded as the first Poe story published, in 1832, that could be claimed as part of his Gothic repertoire; 'William Wilson' (published 1839) and 'Never Bet the Devil Your Head' (1841) and each is handled by a European director, all regarded as masters of European cinema at the time.
...emulating the high Gothic style of their Roger Corman Poe adaptations
Ironically, when the film was eventually released in America in 1969 after its Cannes debut, it was retitled Spirits of the Dead by American International Pictures and they contracted their horror star du jour Vincent Price to add in a prologue and epilogue to bring it very much into line with the market they had flooded with Poe adaptations. This is something to bear in mind when watching the first tale 'Metzengerstein' as it seems that director Roger Vadim, shortly after completing similar duties on the equally overblown Barbarella (1968), was emulating the high Gothic style of their Roger Corman Poe adaptations in the opulent sets, costumes and locations on view here.

His then wife, Jane Fonda, is very much at the centre of this opening segment and she gets to wear a staggering assortment of costumes, often leaving little to the imagination, and the rest of the cast are decked out in rich velvets, leather and fur. While the costumes are intended to be of the period it is also clear that their design owes more to the outre creations of the late 1960s, incorporating as they do the leather armour and thigh-high boots of Barbarella herself.

Fonda plays the Metzengerstein of the title, the Caligula-esque, evil Countess Federica who thrills to Sadeian games of humiliation in her castle and oversees various rounds of debauchery, very much in the style of Roger Corman's Poe films, especially The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Vadim, not content to turn the film into a vanity project for his lovely wife also recruits her brother Peter Fonda and, in what he clearly sees as a bit of a twist in using the siblings, casts him as the Countess's cousin, Baron Wilhelm.
...'overdecorated and shrill as a drag ball'
She derides this gentle, nature-loving man, because there has been a long running feud between the two families, but then is angrily affronted when he spurns her advances after freeing her from a trap in the woods. He rejects her because of her promiscuous behaviour. In revenge, she burns down his beloved stable of horses but realises she has gone too far when the Baron is burnt to death trying to rescue his prize horse. Soon after, a black stallion mysteriously makes its way to her estate at the same time that a tapestry in the castle, depicting a similar horse, is damaged by fire. As the tapestry is repaired, Federica finds an affinity with the horse but one night there is a terrible thunderstorm...

Vincent Canby described Vadim's predilection for opulence and colour in this sequence as 'overdecorated and shrill as a drag ball' but that's rather unfair when you compare it to many of the richly textured AIP Poe films. It at least matches the lurid colour schemes and well dressed settings of Masque and his location shooting, in Brittany, really opens the film out and provides some gorgeous landscapes, including some attractive castle ruins, woodlands and beaches.

Jane Fonda looks stunning here but the weakness of the segment lies in Vadim's inability to generate a real sense of foreboding and unease, the quintessential elements you need in a Poe adaptation. He puts some very striking visual moments on screen - Federica meeting Wilhelm in the ruins of a castle, the setting sun peeping through the smoke of the burning barn, the arrival of the stallion in a whirl of grey smoke - but the film has a very uneven feel with the frequent zooming in and choppy editing not particularly conducive to letting a dread atmosphere percolate effectively. This is a shame because the HD transfer used by Arrow Films on this BD really shows off the lush cinematography, the colour schemes, textures and flesh tomes especially well.
...perhaps somewhat closer to the nature of Poe's tale
Louis Malle directed the second segment, 'William Wilson' and it is by far and away the more effective of the tales as it is perhaps somewhat closer to the nature of Poe's tale. Malle agreed to direct in order to raise funds for his next film and originally wanted the segment to be even closer in spirit to the Poe original.

He had to compromise with producer Raymond Eger to be more mainstream in his approach and hence we get some fairly gratuitous inclusions of nudity and violence, notably in the dissection sequence when the cruel William Wilson, played by Alain Delon, taunts a young woman with a scalpel in the medical school he is attending and later when he thrashes Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot) in the aftermath of a card game.

Malle's segment makes very good use of location and is driven by an intense performance from Delon as Wilson, an Austrian soldier, who relates his life of cruelty to others to a priest and where we see him as first a schoolboy and then later a young cadet inflicting various humiliations on his fellow pupils, soldiers and women. However, everytime his cruelty reaches a climax, his doppelganger, acting as his conscience, steps in to prevent him. The film concludes with William Wilson dueling with himself but then realising that even after he has murdered his doppelganger, his conscience will come to claim him.

Again a very handsomely designed and photographed segment but much sober in the use of colour and design. Malle also manages to generate an escalating sense of tension throughout and keeps the neat twist to the very end. Delon's performance is certainly one of the major reasons this succeeds as well as it does.

...reflecting Stamp's own hysteria as he was caught in the full glare of the 'swinging sixties'
Finally, we get 'Toby Dammit' which was allegedly based on 'Never Bet the Devil Your Head' but it is very hard to see any connections between Poe's tale and Fellini's hallucinatory vision. It really is more a case of Poe inspiring Fellini to produce what many regarded as the director's lost masterpiece.

The story follows a British actor, played by Terence Stamp, arriving in Italy to film a religious-structuralist Western ('Sort of a mix between Piero della Francesca and Fred Zinnemann' suggests one of the media ghouls who meets him at the airport) and to attend an awards show.  The actor has a serious drink and drugs problem and the film is mostly seen through his alcohol infused state of mind where he is haunted by the Devil in the guise of a young girl carrying a white ball.

Toby's mental state, perhaps even reflecting Stamp's own hysteria as he was caught in the full glare of the 'swinging sixties', is heightened by Fellini's adherence to artifice and hyper-reality. The settings and lighting are highly theatrical and the only location footage used is when Toby recklessly drives his Ferrari to a very sticky end in the conclusion of the film.

Both the visual sensibility, including the weaving in of dream and hallucination, is very similar in style to his previous films and the theme of a central figure enduring a personal hell and observing the disintegration of everything around him certainly alludes to La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963). It's worth noting that this was Fellini's first collaboration with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and they would go on to work with each other on eleven further films.

Stamp is very effective as the cadaverous looking actor, spaced out on drink and drugs and whose only sole concern is to receive the payment of the Ferrari in lieu of working on the film. I wonder if Stamp drew on some of his own experiences of the industry in the late 1960s as his portrayal is highly effective as he leaps into the car and madly takes to the wheel.

Fellini's artifice is also reminiscent of Bava in the use of saturated colour and surrealistic imagery and his segment is almost as much about the construction of a film as it is about the story of an actor trapped in media hell and can be seen with his obsession about faking reality, here represented by the bright lights of the award show and the oppressive presence of television cameras. It is certainly the most enigmatic of the stories here and is quintessentially an artifact of the over-indulgence of late 1960s cinema.

Special features

The HD transfer serves the film well, reproducing the vibrant colour palettes and detail brilliantly and it is presented on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK from a brand new restoration of the original negative.

The disc features multiple audio options for all films including Terence Stamp’s original English audio in 'Toby Dammit'¸ English and French dubbed tracks for 'Metzengerstein' and 'William Wilson'.

It includes a newly commissioned cover artwork, the original trailer, the Vincent Price audio narration from the American theatrical release and a booklet reproducing original poster artworks, Edgar Allan Poe’s original stories on which each segment is based, an essay on Spirits of the Dead by author and critic Tim Lucas and an essay on 'Toby Dammit' by author and scholar Peter Bondanella.

Spirits of the Dead (Histoires Extraordinaires) (Arrow Films BD)
Released 25 October 2010 / Cat No: FCD436 / Italy-France / 1968 / Cert 18 / colour / Running Time: BD50: Multi-lingual and English versions 121 mins (1080p, 24fps) / Running Time: French Dubbed Audio Version 116 mins Standard Definition PAL

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