of the Dead (1969, dir: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini;
cast: Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot, Terrance Stamp)
of the Dead, a French-Italian horror anthology film, intrigues partly
because of its foreign perspectives of both Edgar Allan Poe and the horror
of Poe's work include the 1930s pairings of Lugosi and Karloff, but more
likely bring to mind Roger Corman's early 1960s AIP efforts: lush, literate,
colorful productions, often featuring Vincent Price as a borderline madman,
creepy but genteel, wracked with understated angst. But both oeuvres
emphasize story clarity. Events occur in clear succession, character
motivations are plainly stated.
of the Dead is more metaphorical in its approach, heavy on symbolism
and subtext. As with Twin
Peaks and The
X-Files, not everything is explained. Emphasis is on style over
content. This makes for a horror anthology film distinctly at odds
with the Cryptkeeper's
horror anthology films were shaped by a confluence of events. Structure
was established by Dead
of Night (British, 1945), which pioneered the wraparound story, the
contrasting tales of disparate length and tone (some dark, some whimsical),
and the practice of employing a different director for each tale. Content was inspired by Tales
from the Crypt's blend of brevity, gore, black humor, and moral irony. This Anglo-American anthology formula was solidified in the late 1960s
by Britain's Amicus, which in 1972 produced the first Tales
from the Crypt film.
the Cryptkeeper never left doubt about who was good, who was evil, much
of the Dead's sensibility is morally relativistic, even nihilistic. The film also eschews a wraparound story, although it follows Dead
of Night's structure in employing a different director for each tale. And such is Poe's prestige on "the continent" that they are three of Europe's
directed by Roger Vadim, stars Vadim's then-wife Jane Fonda as a cruel
and capricious aristocrat who falls in love with her reclusive cousin (played
her brother, Peter). Her love unrequited, Fonda takes revenge.
interpretation substitutes the Cryptkeeper's moralism for a jaded Euro-sophistication. In Citizen
Jane, Christopher Anderson writes: "'Metzengerstein' served up a
variety of perversions, including orgies, lesbianism, and a hint of bestiality,
all of which paled in comparison to the fact that real-life brother and
sister were playing incestuous lovers, one of whom is dead and takes the
form of a horse." Anderson quotes Fonda: "'It was not our
intention to titillate ... And in Europe, at least, no one took it like
that. Not that I'm against incest."
its scandalous content and moral relativism, visuals are tame. Wide-angle lenses photograph sumptuous European castle scenery with a fantastical
lyricism. Gore is minimal. Renaissance costumes are opulent,
if at times garish. Events are suggested rather than depicted. Although Fonda's final doom is apparent, her end is all symbolism and metaphor,
the hows and whys unanswered.
heard political conservatives praise Jane Fonda's talent, as though to
demonstrate their fair-mindedness. I think such folk are blinded
by their own strivings to be evenhanded. Fonda is a journeyman performer
of limited range, always playing herself, earnest and tense, with a hint
of suppressed urgency.
It's why Fonda is a star
rather than an actor. Clint Eastwood, Chuck Heston, Tom Hanks, Meg
Ryan, all true stars overwhelm their roles with their own personas, as
does Fonda. As opposed to true actors who subsume their personas
and adapt themselves to roles, such as does Val Kilmer, Peter Sellers,
and Parker Posey.
smaller role in "Metzengerstein," Peter Fonda proves to be a better actor
than his sister. Although lacking Jane's star charisma, Peter's sullen
aristocrat is not readily recognizable as Peter.
to Vadim's segment, Louis Malle's "William Wilson" reaffirms the Cryptkeeper's
American moralism. The tale is related inside a confessional, as
told to a priest. Alain Delon plays a lifelong bully, cad, and cheat,
long harassed by his doppelganger. Whereas doppelgangers are usually
depicted as evil figures seeking to replace their counterparts, Delon's
doppelganger acts as his unwanted conscience, avenging and righting his
Delon's tale is a mini-horror anthology in itself. Delon inside the
confessional is the wraparound, his confession neatly divided into his
three run-ins with his doppelganger: at military school, at medical school,
at a card game. Each time, Delon has achieved some measure of success
through bullying and treachery, whereupon his doppelganger arrives to destroy
Delon's unjust victory.
Wilson" is a riveting story, enhanced by its period costumes and European
locales. Vadim's ex-wife, Brigitte Bardot, portrays the sassy victim
of Delon's sexual sadism. She is inexplicably black-haired, perhaps
so as not to distract from (the then-current Mrs. Vadim) Jane Fonda's strawberry
Fellini's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head or Toby Dammit" is admittedly
"very loosely adapted" from Poe. Unlike the other two tales, this
one has been updated to a contemporary setting. Terrance Stamp portrays
a jaded film star deluged by paparazzi and journalists as he prepares to
accept an award. Contemptuous and ungrateful, his sole concern is
for the free sports car he expects to receive from his studio.
story and frenetic editing evoke Fellini's earlier 8
1/2 (also Woody Allen's Fellini-inspired Stardust
Memories). The theme is old: the emptiness of celebrity success,
its failure to confer happiness. Stamp is a hollow man who has sold
his soul for wealth and adulation, yet remains unfulfilled. This
is never stated, but communicated through subtext and symbolism and metaphor. A winsome blond girl periodically appears, noticed only by Stamp, playing
with her balloon. She is a whimsical and coyly flirtatious Satan,
enticing Stamp to his own self-destruction, which Stamp gleefully embraces.
Dammit" is thought-provoking enough to avoid outright nihilism. Its
striking visuals culminate in Spirits
of the Dead's most gory scene, although still tame by splatterpunk
of the Dead's symbolism and metaphors can be annoying. "Metzengerstein"
leaves one wondering: What just happened? But on the whole, Spirits
of the Dead is entertaining eye candy. Intriguing, if not as
profound as its makers may like to imagine. While this Euro/art film
approach may not be everyone's favorite horror style, it provides a welcome
change of pace from the Cryptkeeper's
Review copyright by Thomas
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