Spirits of the Dead

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos

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Spirits of the Dead  (1969, dir: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini; cast: Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot, Terrance Stamp)

 

 

 

Spirits of the Dead, a French-Italian horror anthology film, intrigues partly because of its foreign perspectives of both Edgar Allan Poe and the horror anthology structure.

Film adaptations 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.

Spirits 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 fans' expectations.

Anglo-American 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.

But whereas the Cryptkeeper never left doubt about who was good, who was evil, much of Spirits 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 leading directors.

 

 

"Metzengerstein," 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.

Vadim's 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."

Despite 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.

I've often 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.

In his 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.

In contrast 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 wrongs.

Curiously, 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.

"William 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 blond hair.

 

 

 

Federico 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.

The satirical 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.

"Toby 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 standards.

Spirits 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 usual gems.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos

 

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