While Poe adaptations in the 60’s belonged to Roger Corman and Vincent Price, today’s film found three European auteurs getting down and dirty with the works of Edgar Allan. Each of them present a singular and innovative look into the work of the macabre writer, and through the film was distributed in the states by American International Pictures, it has little in common with the content or tone of AIP’s other Poe offerings. It should be noted that for the purposes of this review I watched the French language version entitled Histoires Extraordinaires. This title comes from the first volume of Poe’s short stories translated for a French audience by the poet Baudelaire, but when it was released in the States, it was saddled with title Spirits of the Dead, a reference to an 1927 poem of the same title by Poe. Of the two I much prefer the French title as it speaks directly to the type of tales the movie contains, stories of the extraordinary. As this film is divided into three segments with no connecting device (the American version contains narration by Vincent Price between the stories), I’m going to tackle each one individually.
First up is the Germanically titled Metzengerstein. Jane Fonda stars as Contessa Frederique de Metzengerstein, a decadent woman given to throwing grand parties filled with debauchery and sex. Next door lives the austere Baron Wilhelm Berlifitzing (Peter Fonda) who is in all ways the opposite of the Contessa. Living a quiet life, hunting and riding his horses, the Baron takes no part in his neighbor’s grand lifestyle. One day while roaming in the forest separating their property, the Contessa becomes caught in a bear trap, but is freed when the Baron happens across her. Instantly smitten, the Contessa pursues the Baron, but being a moral man, he sees no future in their pairing. Lashing out, the Contessa sets the Baron’s stables, containing his prized horses, on fire, and her unrequited love perishes trying to save his animals. Only one horse survives, a large black stallion that no one can control. The Contessa believes she can tame the horse, but its strong spirit, perhaps that of the Baron, becomes her undoing.
Metzengerstein was first published in 1832 in the Saturday Courier magazine, and was included in the 1864 publication of Baudelaire’s translations. However the story it contains is very different than the one shown on screen. Director Roger Vadim had just completed filming on Barbarella when he was tasked with the project, and he chose to gender swap the main character from Poe’s story to continue working with his previous film’s star, Jane Fonda. He also injected the unrequited love story (and thank goodness it wasn’t requited as Vadim cast her younger brother Peter Fonda in the role) in the place of the family rivalry of Poe’s original tale. At its core, the story remains virtually the same. Both the film and the story concern one man (or woman) and their cavalier attitude toward life. As with most Poe stories, the evil are punished and we are lead to believe that the deceased have something to do with it from beyond the grave. Vadim successfully creates tension on the screen, and Jane Fonda, looking radiant, grabs the viewer with her dynamic performance.
The second tale is an adaptation of Poe’s story William Wilson. Alain Delon stars as the titular character and the doppelganger who troubles his life. As the story begins, William convinces a priest to take his confession despite the fact that he is not Catholic, and he begins his tale by describing his experience at boarding school. Young William Wilson is clearly a little tyrant terrorizing all of his schoolmates, but when a new boy arrives with his same name, same face, and same manner, William’s position is threatened. in the dead of the night, he attempts to strangle the new William Wilson, and for his troubles, they are both kicked out of school. Over the years, the other William Wilson always seems to be there to stop William Wilson just as he intends to do something violent,perverse, or deceptive. Finally unable to stand any further interference, William stabs his double to death, but soon finds his life in mortal jeopardy.
Published in the United States in a 1939 issue of Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine,William Wilson was the first of Poe’s stories to be translated into French, making it’s debut over two installments in the Parisian magazine La Quotidienne. For the film, director Louie Malle chose to emphasize William Wilson’s cruel streak making him party to torture and attempted murder. Strangely, the straw that makes Wilson resolve to kill his double is being called out as a card sharp and having his fun giving a lady (Brigitte Bardot) lashes from his riders crop. (The Bardot character was completely made up in order for Malle, who introduced the world to Bardot in And God Created Women, to sex up the story.) After Vadim’s rather reserved period piece, Malle’s use of graphic nudity and violence allows the film as a whole to ramp up a level. However, the segment feels phoned in with Le Circe Rouge‘s Deleon providing the only solid portion of the film. The direction seems hasty at times, and Malle even admitted that William Wilson was the least personal of all his works. He allowed many changes to be made to appeal to mass audience in hopes it would help raise funds for his next picture, 1971’s Murmur of the Heart.
The final segment of Spirits of the Deadis the most challenging and, on the surface, the least horrific of all three. However, I believe it would be the one to most appeal to Poe’s wicked sensibilities. Terrence Stamp plays the titular characterToby Dammit, a British Shakespearean actor fallen on hard times due to his love affair with the bottle. In exchange for a Ferrari, he agrees to go to Italy to appear in a Western based on the return of Jesus Christ. Enduring a strange awards ceremony, Toby continues to have visions of a devilish child who he helped get back her white ball. Veering deeper into alcoholic paranoia and genuine insanity, Toby makes off with his prized car and drives with wild abandon straight into his undoing.
Toby Dammit is the only of the three tales that didn’t retain Poe’s original title, but it is also the segment that departs most from the source material. Poe’s tale, Never Bet The Devil Your Head, is a satirical screed against morality tales and transcendentalism and was first published in 1841 in Graham Magazine. However, in the hands of Federico Fellini, Poe’s story is twisted into a tale of addiction, the falseness of the entertainment industry, and artist’s internal battle with demons. So in other words, the same sort of ground that the director looked at in 8 1/2 and throughout his career. The whole segment is a fevered dream, and it floats effortlessly between the absurd (Toby having his picture taken with his blond, lanky, pale stunt double who proudly states that he also doubled Tomas Milian.) to the intensely visual (Toby’s wild ride, the disturbing visuals of the satanic, yet innocent, child.). In the end, Poe and Fellini come to the same conclusion in their stories, a person must have their wits about them or they are prone to lose their head. Where Poe’s tale comes off like a wan joke, Fellini’s film hits like a hard right. I should also mention that this is Stamp at his best, wild eyed and perfectly pitched.
While all three segments have their charms, Fellini clearly outshone the other tales. Vadim’s segment lack a visual element beyond the flat, matter-of-fact shots, and Malle crafted a decent tale though it lacked spirit. Fellini chose to take Poe’s tale as a launching point and then catapult the story into cosmic, philosophical territory. It should come as no surprise that while the entire film is hard to find, the Fellini segment has been split off and restored, and, in recent years, it has been hailed as a lost classic. Taken as a whole, Spirits of the Dead succeeds in giving an alternative to the heavily Gothic, dark castle Poe films of Roger Corman. Instead,Spirits of the Dead weaves Poe’s morbid sensibility into the fabric of modern life, in the case of Fellini’s Toby Dammit,and into the well lit Romantic and Victorian settings of Vadim and Malle. While none of the three segments give a perfect portrait of the brooding Baltimorian’s stories, taken as one, they rank among this writer’s favorite cinematic translations of Edgar Allan’s work.