Spirits of the Dead February 16, 2017
To adapt the literary works of Edgar Allan Poe is essentially a cinematic Kilimanjaro best not be climbed unless your name’s Roger Corman. Because Poe’s a whiz kid when it comes to constructing horrors so ghastly they seem to dwell in a nightmarish universe all their own, it takes a filmmaker capable of construing a time and a setting that also feels singular. Half ass it and you seem like the hack that never was.
Spirits of the Dead (1968), a French horror anthology that gives cinematic weight to Poe’s more obscure works, suffers from that said half-assed hackery. Comprising three short movies, one directed by Roger Vadim, the next by Louis Malle, and the last by Federico Fellini, it’s an omnibus all dressed up with no place to go. Because these directors are, respectively, known as maestros of the erotic drama, the social piece, and the surrealistic, existential comedy, their styles (with the exception of Fellini — his sequence, while not stylistically cohesive with the outputs of his collaborators, is entrancing) struggle to line up with Poe’s unnerving fixation on the macabre.
The first vignette, “Metzengerstein," is based on the short story of the same name and stars the buxom Jane Fonda as Countess Frederique de Metzengerstein, a sadomasochistic tigress with a cackle to rival Maleficent’s. Spending her royal afternoons partaking in casual sex and wasting her evenings away with balls and other hedonistic activities, Frederique has strictly lived a life devoted to serving herself and herself only. To be concerned with another’s well-being is an unknown to the self-serving her.
So danger arrives when she finds herself suddenly falling in love with her cousin and neighbor Baron Wilhelm (played by none other than Fonda’s own brother, Peter) after he saves her from a bear trap while out roaming her property’s backwoods. Because of their long-standing family feud, though, Wilhelm refuses to reciprocate her dedication to him (she’s devilish, first of all), prompting Frederique to set his cherished stables afire — with him in them — in an emotional tizzy. Consequences, of course, prove to be deadly.
But since Vadim’s the kind of minimally talented filmmaker who can photograph great beauty convincingly but cannot present humanism to back up his obsession with aesthetic pleasure, “Metzengerstein” is a laughable endeavor that highlights all his weaknesses. It’s a bland ... And God Created Woman (1956) intermixed with Caligula-imitating debauchery and barely there morbidity. Representations of romantic longing hit as hard as a Danielle Steel-induced fantasy, and horrors are malnourished enough to appear as nuisances rather than, er, horrors.
It’s artistically rousing, at least — leopard pups, parrots, jewels, and spontaneous bisexuality boost its sheen of ritzy epicureanism — but, also being so technically inept, with instances of shoddy editing and patchy aural compilations prolific, “Metzengerstein” is inadequate, straining to cause so much as a single goosebump to pop out of one’s flesh.
Malle’s segment, a reworking of Poe’s “William Wilson,” makes for noticeable improvement. But as it went for Vadim, it also encounters difficulty in paralleling Poe’s effortless ability to set his parasitic stories loose to burrow under our skin. The sketch follows Alain Delon’s eponymous Wilson as he tells a priest, in confession, how his immoral life has led to his discovery of his ruthless döppleganger, also named Wilson and also an embodiment of his wicked ways. The existence of that deadly double, though, is enough to drive Wilson completely mad.
Co-starring an underutilized Brigitte Bardot as a femme fatale Wilson plays cards with during one of the sequence’s pivotal scenes, “William Wilson” is more unsettling than painfully frightening. But it’s exceptional at giving the terrors of the mob mentality and the abuse of power affecting depth. It’s an exercise in stone-faced sadism with the good sense to calibrate itself with the operatic cum realistic sensibilities of a Caravaggio painting. Problem is is that Malle knows how to adorn the material but doesn’t know how to tell it with urgency.
Federico Fellini’s addition, “Toby Dammit," is an adaptation of the conclusion of Never Bet the Devil Your Head and is the most successful entry of Spirits of the Dead: Fellini’s standing as an auteur uncomfortable with convention makes him a logical choice for a filmmaker able to align his personal style with Poe’s. Both are apt at fleshing out unique, unforgettable otherworlds for us to get lost in, comfortably or otherwise.
The segment stars a roughed-up Terence Stamp as the titular figure, a washed-up Shakespearean actor wasting his career away with a bottle in hand. Haunted by visions of death (personified by a ghost white girl carrying a rubber ball around like a baby), we watch as he navigates his latest project, an Italian film shooting in Rome.
In a typical move for the always trippy Fellini, “Toby Dammit” feels more 8 ½ (1963) with the twists of a night terror than Poe. And that’s its best achievement. The other directors of Spirits of the Dead are subconsciously afraid of the author they’re paying respect to and, ultimately, get flat results in their efforts to keep their personal styles minimal and their source’s sizable. “Toby Dammit” is anything but flat. It’s an energetic, and unnerving, take on the pitfalls of celebrity culture and on the uselessness that is transcendentalism. Stamp gives an exhaustive, strung-out performance, and the imagery, clammy and mystical, makes for some of the best of Fellini’s career.
But aside from the glories concocted by “Toby Dammit," Spirits of the Dead is mostly a wasted opportunity. Talented filmmakers and actors cannot change the reality that these stories are buried under the weight of aspiration to achieve note-perfect homage. There isn’t enough humor, nor enough dedication to actually scare us, for the movie to get its grizzled paws on a product that causes the blood to curdle. C+