Spirits of the Dead
spirits of the dead | federico fellini | louis malle | roger vadim | pascal cousin | clement biddle wood | bernardino zapponi | jane fonda | brigette bardot | alain delon | terence stamp | short stories | edgar allan poe | anthology | drama | mystery | france | italy
Film: Spirits of the Dead (Histoires extraordinaires)
Director: Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim
Writer: Roger Vadim, Pascal Cousin, Louis Malle, Clement Biddle Wood, Federico Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi
Starring: Jane Fonda, Brigette Bardot and Alain Delon
This is a movie that I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about until recently. It appeared as the most popular Italian horror movie that I hadn’t seen yet. Before watching this, I realized these are all adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories as well. Looking at the title of each one, I’ve never read them or if I had, they didn’t stick with me. The synopsis for this anthology film is three European directors take on stories by Poe: a cruel princess haunted by a ghostly horse, a sadistic young man haunted by his double and an alcoholic actor haunted by the Devil.
What I found interesting for this movie is that it is an anthology without a wraparound story. We go right into the first tale which is ‘Metzengerstein’. This is the last name of our lead, Contessa Frederique de Metzengerstein (Jane Fonda). We learn that she inherited a great fortune and lives a life of debauchery. She is troubled by a nightmare of someone being dead, so she has her group move out to the castle where she was raised. It is here that it brings her closer to her cousin Baron Wilhelm Berliftzing (Peter Fonda). She mocks him and he ignores her. The two have a chance encounter, but when he declines an offer to have dinner at her castle, she has his barn burned to the ground. This ends up causing her great sadness and a strange black horse shows up. In a way to make amends, she becomes obsessed with it.
Our second story is that of ‘William Wilson’. This is following our lead of the same name that is portrayed by Alain Delon. He goes to a church to ask forgiveness from the priest, Renzo Palmer. William tells his tale that started as a boy about the horrible things he’s done over the years and how his doppelganger shows up to thwart them. This all culminates in a final showdown after a game of cards.
Then our final story is of a great British actor, Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp), coming to Rome to star in a movie. We see that success has taken its toll on him as he is an alcoholic who is struggling to keep it together. He believes himself to be haunted by a little girl in white, Marina Yaru, who he thinks to be the Devil. Toby tries to hold it together, but his condition makes him unstable.
That should be a good enough recap to the stories we are getting here. Where I want to start with breaking these down is with the length of this movie overall. It is coming in at just over two hours. Each one of these shorts is extended more than you’d get in an anthology which I did enjoy. I’m normally a fan of a wraparound tale to help connect them, but the stories have an interesting connection in that they’re all from Poe and focusing on a strong lead. By having that, I’m not bothered.
The first tale is that of Contessa Frederique de Metzengerstein. She is interesting to me in that she is leading a life of lust and debauchery as I said. She is described in this as being a petty Caligula and that is fitting. Everyone around her loves that they can drink and have free love with anyone there, so that is the positive of being around her. The negative though is that if you upset her, she will punish you. She thinks that due to her beauty that her cousin of Wilhelm will agree to her offer of dinner. When he turns her down, he meets her wraith. Wilhelm is more in touch with nature, so she believes that this strange horse that appears at her castle is him. I like that there is a potential supernatural angle. No one knows where this horse came from. There was also a tapestry that Frederique loved with a horse that looked similar. When she had the barn burned, this horse in the image was burned. She demands it be fixed. The man trying to has issues with his hands recreating it and he doesn’t understand why. There is also this idea here where this could all be in her head out of grief and depression which adds an element for me.
The next tale of William Wilson is interesting in how depraved our narrator is. We get three instances where he is doing something bad and his doppelganger shows up to stop him. Normally in stories like this, the doppelganger is evil. What is interesting here is that we are getting the opposite. William bullies a child while in school, attempts to murder a woman while trying to be a doctor and then finally, as a soldier he plays a game of cards against Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot) where he is cheating to win. This is an interesting story of how for humanity we have two sides. I rather enjoyed how this ended up and makes me wonder if there ever was a second William Wilson or not.
The last one though is my least favorite. Stamp’s performance is great as Toby. This one didn’t have as much direction. Federico Fellini did an excellent job at making this a visually stunning story. There are weird elements going on. It works in that Toby is an alcoholic who is not allowed to drink until he’s done working. It feels like we are seeing someone go through withdrawals and lose it. Toby has it in his head that the Devil is following him and driving him mad. This is a story of Toby needing to get back control of his life before his withdrawal psychosis gets the better of him. Drinking won’t help though either, as he does it in excess as well.
That should be enough for breaking down the stories. As for the acting, I’ve already said that Stamp was great. Fonda and Delon are both good as well as the leads of their stories. Special credit will go to Delon for playing both versions of William in his story. The good version isn’t as fleshed out, but what he does for the villain is great. Bardot does great as Giuseppina who stands up to William. The same can be said for Peter Fonda as he stands up to Frederique. What is interesting there is the implication is she falls in love with him, but Peter and Jane are siblings in real life. Since they’re cousins here, it adds to the incestuous angle of the story. Other than that, I thought the rest of the cast rounded these out for what they needed. It is most stories where they are pushing our leads to where they need to end up at the end of the story.
Last things I’ll go into here would be the cinematography, effects and soundtrack. For the former, these all shot beautifully. I’ve already gave credit to Fellini for the surreal take on this story. Vadim did great with making a period piece with ‘Metzengerstein’. There is the feel of depravity going on without getting too graphic. ‘William Wilson’ is the most grounded of the three, but I think what they do there is done well in building tension. There aren’t a lot in the way of effects, but they also aren’t needed. It is from 1968 so it was a bit more limited. It is good overall for that. The soundtrack also fit for what was needed. It doesn’t stand out or hurt the film in my opinion.
So then in conclusion here, this movie was interesting. When it ended, I was a bit letdown, but the more I’ve sat with it, the better it has gotten. I think that as an anthology it does well. We are getting three Poe stories that are focusing on certain characters. The acting from our leads is good in establishing that role. The rest of the cast pushes them to where they need to end up. The cinematography is great across the board. There aren’t a lot in the way of effects, but it doesn’t need it. The soundtrack also fits for what is needed for the scenes. For me, I’d say that this is a good movie. It is just lacking a bit for me to go higher.
My Rating: 8 out of 10