Spirits of the Dead (Histoires extraordinaires, Tre passi nel delirio)

Director: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Roger Vadim, Pascal Cousin, and Clement Biddlewood; Louis Malle and Clement Biddlewood; Federico Fellini (based on the work by Edgar Allen Poe)
Stars: Brigitte Bardot (Giuseppina), Alain Delon (William Wilson), Jane Fonda (Contessa Frederica), Terence Stamp (Toby Dammit), James Robertson Justice (Countess' Advisor), Salvo Randone (Priest), Françoise Prévost (Friend of Countess), Peter Fonda (Baron Wilhelm)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1968
Country: France / Italy
Spirits of the Dead DVD Cover

"Every fiction should have a moral; and, what is more to the purpose, the critics have discovered that every fiction has." -- Edgar Allen Poe, "Never Bet the Devil Your Head"

Loosely adapted from three of Edgar Allen Poe's lesser known tales and directed by three notable European auteurs, Spirits of the Dead (Histoires extraordinaires, Tre passi nel delirio) is often classified as an offbeat horror film, but it plays more as a moralistic melodrama with supernatural overtones. The film as a whole is engaging, if decidedly uneven. It is more of an interesting exercise in literary adaptation than a fully satisfying work of art, though there is still much to recommend about it.

Although each of the film's three segments bears the distinctive mark of its director (thus this film is to be treasured by all auteurists as a prime example of the director's influence on the material), they are connected by a theme of punishment for moral transgression. Each segment takes it title from a character who indulges too much in the physical, and thus ultimately pays the ultimate price. The twist is that, in each story, the character is somehow implicated in his or her own demise, thus suggesting an existential dimension that creates a tension with the largely fateful narratives (the role of fatality is foregrounded in an epigraph at the beginning of the film from Poe in which he notes that "Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages").

The first segment, "Metzengerstein," was directed by Roger Vadim (... And God Created Woman). Set some time in the medieval era, Vadim cast his then-wife Jane Fonda as Frederica, Countess of Metzengerstein, a wanton libertine who is growing increasingly bored with her steady diet of large-scale orgies and cruel treatment of her underlings.

As she controls the world around her, she is unsurprisingly attracted to the one person who escapes her grasp, her cousin Baron Wilhelm (played in a perverse casting choice by Jane's brother, Peter Fonda). When Wilhelm rejects her, Frederica only knows to lash out at him, ordering the burning of the stable in which he keeps his much-beloved horses. Wilhelm is killed, something Frederica never intended, but the next day a wild stallion shows up at her castle that only responds to her (Wilhelm's spirit returning in equestrian form, perhaps?). Her obsessions with the horse leads her to reject her previous lifestyle and eventually choose a fitting end.

The second segment, "William Wilson," directed by Louis Malle (Murmur of the Heart), is the best of the three. Set sometime in the 19th century, it features an unredeemable central character named William Wilson (Alain Delon). Ironically, the segment opens with his forcing a priest to hear his confession, even though he doesn't believe in God. And what a confession it is.

William tells the story of his life, how he evolved from a sadistic child who tormented a fellow classmate who fell out of his favor by dangling him over a well filled with live rats to a young medical student who is narrowly thwarted from dissecting a young woman alive. However, while much of the focus is on the William's sadistic impulses, what is most unnerving about this segment is how easily others go along with his activities. Each time William is tormenting another, there is always a group of willing voyeurs to observe his sadism, turning it into a form of spectator sport.

The crux of the story is that another person with William's name begins haunting him as a child, always interfering with his worst impulses. In effect, it is William's conscience made literal, following him throughout his life and often thwarting his schemes or unveiling his trickery, as in a sequence featuring Brigitte Bardot as a card sharp whom William gleefully cheats. Again, as in "Metzengerstein," William's sins eventually take him down with them.

The final story, "Toby Dammit," based on Poe's satirical story "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" (which is incorrectly referred to in the credits as a novel titled "Don't Wager Your Head to the Devil"), was directed by Federico Fellini (8 1/2) in typically Felliniesque fashion. The most visually audacious of the three tales, Fellini's segment takes place in the present day, and he opens with eerie, dream-like shots of an airport that are bathed in the blood-red and golden hues of a setting sun that never seem to go down. It is here that we are introduced to the titular character, an alcoholic superstar actor played in a tour de force by Terence Stamp. Toby has just arrived in Rome to begin work on a production in which the life of Christ will be reimagined as a Western (a likely intended in-joke is that Stamp had played a Christ character in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema that same year).

Unlike the main characters of the previous stories who had their twisted lives under control until an outside force disrupted them, Dammit is essentially hell-bent on self-destruction. Eccentric, disoriented, and constantly drunk, he is a vision of stardom incestuously invested in itself to the point of incoherence. Plus, he is haunted by the presence of a little girl (who has the eerie, grinning face of a woman) who he believes to be the Devil.

Fellini underscores Dammit's demented perspective by making the entire story bizarre in the extreme, both visually and narratively. This is brought to a climax of sorts in a lengthy segment at a fictional awards show called "The Golden She-Wolf Awards," in which Dammit finally sheds any sense of facade he might have had and reveals himself to be completely depraved. He then engages in a long, one-man car chase in his new Ferrari, leading to a nasty, but fitting demise.

It is near the end that Fellini employs one of his most arresting visuals--a section of a highway that has collapsed, leaving a gaping hole that resembles nothing less than the maw of hell. It is not surprising that this is the final image on which the film ends, thus bringing full circle the thematic implications of the wages of sin. As it began with lusty images of the French countryside with Jane Fonda's libertine engaging in whatever struck her sadistic fancy, the film ends with its moralistic image of the necessary result of such a lifestyle.

Spirits of the Dead DVD

Aspect Ratio1.75:1
AudioDolby 1.0 monaural
DistributorHome Vision Entertainment
Release DateNovember 27, 2001

Much like the quality of the film itself, the transfer of Spirits of the Dead is a bit uneven, which seems to be due to the source print used (not having seen Image's previously released DVD, I cannot make a direct comparison between the two). The print used was apparently one intended for American viewers, as all the credits are in English as is the title, which here is Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe. Transferred in anamorphic widescreen in its original 1.75:1 aspect ratio, for the most part the image is acceptable. The film was shot in the soft focus that was so popular with filmmakers in the late 1960s, thus the image is often a little hazy and lacking in detail. Print damage and dirt is fairly minimal, although there are a few noticeable vertical lines and hairs, as well as an instance of blue spotting. Colors tend to be well-saturated for the most part, although they appear noticeably faded in certain parts. Graininess becomes an issue in some of the darkest scenes, especially in the third story.

The film is presented with its original one-channel monaural soundtrack and sounds fairly good. There is some minor hissing that is noticeable at times, but nothing particularly distracting. As the film used an international cast, much of the dialogue is looped to maintain the French language throughout.

No supplements are included.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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