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Spirits of the Dead

Sex, sin, and karmic comeuppance. Ah, to be European in the '60s. Spirits of the Dead, subtitled "Three Tales of the Macabre by Edgar Allan Poe," may give Poe purists the fits du conniption. However, this 1968 French curio has quite a lot to recommend it. Unfortunately, almost all of that occurs in the last of the three "liberally adapted" supernatural shorts found here. Released in Europe as Tre Passi Nel Delirio and Histoires Extraordinaires, this tryptich is notable for sporting three of the most recognizable names in 1960s European cinema: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. Each director was tasked with visualizing an obscure Poe story, translating Poe's dream-like prose poetry to the movie screen. The results could hardly be more mixed, but the viewer with patience (or a finger on the remote's chapter-index button) is rewarded with one of the more remarkable works by one of filmdom's most remarkable directors.

Roger Vadim starts us off with a plodding gender-bending retelling of Poe's "Metzengerstein," about a "petty Caligula" and orgiastic treacheress played by Vadim's then-wife, Jane Fonda. She takes time from "shameful debaucheries" to moon over her emotionally distant cousin, who's played by Jane's brother Peter with little more than sullen eyes and the charisma of an ashtray. When she accidentally yet nonetheless maliciously causes his death, her obsession shifts to a mysterious wild black steed that may be her cousin reincarnated. Naturally, in EC Comics fashion, she's a bad person and therefore doomed to a weird death, the common theme in all three episodes of Spirits of the Dead. It's a weak story poorly told, and its one good point is fine landscape cinematography; otherwise "Metzengerstein" reminds us that Vadim was never much of a director and gave his wife an embarrassing bullet point on her résumé. Fonda was a stunning beauty in '68, but the faux Renaissance costumes she quick-changes through here are laughably "sexy," like a Frederick's of Padua fetishwear show. ("...overdecorated and shrill as a drag ball," said Vincent Canby in the New York Times.)

Fortunately, things improve as we move to the next episode. Louis Malles' moody "William Wilson" follows a decadent Austrian medical student cum military officer with a taste for sadism (Alain Delon, better remembered for Le Samouraï and The Leopard). A tormenting abuser since boyhood, he is haunted by his conscience, which is externally embodied as a benevolent doppleganger who keeps showing up throughout his life to prevent his vile misdeeds. Brigitte Bardot appears in an uncharacteristic role as a card sharp he cheats out of a fortune. Malle's episode is an engaging enough entry, but in the end it doesn't amount to much and leaves too many plot holes unfilled.

Episode 3, however — this is the one people talk about when they talk about Spirits of the Dead. Federico Fellini's "Toby Dammit" stars Terence Stamp in a piece that's a Fellini film festival in miniature. His most recognizable signature elements are here and well utilized. It also manages to spoof the pretentions of filmmaking "symbolism." Stamp is Toby Dammit, a self-indulgent film star haunted by both alcohol and the vision of an eerie little girl bouncing a ball. Toby may already be dead and in his own custom-designed Hell before his story begins. Either way, that little girl's ball isn't the only thing bouncing on the road by the end credits. "Toby Dammit" is stylish, dense, hypnotic, and a perfect 40-minute introduction if you've been wondering what "Fellini-esque" means. By itself this makes Spirits of the Dead worth a look.

*          *          *

As a DVD, Home Vision Entertainment's 2002 edition of Spirits of the Dead delivers a new anamorphic transfer (1.75:1) of a print that's strong and clean, with good color, contrast, and definition all around. The Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural audio is solid and clear, with the sole audio track in French with new digital English subtitles.

There's one big spot of bother, though. This print comes from an English-language export version titled Tales of Mystery and Imagination. All the dialogue is quite obviously re-dubbed French. Fonda dubbed her own French, and although Stamp still comes off terrific in "Toby Dammit," his distinctive British voice was replaced with another actor's entirely. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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