Blu-ray Review: SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

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Blu-ray Review: SPIRITS OF THE DEAD
Since the 1960's, horror anthology films have flourished as a popular form of popular entertainment.  In many cases the anthology featured a single auteur approaching several different stories, as was the case in Mario Bava's Black Sabbath, or Masaki Kobayashi's masterpiece, Kwaidan.  In recent years, anthology films have been a popular way for different director's to either get their work known, or to branch out from their expected forms.  This tradition goes back a long way, but one of the most high-profile efforts at an auteur driven portmanteau film was 1968's Spirits of the Dead, also known as Histoires extraordinaires.  In this film, three giants of international cinema came together to approach the takes of Edgar Allan Poe in a less literal way than the wildly popular American International Pictures collaborations between Roger Corman and Vincent Price.  I should let it be known that I am a huge fan of the Corman/Price/Poe ouevre, and that may unintentionally color my judgment, but I think that one really should try to distance oneself from those films when approaching these three vignettes by Roger Vadim (...And God Created Woman), Louis Malle (Au revoir les enfants), and Federico Fellini (8 1/2).

Each artist brings his own feel and his own script to the project, which shares similar themes over disparate stories, locales, and even time frames.  The first segment, Metzengerstein, stars Vadim's then-wife, Jane Fonda, in a very sexy rendition of Poe's tale of forbidden passion and revenge.  The lady Metzengerstein is the heiress to a sizable kingdom, which she rules over with a Caligulan iron fist and taste for cruelty.  We, as the audience, can see that this is only meant to end badly, though the way it happens is still pretty interesting.  The lady falls in love with her cousin, appropriately portrayed by her brother Peter Fonda, and so begins her downfall.

The story is beautifully shot for the most part, there are a few shots on the Blu-ray that register as quite soft, but it appears to be a result of the source material rather than the transfer itself.  I will say that I've never found Jane Fonda quite as mesmerizing as I did in this film.  This part of the story also finds itself subject to the only real print damage I noticed on the whole two hour film.  These complaints are petty, though, and I only mention them because I feel obligated to find some fault, lest I be labeled a shill, though that still may be the case by the time the review concludes.  Fonda is appropriately debaucherous throughout the segment, which features more than one PG-13 rated orgy scene, and I will say that the costumes are magnificent, and seem to be borrowed from the sets of Barbarella, which Vadim and Fonda had just completed immediately before starting this project.  For me it was a riveting piece, with just enough left to the imagination to make me want more, especially once the film ended.

The middle portion, Louis Malle's interpretation of William Wilson, was the least successful for me, though not too shabby under most circumstances.    the segment is filmed in French and stars perhaps the coolest actor ever, Alain Delon as William Wilson, a sadistic Austrian soldier, haunted by his own face at every turn.  This portion also features the beautiful Bridget Bardot, who was apparently brought in to sex the segment up a bit, despite its relatively nihilistic slant.  Delon's performance is very solid, and he exudes the cool for which he is known, even as he commits heinous and sleazy acts left and right.  This part of the film is completely adequate, but can be easily forgotten if it is viewed as part of the whole because of the strength of the final segment.  There are no major issues to contend with in this portion, and in fact, some of the fine detail in the image is pretty stunning, very definitely worth viewing in high definition.

Ultimately, the strongest piece is Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit, which is so far removed from the Poe story on which it is based that it almost can be considered a wholly original thing.  The film stars Terence Stamp in his first international production portraying, appropriately, an English actor brought to Italy to film an Italian film, the first "Catholic Western".  It is worth noting that following this film, Stamp went on to make one of the finest films of his career in Pasolini's Teorema, the story for which is very similar to Takashi Miike's Visitor Q

Stamp's Dammit is another character haunted by his own actions and desires, so much so that everywhere he goes, he is taunted by the Devil itself, in the guise of a pale young girl bouncing a white ball.  Toby Dammit is a wonderful character, and completely fitting for Fellini's world.  Upon his arrival in Rome, Toby is surrounded by Fellini's trademark menagerie of grotesques, though is his drunken and crazed state, it is hard to tell if he recognizes them as such, or even if they are really as they seem in the film.  Toby careens both figuratively and literally through a Rome that is foreign to him, attempting wildly to escape his own madness, only managing to find that the old adage is true: No matter where you go, there you are.  Stamp's performance in a very challenging role is admirable, he plays the crazed quite well.  Throughout the film, we can see his madness creeping in and taking a little more of his sanity with each frame, until finally, at an award ceremony of which he is the guest of honor, he loses it.  I felt genuinely uncomfortable watching Toby Dammit descend into his own personal hell, in a way I liken to my reaction to Requiem for a Dream.  It really is that rough to watch, despite the ostensible levity provided by the supporting cast around him.  A brilliant film, and by far the most adventurous of the three, both in story and in style.

Overall, Spirits of the Dead is a wonderful marker of position of European films in 1968.  Each of the three films shares the theme of self-destruction and carries it off well.  The stylistic differences are interesting to watch and make for gripping viewing for most of the running time.

Arrow Films' transfer is very clean.  There is a healthy amount of grain in the image, but not enough to be distracting, especially in the dark and grimy Toby Dammit.  The detail in the picture is also more than acceptable, especially at the climax of William Wilson and in some of the more lingering shots of Jane Fonda in Metzengerstein, which I appreciate.  The audio is really clean, apart from a couple of very minor hiccups in Metzengerstein, which I attribute to the same problem as the print damage.  As far as video extras go, there aren't any apart from a brief snippet of the Vincent Price narration created for the film's American release, but there are several language options, I opted for the original multi-lingual option, though there are English and French dubs available.  Where the presentation really shines is an outstanding 60 page booklet featuring essays from Tim Lucas (All the Colors of the Dark), and Peter Bondanella, as well as the original Poe stories from which the film was adapted.

This is a great presentation of a very interesting film, and a great coming together of auteurs, the likes of which we rarely see anymore, but wasn't uncommon following this film.  Most anthology films put together semi-known directors, but few allow them to stretch out much, which is where this film shines.  The films are very different with each director's visions shining through quite liberally.  Well worth a viewing.

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Federico FelliniLouis MalleRoger VadimEdgar Allan PoePascal CousinClement Biddle WoodDaniel BoulangerBernardino ZapponiBrigitte BardotAlain DelonJane FondaTerence StampHorrorMystery

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