Saturday, October 29, 2016

Spirits of the Dead

You want some serious Euro filmic decadence from the birth of the sexual revolution? Step right this way to a period piece that adapts short stories you may have read in high school...

Spirits of the Dead adapts three tales from Edgar Allan Poe and was part of the trend for anthology films than ran from the mid-60s to mid-70s, which included such highlights as Torture Garden, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (which is actually a train) and Tales of Terror (which also took Poe as its an inspiration and had Vincent Price to boot). In Spirits of the Dead, Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini each adapted a short story--the title is taken from a poem. It should surprise no one that that the last contribution is the best, but each of the others has something to recommend them as well.

Opening the film is "Metzengerstein," the offering from Roger Vadim which, like pretty much any Vadim film, is a showcase for the hot blonde he was banging at the time, in this case Jane Fonda.

As decadent aristocrat the Countess Frederica, Jane looks absolutely gorgeous in an array of costumes that combine thigh boots and bared navels with slashed sleeves and ruffled collars. (I swear that John Galliano must absolutely adore this film. Whether he knows it or not.) Not to mention the hair. The hair is to die for. RuPaul and Dolly Parton would tussle over that hair... courtesy of ace Eurostylist of the 60s Carita, BTW.

Of course, all this flash--Wine! Orgies! Daggers! Corsets! Baby leopards!--doesn't conceal that pretty much nothing happens in "Metzengerstein." We watch Fonda stomp around in her outfits like Beyonce until she runs across Baron Wilhelm..

Baron Wilhelm is played by Jane's brother Peter--in the story they're supposed to be cousins, but apparently that wasn't incestuous enough for the French. He barely speaks, which is supposed to be because he's even moodier than Jane is, but I'm pretty sure it's actually because his French sucks (remember that Peter spent his teen years getting high; Jane spent hers going to Vassar and working at Paris Review).

 The showgirl headdress existed even in Medieval times...

Anyway, Jane gets pissed, sets Peter's stables on fire, Peter dies, a big black horse shows up in her tapestry and in her stables, then more shit catches on fire, etc. etc. etc...

"William Wilson" is the entry by Louis Malle, a variation on the Doppleganger story--except in this version, it's a good double that keeps thwarting the evil original. Wilson is played by Alain Delon, who projects just the right level of icily dispassionate cruelty, qualities the real Delon, a notorious asshole, apparently possessed in spades.


We watch William Wilson torment both his teachers and classmates, even as a child--or, should we say, attempt to, because it seems that another, identical boy named William Wilson constantly shows up to put a stop to his efforts at sadism, whether its pulling a bullied classmate out of a barrel full of rats or calling a halt to an "autopsy" on a live girl.


Out of the three stories, Malle comes the closest to giving the people what they (allegedly) want--creepy rats, icky autopsies, bare boobs, titillating flogging scenes--though the idea that the supposedly monstrous "other" is actually a force for good throw it off-balance a bit.. Actually, Spirits of the Dead does not have that much horror in it--there's a sort of ghost/possession in the first story and the double in the second one but the third if just sort of hallucinatory,  which we will get to in a moment...

The theoretical climax of "William Wilson" comes with Brigitte Bardot in a black wig smoking a cigar--Brigitte is great at what she does, but she's one of the last people i'd ever cast as an ersatz Lola Montez. (Ava Gardner, on the other hand, was born for to play Lola and it's amazing no one ever had her do it--imagine how much better the Ophuls Lola Montez would be with her rather than that pretty waxwork, Martine Carol. But i digress..)

Anyway, Bardot throws shade on Delon and beats him at cards, then suddenly he starts winning and winds up, quite literally winning her. He whips Brunette Brigitte, then is about to have his buddies gang bang her, when the good William Wilson shows up and reveals that bad William Wilson fucking cheated. That Wilson bullies, tortures, rapes--but suffers no real comeuppance until he cheats his cronies at cards is still appropriate to today...

Our last and most impressive entry is Fellini's "Toby Dammit," ostensibly based on Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," but only in the most tenuous fashion.

From the opening airport pan--a mass of shifting color tints, distorted soundscapes, leering faces and cardboard cutouts (no, literally, cardboard cutouts)--we know we're in Fellini territory. If 8 1/2 is the tale of the director's meltdown and La Dolce Vita is the writer's, "Toby Dammit" is the actor. with the identity crisis turning out that much worse. (If "Metzengerstein" and "William Wilson" are the Poe surly teen goths read, "Toby Dammit" is the actual Poe reeling around Baltimore drunk, deranged and dying. Fonda and Delon play sadistic assholes, Stamp is a troubled artist.)

We get herds of nuns, flashbulb-ing paparazzi, traffic jams, all reeled out as character-packed mod-Bosch canvases under Inferno-red skies. Toby is in town to make a western retelling of the story of Christ, for which he will we receive a Ferrari, more specifically a golden Ferrari 330 LMB. (What would Jesus drive?)

Stamp staggers through a purgatorial television talk show, distracted by multiple cameras and multiple hosts,alternately morose and grandiose, playing it up to the hilt for a disapproving and fascinated audience.

The awards banquet is your standard Fellini party scene with Toby in full tailspin. He attains an odd moment of lucidity reciting a monologue from Macbeth onstage, giving a glimpse of the talent he's droned in drink and drugs (there's more than a dash of The Richard Burton Story here.)


Finally, Toby gets his sweet sportscar and we're off! He whizzes to the outskirts of the city to a small town. The joy of speed gives way to the realization that he's lost and cannot find his way back. (It kind of reminds me of them time i got lost in Detroit somewhere between Hamtramck and downtown, just turning endlessly along unlit, overgrown roads, hoping I didn't run out of gas before sundown. Then I found a little bulletproof-glassed minimart in the middle of nowhere and a bunch of really nice guys gave me directions back.)


Toby keeps driving in that beautiful Ferrari, a one-man car chase, speeding along until a succession of dead ends, turnarounds, roundabouts and plazas repeatedly bring him to a halt. The town has somehow folded in on him and, no matter where he turns, he can't seem to get out. And the cardboard cutouts are closing in again...

... and it falls down and goes boom...

Spirits of the Dead isn't quite a horror film, though it does have a few cringe-inducing moments and the Fellini installment is creepy in its own peculiar way. But for atmosphere and style, it's a movie that's hard to beat.

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