Histoires Extraordinaires de Edgar Allan Poe
Directors: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini
By Roderick Heath
As concept and finished product, Spirits of the Dead takes on the aspect of a fever dream, where the strangeness of the vision that arises before one’s eyes defies credulity. Did Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini really make an omnibus horror movie out of stories by Edgar Allan Poe? How the hell did that happen? All heroes of the iconic European cinema of the era, it’s nonetheless hard to think of three more temperamentally and stylistically disparate directors.
Omnibus horror movies are generally associated with Amicus, the British studio that tried to rival Hammer in the late ’60s with a string of such films, usually a bunch of loosely stitched episodes with a ramshackle unifying structure. Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1963), another Poe anthology film, was essayed in variations on his already formulated, hyperstylised gothic. Whilst Spirits of the Dead spurns any connective tissue, segueing from chapter to chapter by surveying a bleakly cloudy sky, and each episode is announced with its own credits, calling attention to its own multiauteur production and the resulting stylistic smorgasbord, it’s also, interestingly, bound together by a choice to film three of Poe’s more moralistic stories. In all three episodes, the protagonist is a wilfully amoral, yet doggedly human and uncertain beast struggling desperately with mortality and the certainty of judgment.
The project was actually supposed to be helmed by Fellini, Orson Welles, and Luis Buñuel, and it’s hard not to admit the producers traded down, certainly with Vadim. There’s something left of Welles’ spirit left in Malle’s episode, which resembles in production and visuals the similar, delicate work Welles did in his later adaptation of The Immortal Story (1968). As a whole, the Spirits of the Dead doesn’t entirely mesh, but it’s still an invigorating by-product of late ’60s cinema culture, and represents horror for the connoisseur. The most famous episode of the film is Fellini’s contribution, “Toby Dammit,” a version of Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” and indeed that short work comes close to being Fellini’s best, a hallucinogenic romp through the movie business and jet-set modernity as Faustian nightmare. But the chapters that precede it are worthy of attention in their own fashions. Vadim’s “Metzengerstein” is a real oddity, a blend of Vadim’s lush kink and fantasy with a visual naturalism that Malle extends in his own entry, “William Wilson.” “Metzengerstein” is built around a weird joke: Vadim cast his then-wife Jane Fonda as the wicked Contessa Frederique de Metzengerstein, who falls in love with her distant cousin, Baron Wilhelm Berlifitzing, played by her brother Peter Fonda.
Anticipating the SoGo scenes in Barbarella (1968), Vadim uses the material as an excuse to indulge a louche libertine’s mise-en-scène in portraying the Contessa’s depraved lifestyle. She suspends a serving boy in the air and shoots arrows at him with her ladies-in-waiting, conspires with her lover to rape another of his women, fondles her best friend (Françoise Prévost) in the bath, lounges about with tiger cubs and parades around in abbreviated hoop skirts and kinky boots, as if Elizabeth Bathory had been reincarnated as Zsa Zsa Gabor. It’s a reinvention of the Middle Ages as a haute couture, sexualised wonderland, albeit one that’s insanely unfair and cruel. The Contessa is so used to being able to indulge her whims and vices that she’s completely unable to express herself when she’s stricken with ardour for her misanthropic but essentially decent cousin, after he saves her from being caught in a bear trap. The Contessa finds an outlet for her rage by burning down Wilhelm’s stables, and he dies trying to save one of his horses from the conflagration. The Contessa receives a bizarre punishment, however, for the Baron seems to return reincarnated as a black steed with which she falls in love, and finally rides to her death on him in a grassfire started by lightning in a liebestod consummation.
“Metzengerstein” would be better if Vadim hadn’t been such an unvarying tease: his provocations remain firmly on the near side of mere naughtiness, whilst never achieving sensuality. As in Barbarella, there’s something slapdash about the way he develops his ideas, unable to reconcile his lazy, playful touches with the need to create a deeply morbid atmosphere. The mix of solidly naturalistic settings, highly stylised costuming, and incipient perversity does, however, imbue his work with a deceptive cumulative impact. The location shooting, particularly in the use of the Finistèr coastline, aids in drawing out the theme of natural forces exacting merciless reminders of mortality on mere humans, whatever their social pretentions. Vadim’s real talent for highly rhythmic editing and intensely composed sequences comes out in flashes: during the apocalyptic menace of the stable burning, smoke blackening the sky and the Baron’s fleeing horses erupting out of the smoke, and in the latter stages as the Contessa’s dooming bestial passion intercut with a weaver’s efforts to repair a singed tapestry depicting just such a great black horse, as if fate itself is a patient embroiderer.
Malle’s episode, although less showy than either Vadim’s or Fellini’s, is actually close to perfect. Alain Delon offers an excellent performance as the titular William Wilson, an icy egotist and sadist with a pristinely pretty face tormented by a double who heads off his own worst impulses. In confessing a murder to a priest, Wilson recounts his life story, from attending a military boarding school as a child where his overlordship of his fellow students and his vicious regime was first challenged by the arrival of another student named William Wilson who stood up to him and freed a young schoolmate the sadistic Wilson had dangling over a pit of rats. Years later, as a medical student, Wilson had become even worse, this time leading a cabal of fellow students in attempting to dissect, whilst still alive, a young woman (Katia Christin) snatched off the street: again the mysterious other Wilson intervened. When serving as a soldier and having matured into an infamously violent rake, Wilson engaged in a battle of wills with a female gambler named Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot), whom he delighted in cheating out of a victory and then getting his kicks by flogging her. But the double again intervened to reveal how he cheated. Finally losing control, Wilson murdered his alter ego after losing a duel with him.
It is, of course, a story about the nagging presence of conscience as the only limit on the desire for gratification, as if Wilson has been split at birth into living embodiments of his ego and superego. The subject is also contiguous with Malle’s interest in the porous limits of acceptable behaviour, and the kinds of experience that make or mar people, whilst stylistically it evokes the subverted romanticism of Visconti’s Senso (1954). He essays the stages of Wilson’s life, each building to the crucial moment of interruption, with beautiful control, conveying the relish with which Wilson anticipates gratification and his agony when he’s cut off each time like a frustrated orgasm finally gained when he stabs his double to death, only to realise his self-destructive mistake. A personally nostalgic mood infuses the schoolyard images of the young lads pelting each other with snowballs, juxtaposed with the alien flavour of young Wilson’s dead-eyed junior psychopath stare as he tears up a letter from his mother and tries to strangle his double in bed. The especially frigid cruelty of the scene in which Wilson airily mocks his medical lecturer’s cant as he relentlessly circles the bound young woman, caressing her bare skin with the edge of his scalpel, builds to a wicked punchline as the woman, freed by the second Wilson, can’t tell the two apart, and moves to embrace the wrong one, receiving a hideous gash from the scalpel Wilson still holds. The assured slow burn reaches a crescendo in Delon’s lengthy encounter with Bardot’s glorious Giuseppina, full of anticipated sadomasochistic designs, with this black-haired, cigar-smoking, female equal and opposite to Wilson taunting him all the while, his inner tension is palpable all the way. She thinks she knows exactly what he’s about, and expects mere sexual gamesmanship, not the calculated viciousness she gets.
Both Vadim and Malle’s chapters, whilst interesting, do fall victim somewhat to the usual problem of omnibus horror films: the brevity of the structure limits the creation of atmosphere and density of detail. Fellini, on the other hand, works wonders with his allotted time. “Toby Dammit” is a total antithesis to Malle’s work: where Malle’s slow burn purposefully cheats fulfilment, Fellini’s episode is excess rendered all-consuming, and the desperation of the title character is his desire to escape the realisation of all his ambitions. The realism of Malle’s approach and Vadim’s, too, is swapped for a neo-expressionist orgasm of colour and artifice of filters and back-projection, with vaguely science-fiction adornments and a hint of apocalypse added to Fellin’s stygian contemporary Rome, to which Toby, a world-famous but disintegrating actor, comes to make a Marxist-Christian Western. Fellini cranks up the sweat-inducing, alcoholic miasma around Toby, stalked by reporters and star fuckers on his arrival at the Rome airport where everything is bathed in a reddish infernal hue and full of bizarre dioramas of human behaviour. He’s assailed with modish moviemaker jive by the producers and writers (“The busty girl is the illusory escape into the irrational!”), grilled by interviewers (“Is it true you’ve done unsavoury jobs?” “Yes, but I’ve never been a TV reporter.”), and dragged out to officiate at a gruesome industry awards night that plays the orgiastic self-congratulation of such events as the sheerest definition of damnation.
Toby wallows in booze, torturous self-pity, and violent displays of pique alternating with moments of rugged charm and motions that suggest the grace and inspiration he once had as a living artist. But, of course, he’s sold his soul to the devil of success and phoniness, a fact Fellini carefully reveals as Toby is secretly hounded by a vividly blonde, creepily smiling little girl carrying a ball, invisible to everyone else, who wants him as a playmate. Fellini goes to town with a gusto that’s quite amazing even for him, from the epic, bizarre drive from the airport to the TV studio, as out on the street, fashion shoots take place amidst madcap industrialism. At a ceremony, all sorts of rancid weirdoes with too much money and makeup surround Toby in a sweltering atmosphere full of smoke and clashing lights, as fashion parades, unctuous hosts, interpretive dancers, and a variety of other guests strut their stuff upon the stage. A woman sees the pain Toby is in and approaches, promising that she’ll take care of him: “I know you. I’ve always known you!”—a line of pseudo-empathic blather he’s heard dozens of times before. His final escape from the ceremony, taking off in the gift Ferrari that was the only reason he signed on to the film, sees him move with relentless speed. But he cannot find his way out of the labyrinthine streets of Rome’s outer suburbs, and when he does make it onto a freeway, he comes to a collapsed bridge, where, inspired by the little girl dancing on the far side, he decides to try to jump as his final defiance of all natural force.
“Toby Dammit” seems partly inspired by Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), from which it borrows the motif of the anguished movie star visiting Rome and trying to exorcise his demons in a terrifying exercise with a speeding car, whilst the touch of the Devil represented by the malevolent girl is clearly indebted to Fellini’s friend Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966). But it’s truly a superlative exercise by Fellini, and Stamp’s inspired performance is almost sui generis, even for that restlessly protean actor. His Toby seems to be in deep physical and spiritual pain all the time, and he races towards his end grateful for a chance to bust the dogging curse either way. It’s Fellini’s most extreme version of his semi-surreal portraits of high society from La Dolce Vita and 8½, pushed right to the limits of coherence and grotesquery, as befits the supercharged mood of late ’60s superstardom. One of the film folk insists that the film they’ll make “reflects the death throes and decay of our capitalist system,” but Toby perceives those death throes from the inside out, in a world in which everything’s dissolving into chaos, and it’s far from rhetorical for him. He makes that final defiant jump, but Fellini follows up with a slow, menacing zoom shot that peers deeper through the darkness until the cable suspended at just the right height to sever Toby’s head can be seen swinging on the far side of the gap, smeared with blood—the little girl has a new ball to play with. l