Criterion Prediction #5: Spirits of the Dead, by Alexander Miller
Title: Spirits of the Dead
Director: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini
Cast: Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot, Terence Stamp
Synopsis: Three of Europe’s leading filmmakers each directs an Edgar Allen Poe tale in an acid dosed international assembly of headlining talent in one of horror cinema’s most unlikely anthology films. Roger Vadim starts things off with his adaptation of Metzengerstein; two families whose feud has gone on for years come to a head when Countess Frederique (Jane Fonda) is rescued by Baron Wilhelm (Peter Fonda) when her foot is caught in a trap. Afterwards, the Countess develops a fixation on Wilhelm (brother and sister, I know) but her family is wicked, debaucherous and on the opposing side of a long-standing quarrel, so he rejects her. Her obsession leads to revenge and things only escalate from there. Louis Malle’s William Wilson, the second installment, starts with the titular character (Alain Delon) confessing to the murder of none other than himself. It is told in a flashback structure that explores morbid carryings on from his childhood to medical school and his present scenario involving gambling and the public whipping of Brigitte Bardot. The third and the meatiest segment is Fellini’s modernist adaptation of Never Bet the Devil Your Head a Faustian tale where a drug-addled actor whose grip on reality is slipping away. Whether it’s the “wager” he’s made, or the cost of fame (with or without the devil, depending on how you apply the source material) Toby is losing his mind. After winding through the debauched limelight, Toby makes a getaway with his new Ferrari down the labyrinth-like backstreets where a recurring apparition of the devil forewarns him of his demise. The narrative foundation of Poe’s original story is just a means to support Fellini’s colorfully ostentatious design. Vadim and Malle don’t come up short; it’s just that Fellini’s Toby Dammit is that damn good.
Critique: It’s nearly impossible to review an anthology film without exploring every segment, especially when three renowned auteurs direct them at the height of their popularity. If there’s a weak link (and there’s always one) in anthology films it is usually the first; while Metzengerstein has some visual style but it’s a bit aimless and lags for a thirty-minute story. Metzengerstein gained some notoriety for the casting Peter and Jane Fonda as potential love interests (and cousins); this seems more like Vadim exercising his inclinations as one of the eras provocateurs of cinema. Louis Malle’s masochistic William Wilson clocks in at second place as Malle packs a variety of content into a bouncy and anarchistic half hour of 19th-century horror. The doppelganger, dual identity theme we see all over cinema seems to have some matching DNA with Poe’s original story that Malle plays faithfully to. Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon are a pleasure to watch, and they play their macabre characters with a degree of wit and allure. Fellini’s Toby Dammit is the reigning champion here and for good reason. Fellini’s carnivalesque merriment proves to be a great compliment to the nightmarish surrealism. Contemporizing the setting to show business is an equally funny and scary treatise of stardom (or the nature of stardom) and the director seems to be at home in the territory of the macabre. It’s too bad Fellini didn’t explore this genre more often. Terence Stamp steals the show (referring to all three segments) and considering the international cast of headliners that’s an achievement.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: If you subscribe to the auteur theory (which the good folks at Criterion clearly do) than Spirits of the Dead is a wonderful curiosity, foremost because it features three filmmakers who are synonymous with the arthouse generation, when the term was coined. For one, all three directors have films in Criterion’s catalogue, while Vadim’s 1956 film And God Created Woman (which put Bardot on the map) is his only official Criterion release, Malle and Fellini are prominent placeholders with over ten titles to their name as official releases. In concert with the auteur theory, this film is more than consistent with their current catalogue. Furthermore, Spirits of the Dead is already in the Janus films canon and the domestic DVD release was distributed by HVE (Home Video Entertainment), a joint home video division for Criterion. Recently in 2005 HVE was bought by Image Entertainment, becoming the exclusive purveyor of Criterion titles, ergo the film is attainable for a release. Furthermore, horror films have a consistent fan base and are always in demand. This pattern has repeated itself with popular titles such as Eyes Without a Face, The Devil’s Backbone, Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, Scanners and the long awaited release of Cronenberg’s The Brood, which just hit shelves this month. Being an international production with three high profile directors it would be great to learn some behind the scenes notes, or uncover some alternate language tracks. For instance, an audio track of Toby Dammit with Terence Stamp’s original voice would be wonderful. Stand out features like this have become Criterion’s trademark as their distinctive bonus features prove that there’s still an audience for physical media as opposed to digital/streaming content.