Written by: John White on January 19th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: Italy/France, 1969
Directors: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini
Cast: Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot, Terence Stamp
DVD released: November 27, 2001
Approximate running time: 121 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.75:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (Letterboxed)
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Homevision/Image
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $19.95
Three tales adapted from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. In the first, the licentious and cruel Countess falls for her cousin only to be rebuffed. She seeks revenge, he dies and a magnificent black horse comes into her possession which eventually leads her to her doom. In the second tale, a sadistic bully relates how his darker efforts as a man are frustrated by a doppelganger leading him to kill this kinder, conscientious self and inevitably meet his own doom. The final tale involves a haunted jaded English actor being tormented to his doom by his own excess and visions of the abyss.
Spirits of the Dead was released whilst Roger Corman was enjoying great success with his Poe adaptations featuring Vincent Price. Corman’s efforts brought Poe to a wider audience but continued the long record of horror films to be camp and ironic. The idea of three of the leading lights of European cinema taking on Poe was always going to take things in a different direction. The three tales vary wildly from the first directed by Vadim, which is all medieval chic and false eyelashes, to Malle’s well told narrative of William Wilson on to Fellini’s imaginative reworking of Poe’s common themes of excess and morbidity.
The first tale is the weakest of the three and being in the company of two cinematic greats does Vadim no favours. What Vadim offers is great to look at but as decadent as the story he tells. Jane Fonda has never been worse and as beautiful as she was in 1969 this can not rescue the weakness of her performance which is all artifice and designer emotion, lip gloss and empty angst. Vadim is not much better and the poor blocking and ordinary photography in the orgy scenes give the lie to his brotherhood with Fellini and Malle.
Malle’s tale is slight but well told. Delon is William Willson whose conscience comes to life as his double to stop him torturing, murdering and bullying. Delon does sociopath so well.
The final tale is the point of owning the film. Toby Dammit is an excellent tale of an actor drawn to his own demise by his addictions and selfishness. Fellini takes the opportunity to send up the glamour of celebrity and cinema as he does in Eight and a Half. The nightmare of the empty glossy world of celebrity is brilliantly shown and Terence Stamp gives a jadedness to the lead character that his acting has never matched since. Toby Dammit is one of the finest things Fellini ever did.
Spirits of the dead is a worthwhile feature with a poor first tale bettered by Malle’s second and transcended by Fellini’s final one.
Homevision provide a good transfer for the film but there is quite a lot of noise in the transfer and a lack of saturation in the colours which causes the Fellini section to look a little less striking than intended. The print has the odd fleck on screen and some hairs at the bottom of the frame on occasion. The film is letterboxed and encased by a black rectangle to avoid overscan on full frame TVs. The mono is good if not outstanding and the soundtrack is in French throughout with excellent English subs. the French dub means that whilst it is Jane Fonda doing her own lines, it is not Stamp dubbing himself in French.
There are no extras other than the liner notes having an essay on the film from Nathan Rabin.
You truly should own a copy of the tales directed by Malle and Fellini and given the problems with French dub on the earlier Image release and the better picture here, this disc is the best option.
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