Of all the adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe that I’ve seen, I’ve never watched anything as artsy as Spirits of the Dead (1968), an anthology of French films made by three famous directors, Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini, combined into a 121-minute movie. Their interpretations are unique, as are their selections of Poe stories. I don’t believe I’ve previously seen any of them brought to screen.
First is “Metzengertzstein,” by Roger Vadim. The highlight here is a young Jane Fonda just prior to Barbarella (1969), the sci-fi spoof which established her as a sex symbol. The creepy part is that the object of her desire is played by her real-life younger brother, Peter Fonda. In this story, they’re cousins; a spark ignites when he rescues her from a trap in the woods. When he dies in a fire rescuing his prized horses, she becomes obsessed with the one that survives.
Second is “William Wilson,” by Louis Malle, and it’s my favorite. Alain Delon plays an army officer that develops an adversarial relationship with his doppelganger. The story begins with him confessing murder to a priest, then continues through flashbacks. I can’t say too much without spoiling this one, but let’s just say that David Lynch would be proud of the twist ending, especially since it makes little sense if you think about it too hard.
Third is “Toby Dammitt,” by Federico Fellini, and it’s the most surreal by far. A famous actor (Terence Stamp) on his first trip to Italy slowly loses his mind... maybe. I can’t say too much about this one, either, but it’s mostly because I just don’t understand it. At one point, Dammitt states that he doesn’t believe in God, but does believe in the devil. He’s seen the devil and it’s a little girl that appears to taunt him throughout the segment.
Vincent Price apparently narrates the English-language version of Spirits of the Dead and I can imagine the level to which it would raise this strange movie. As it is, I don’t know enough about French cinema or these directors to know if it carries any significance in their careers. I appreciate it because its stories are such a fresh take on Poe. At times, it’s beautiful to watch, but the presumed artistry is too overwhelming for me to watch all three again in one viewing.
Written by Roger Vadim & Pascal Cousin, Louis Malle & Clement Biddle Wood, Federico Fellini & Bernardino Zapponi, Daniel Boulanger
Based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe
Directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini
Starring Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Terence Stamp
Released July 23, 1969 (United States)
RT 121 min.
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