Spirits of the Dead (1968)

Spirits of the Dead (1968)

“Why am I telling you this? Why did you ask me here? What do you want from me?”

Three mean-spirited individuals — Jane Fonda, Alain Delon, and Terence Stamp — meet appropriately grisly endings.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Brigitte Bardot Films
  • Edgar Allan Poe Films
  • Episodic Films
  • Fellini Films
  • Horror Films
  • Jane Fonda Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Louis Malle Films
  • Peter Fonda Films
  • Roger Vadim Films
  • Terence Stamp Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is clearly not a fan of this “disappointing horror anthology for which three Poe tales were adapted by internationally known directors and which starred actors who usually stayed away from the genre”. Roger Vadim helmed the first episode, “Metzengerstein”, starring Jane Fonda as a cruel, “depraved libertine” who secretly covets her humble cousin (played by her real-life brother, Peter — kinky). It seems to exist primarily as an excuse for Fonda to wear yet more “revealing costumes” (after her starring role in Vadim’s Barbarella) while riding horses, staring at tapestries, and engaging in orgies that “must give TV censors fits”; unfortunately, it’s a real snooze. Next is a slightly more compelling but still disappointing episode — directed by Louis Malle — “about a sadist… who keeps seeing his moral counterpart, a lookalike named William Wilson”. Peary argues it is “poorly dubbed, unnecessarily vicious, and, surprisingly, contains no surprises”; its most memorable (if squeamishly disturbing) sequence involves Brigitte Bardot as “a cigar-smoking brunette who loses to the cheating Wilson at cards and must submit to his beating”.

Peary writes that “the most praised episode is Federico Fellini’s ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’, starring Terence Stamp as a booze-soaked, self-loathing American actor [Toby Dammit] who has come to Italy to make a moralistic western about redemption”, and “encounters Fellini’s usual array of grotesque movie- and press-types and the devil — a little blonde girl who keeps turning up in creepy settings”. He argues that while Fellini’s story is “too long and self-consciously arty”, “at least its violent ending… is carried out in an original manner”. Most other critics give Fellini’s short film even greater due, with DVD Savant (for instance) noting that “for once, a critique of showbiz goes beyond the obvious representations of phoniness and insincerity, and takes the extra step into insanity.” Indeed, this final episode — a deliciously surreal satire with a relentless pace and consistently jarring imagery — at least partially redeems the entire film. But as a whole, Spirits of the Dead remains an unpleasant outing that is more of a curiosity than essential viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claude Renoir’s cinematography in “Metzengerstein”
  • Terence Stamp as Toby Dammit
  • Typically surreal imagery by Fellini

Must See?
No, though you may be curious to check out the third story.


4 thoughts on “Spirits of the Dead (1968)

  1. Only must-see for Fellini’s contribution.

    Some years back, I recall giving ‘SOTD’ a rewatch (though I had seen it once before), thinking, ‘Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I remember.’ Alas…aside from the Fellini story, it was still as bad and as tepid and boring.

    However, I just rewatched ‘Toby Dammit’ and it holds up very well. (According to Wikipedia: In 2008, ‘Toby Dammit’ was separately restored under the personal supervision of its renowned cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. A new 35mm print was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was widely acclaimed by the press as a lost Fellini masterpiece.)

    In some respects, ‘TD’ is just pure Fellini and has very little to do with Poe. Yet, at the same time, it’s very true to the horror tradition as it relates its tale of being beckoned by the devil.

    Stamp plays an actor who seems to have a certain amount of talent but is more or less a zero as a person. Fellini was no doubt very familiar with the type of actor who – already very much in love with himself – falls in lust with his own fame and becomes something of a mess for the press, not caring if he is drunk or rude.

    It seems significant at one point that Stamp quotes ‘Macbeth’, since ‘TD’ does seem ‘a tale told by an idiot’ of a protagonist who is ‘full of sound and fury’. Stamp’s Toby is also bisexual. (A lady reporter remarks to him that he is “as successful with men as he is with women”.) We rarely see bisexuals portrayed as characters (even now) and – as in ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ – bisexuality is seen as something untrustworthy and perhaps even unbalanced. But that doesn’t excuse Toby otherwise – he’s a narcissistic jerk.

    Both Fellini and the devil in the story seem to share the same opinion of an actor like Toby and the ‘moral’ of this sequence appears to be ‘Fuck you, asshole.’ 😉

  2. Whilst I overall agree that the third story is far and away the best, I do feel that the others are interesting to varying degrees. Each one improves on the last so that the film viewing experience actually gets better and better as it goes along (always the best way for a film to go). Many portmanteaus can be a much rockier road but this one builds.

    The first, the weakest, I found gorgeous to look at and at least interesting in it’s stylised weirdness and for the transgressive aspect of casting a brother and sister as lovers. The second was just so damn … odd and intriguing.

    The Fellini endcap is a masterpiece even if, as you say, it is a shade too long. All three look and sound great and are well made with decent performances which is enough to keep interest, at least for me. A portmanteau needs to be (paraphrasing director Roy Ward Baker who made a couple for Amicus) a box of tricks and this one is no exception. Each segment should feel very different to my mind and this one manages that nicely.

    It was a film I had been aware of for decades but had never managed to track down until the beautiful UK BD release from Arrow came my way (2010).

    Definitely not a must see for FFs, although as you both point out a case could be made for the Fellini segment to be so in isolation. I’d still recommend the film to horror fns as a solid, interesting and ultimately rewarding experience.

  3. Interesting that Peary has only seen the version dubbed into English. The Arrow BD offers the film in it’s original multi-lingual English-French-Italian version with optional subtitles. I wonder if viewing that could make a difference?

  4. Another interesting point: I wonder if Fellini was a fan of Mario Bava’s excellent Kill Baby, Kill! (1966) which was – I believe – the first film to depict the devil as a creepy, blonde little girl. Scorsese certainly was and acknowledged his influence on similar casting in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), although that may have been n aspect in the original 1955 book.

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