..

SPIRITS OF THE DEAD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jane Fonda, Brigitte Bardot, Terence Stamp, Alain Delon
Directors:  Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.75:1
Studio:  HVe
Features:  None
Length:  121 Minutes
Release Date:  November 13, 2001

Film ***

Take three renowned European directors and one indelible American writer, and you have Spirits of The Dead.  A trio of classic tales from Edgar Allan Poe are translated into three separate film segments by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini, respectively.  Like any soup with more than one cook, the results are a little mixed, though mostly quite savory and satisfying.

The first segment is the best, both cinematically and story wise.  It is Vadim’s reworking of “Metzengerstein”, turning Poe’s male title character into a woman, played by Jane Fonda as “a petty Caligula”.  She is a baroness who lives a life of lusty and sometimes cruel pleasures, but finds her world changed by a handsome young man who spurns her.  For revenge, she has his stables burned down, but unintentionally kills him in the process.  His spirit returns as a wild, fiery black stallion who responds only to her, as her hedonistic lifestyle becomes a mournful and obsessive one, and eventually body and soul succumb to a burning justice.

Louis Malle directs “William Wilson”, a well-known Poe tale in which a vicious young man’s life is intertwined with that of a mysterious figure who shares his namesake…and possibly even half of his identity.  Alain Delon plays the title character, who forces a priest to listen to his confession of murder.  It is an act that will lead to his undoing.  The highlight of this story is a game between Wilson and a lovely young card shark played by Brigitte Bardot, a game he cheats in solely for the satisfaction of seeing her degraded and humiliated.

Even if I didn’t know going into the film who directed which part, I could have still easily identified Fellini’s installment.  “Toby Dammit”, based on Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head”, is a good indicator of what would become the director’s tendencies towards indulgence and excesses in the 1970s.  It’s what his fans might call challenging, but most moviegoers would call incoherent…it is easily the most frustrating and memorable of the segments.

Terrence Stamp plays the title character, an English actor with a terrible drug and alcohol problem who seems to be withering before our eyes.  His skin is pale, his eyes are blank, his hair is matted…yet he finds himself in Italy at an awards show that celebrates ugliness and emptiness.  He ends up on a mad Ferrari ride through the streets of Rome (a dazzling cinematic sequence) where he encounters mannequins, sheep, people who smile but don’t speak, and even the devil, as a little girl bouncing a ball.  Only in a Fellini film.

The choice of stories in Spirits of the Dead seems to be indicative of its time, repeating themes of debauchery, degradation, humiliation, with no moral compass or code to serve as a guideline.  All portions seem to warn of a danger inherent in absolute freedom, or at least, absolute power.  The ugly side of human nature is self destructive, and when it wins out over everything else, there can be only one logical conclusion.

While the film brings a great sense of style and atmosphere to the works of Poe, I did miss the sense of horror usually associated with his writings.  The prevailing emotion is one of despair peppered with repulsion…fear is never a factor.

But the efforts of the three directors prevail, even though the efforts aren’t combined.  It cost the film its sense of fluidity, but brings instead unashamed sense of style.  There is excess, to be sure, but sometimes, madness is truly defined by our excesses.

Video ***

Generally, this is a quality anamorphic transfer from HVe, but not without some problems.  The opening segment is by far the best looking, with rich, colorful visuals indicative of a quality period piece.  Images are sharply defined and colors are natural looking.  The finale doesn’t fare as well…Fellini’s portion suffers from some extra grain, a little haziness from time to time, and less definition in darker scenes.  The overall package measures out to be quality, but the few problems are worth noting.

Audio **

This is a fairly standard mono mix…the dialogue is in French and dubbed, so judging its quality is rather futile.  As for the rest of the track, it’s mostly very clean, with good presentations of sound effects and touches of music here and there. 

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Three tales from one imagination realized by three renowned director’s…Spirits of the Dead is a stylish and haunting, if somewhat uneven, effort to spin tales about personal demons and lack of redemption.  Fans of European cinema ought to give this one a try…it isn’t every day you see the names of Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini all on the same film.