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Nine years ago I eagerly reviewed an HVe DVD of the European international production Spirits of the Dead, also known under its original French title, Histoires Extraordinaires. The disc carried only a French track, which spoiled much of the appeal of the third and best chapter in the film, Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit. DVD at the time was producing beautiful new restored versions of Eurohorror films from the '60s and '70s, but this frustration with the audio track put a damper on my enthusiasm for Spirits of the Dead.
Now, the English outfit Arrow Films has released an excellent solution to the problem, with a stunning Spirits of the Dead Blu-ray bearing some very welcome audio options.
Even in Hi Def, Spirits of the Dead is still a mixed bag of ghost stories -- for more details on its three episodes see Savant's older DVD review. The chapters range from terrible to inspired. The first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation Metzengerstein is by Roger Vadim, who seemingly has forgotten how to direct since his early days with ... And God Created Woman, Les liaisons dangeruses and the horror classic ... Et mourir de plaisir. As a perverse love interest, co-stars Jane and Peter Fonda make potential incest seem boring; Peter is an emotionless dud and Jane pouts while wearing what look like poorly designed super-heroine outfits in the 18th century. The story is a slack parade of horse-riding scenes tied together by narration, and even the rich cinematography of Claude Renoir can't bring it to life.
Louis Malle's William Wilson is far better, thanks to a sharp performance by Alain Delon as the youthful sadist frustrated by a mysterious doppelgänger, and Brigitte Bardot as a cardsharp that he cheats, and then savagely whips. The story moves from one cruel scene to another without letting us know if Delon's wicked student is truly aiming to carry out his crimes. Does he really intend to lower a fellow student into a pit of hungry rats, and will he indeed cut open a woman he's tied to an operating table in the medical school? The double that interrupts Wilson's games has the same name, and is clearly meant to be Wilson's conscience. The efficiently brutal episode ends in a predictable but satisfying way -- when Wilson attempts to dispose of his double, he's really attacking himself.
The episode that put Spirits of the Dead on the list of top world cinema is Federico Fellini's mini-masterpiece Toby Dammit; or Never Bet the Devil Your Head. Looking like Edgar Allan Poe reincarnated as a burned-out, drug and drink-sodden actor, Terence Stamp plays Toby Dammit in a mod outfit and blonde hair, staggering and joking his way into the film. The English star has come to Rome to play in a Spaghetti western and isn't really up to appearing at an awards ceremony. He's also haunted by a mysterious, creep-inducing little girl with a white ball. When a pushy TV interviewer asks Tony about Evil, he replies that he's seen the Devil, and that she appears in the form of a little girl.
Toby's experience is a phantasmagoric freak parade of the kind that dominated Fellini's movies for ten years after 8½, only in this case we can have few doubts as to what all the bizarre people and strange behavior are all about. Toby's plane descends into an orange-hued Rome as if "being pulled into a net". Nino Rota's catchy theme music ushers the drunken celebrity into the deceptive embrace of the VIP treatment, complete with Fellini-esque papparazzi, looky-loos and instant "friends" eager to benefit from the association. After a nightmarish car ride, in which he's harangued about the spiritual significance of his new movie, Toby half-collapses at the awards ceremony, in the middle of a ghostly grotto populated with show-biz gargoyles, smiling emcees and predatory glamour girls. Amid the terminal glitz and insincerity, a vampish woman introduces herself by telling the half-stoned Toby that they're meant to be lovers forever. Toby begins to lose control of his emotions as Ray Charles's song Ruby echoes mournfully in this awful place. We get the message even if Toby doesn't -- his life is already a kind of Hell. The actor stumbles out, grabs the keys for the fancy Ferrari sports car that the producer used to lure him to Italy, and goes roaring off through the dark streets, looking for a way out of town.
Toby Dammit is perfect at 35 minutes, an unending barrage of arresting visuals. Of the three shows, it's the only one with a concluding revelation that produces a genuine frisson -- so avoid being spoiled by plot synopses elsewhere. The added resolution of Blu-ray enhances the experience considerably, showing us that the orange filter in the airport scene indeed smears the image a bit, disguising Fellini's initial substitutions of cardboard cut-outs for human figures. By the time this motif has gotten out of control, we're convinced that poor Toby has wandered into a land of the damned. If you look closely, what you thought were humans are revealed as placards and mannequins.
It's worth explaining Arrow's audio options for Toby Dammit here, because they impact directly on the viewing experience. One can choose an Italian or a French track, with subtitles, but this release is the first I've heard of that also includes the English language track (see Mark Wickum's footnote on the old HVe DVD review). The English track is actually an international track that best communicates Toby's dislocation as a Brit in a foreign country. Toby speaks English with Terence Stamp's voice, effectively restoring half of his performance. Toby is now both cocky and morose, rude and hurt; by the time he's put through the appalling awards show he's a broken man who just wants his booze and his sports car and to get the hell out of there.
Although the English audio track contains a great deal of Italian dialogue, it doesn't need subtitles, at least not the first time through. We share Toby's sense of isolation: certain people condescend to speak to him in English and the majority of show-biz ghouls chatter on in Italian. We know they're just talking about themselves or asking favors, and we understand when all Toby can do is nod and stare in return. Using the subtitles gives us specifics, but we can tell that the grinning cowboy is hijacking Toby for a photo, and that other guests are praising their own film work. Toby is in sea of insincere smiles and chatter he cannot make out. None of these people are friends, and he just hasn't got the energy to assert himself. It is a kind of Hell.
Arrow Films' Blu-ray of Spirits of the Dead is a clean and detailed transfer of films that really benefit from the extra resolution; even Vadim's Metzengerstein is improved, on the visual plane, anyway. The version on view is said to be uncut, an export copy with English titles, from the restored original negative. The U.K.-produced disc ran without a hitch on my American Sony player.
Interested collectors will want to know the specifics of the audio choices beyond the basic original French, and here's how Arrow Films describes them: "Alternative English audio for Metzengerstein and William Wilson; English and Italian audio for Toby Dammit, as well the French dubbed version. Also included is a new English subtitle translation on all versions." Until advised differently, that effectively solves all reservations I've had with this title.
An extra contains a main title and end credit snippet over which American-International superimposed Vincent Price reading a few lines from Poe. It seems that AIP tried to combine Poe and Vincent Price at every opportunity.
A sixty-page booklet contains all three Edgar Allan Poe original short stories, and two critical essays. Tim Lucas' Spirits of the Dead Revisited is a reprint from a 1996 issue of Video Watchdog. Lucas does his best to claim legitimacy for the Vadim episode, makes some nice points about Malle's piece, and greatly enhances the experience of Fellini's final chapter. After opening the question of the wholesale "borrowing" of a motif from Mario Bava's Operazione paura, Lucas brings in the Beatles connection -- what are those Sgt. Pepper clones doing in the show? He uncovers interesting facts about the film's special effects, and the clever illusions used to create the devil child.
Author Peter Bondanella 's essay on Toby Dammit is a rewarding academic analysis of Poe and Fellini with more privileged information on director Fellini's decision to make a horror picture. He illustrates his work with some of the director's sketches, while stills and lobby cards decorate the rest of the insert booklet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Spirits of the Dead Blu-ray rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.