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DVD SAVANT

Spirits
of the Dead


Spirits of the Dead
HVe
1968 / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 121 m. / Tre passi nel delirio; Histoires extraordinaires; Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Starring Brigitte Bardot, Terence Stamp, Alain Delon, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda
Cinematography Tonino Delli Colli, Claude Renoir, Giuseppe Rotunno
Art Direction Jean Forestier, Carlo Leva, Piero Tosi, Ghislain Uhry
Film Editors Franco Arcalli, Suzanne Baron, Ruggero Mastroianni, Hélène Plemiannikov
Original Music Diego Masson, Jean Prodromidès, Nino Rota
Writing credits Daniel Boulanger, Pascal Cousin, Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, Roger Vadim, Clement Biddle Wood, Bernardino Zapponi
Produced by Raymond Eger (?)
Directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Amended with a note from Writer Mark Wickum.



A few years back there was a Terence Stamp film festival in Hollywood, where the hard-to-see Spirits of of the Dead was scheduled. Savant had skipped this title on its brief run in 1969, and was disappointed when what was shown was a dull pan 'n scanned 16mm print. But what I'd heard was true: the Roger Vadim segment was terrible, Louis Malle's simply okay, and Federico Fellini's terrific.

Synopsis:

Three tales of terror from Edgar Allan Poe. 1: The debauched Contessa Frederica Metzengerstein (Jane Fonda) enjoys her sadistic pleasures until she's captivated by her chaste and aloof neighbor, Baron Wilhelm (Peter Fonda). Enraged by his lack of interest, she burns down his barn to kill his beloved horses, but accidentally kills him too ... or did she?
2: Petty tyrant from boarding school to the Army, William Wilson (Alain Delon) torments classmates and terrorizes an innocent girl in the autopsy room of his medical school, but is repeatedly interrupted by his 'good' doppelganger, also named William Wilson, who thwarts him in his evil pleasures.
3: English movie star Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) ventures to Rome to accept a role in a spaghetti Western, lured by the promise of a new Ferrari. Enduring a bizarre awards ceremony while stoned, his delirious mind returns to recurring visions of a satanic child (Marina Yaru) with a white ball.

The fact that Spirits of of the Dead's three segments vary so greatly in quality makes it the perfect picture to show someone who doesn't understand the difference between inspired direction and hackwork. Frankly, it is logical to assume that many viewers walked out during the Roger Vadim section, and never saw the last episode by Fellini. When discussed in books, more often than not Toby Dammit is treated as a stand-alone item. I don't think I want to see Metzengerstein ever again, and William Wilson I'll give another looksee sometime, but Savant'll be offering to show Toby Dammit to anyone who comes in range of my television room.

The Ugly:

Metzengerstein can boast some nice Claude Renoir cinematography of green glades and a Brittany castle (from The Vikings?) but simply has too many things going against it: awful costumes, poor acting from the Fonda siblings, and feeble, paceless, pointless direction from a man who once showed great promise in features like Les liasons dangereuses. Roger Vadim has no eye whatsoever for a visual image, recording scenes from arbitrary camera positions and using his zoom lens far too much. Making his name by exploiting the sex status of Brigitte Bardot, he moved forward through Annette Stroyberg (the pretty-good Blood and Roses) to his late-sixties paramour Jane Fonda, with whom he made this and Barbarella. Jane is simply terrible, unable to express anything like true perversity or petulance, and comes off as a grumpy socialite who rides a horse well ... and interminably. Peter Fonda is also his usual vapid self. Neither character develops as there are no real scenes: a narrator is used to keep the story on course. The result is a ghost story without interest or excitement of any kind. It just unwinds, and we're glad when it's over.

The Good:

William Wilson is far more interesting, and smartly scripted with some flashback time-twisting that makes us want to know Alain Delon's secret. This segment never builds to an emotional climax, but it's very watchable; the basic problem is that its hero is another unmotivated sadist who we are just meant to accept as Bad from the get-go. His identically-named alter ego shows up several times to ruin his cruel games, in scenes that don't quite convince. When he lowers a boarding-school kid into a vat full of rats, the cooperation of his classmates is credible. But the medical school episode is less so, as it's difficult to believe that all those young men would stand by while he torments an innocent girl on the autopsy table. Either they're normal, and some gallant would intervene, or they're as evil as Wilson, in which case the story isn't just about one individual pervert's corrupt personality.

The idea of representing Wilson's nagging conscience with a virtuous double works well just the same, but how come this conscience doesn't show up until Wilson's schemes are fully developed? Also, we never know if Wilson really intends to let the rats bite, or if he's seriously going to cut open the naked girl on the table, and what we're left with are some lumpy and exploitative scenes. The acting here is excellent, with the card-table duel between Delon and Brigitte Bardot the highlight. When she submits to a whipping to repay her debt, the story works fine, and plays to a nice conclusion. With good photography and excellent staging, the production is still let down by some rough edges, mainly the indifferent exteriors and a distractingly bad dummy used for a fall from a church tower.

The Superlative:

After those two entrees, the extreme stylization and richness of Toby Dammit comes on like eyewash. Starting in the cockpit of an aircraft being 'pulled into the nets' of Rome's infernal airport, the episode is 40 minutes of delirious visuals and hypnotic music. The drink and drug-soaked Terence Stamp is clearly unbalanced when the story begins, gesturing to a demonic blonde child who isn't there. We're kept equally off balance, watching what's perhaps the best of Federico Fellini's circusy freak parades, a dizzying progression of bizarre faces, congested roadways and glittering, distracting decór. The few minutes in the car passing auto wrecks and fortune-telling gypsies later became boring in Roma. Elaborate details like a woman posed in front of a giant chandelier showroom make one gasp at the dense but effective production, which makes Satyricon's grandiose settings just seem ponderous.

Perhaps not having to sustain this wild mood over a full feature made Fellini less inhibited, but putting his kaleidoscopic visuals into this 'genre' tale is much more satisfying than the art-film dream puzzle that is Juliet of the Spirits. For once, a critique of showbiz goes beyond the obvious representations of phoniness and insincerity, and takes the extra step into insanity. Sparring with obnoxious paparazzi and mingling with sycophants and leeches, Toby stays likeable because in his position anyone would become a selfish egoist. Although at least one real name (Tomas Milian) pops through, the unidentifiable 'notables' are scary because they act like movie stars and we don't recognize any of them. Dancing twins, interchangeably false starlets, these are the demons we worship. If there is a Hell, we might be spending eternity with the nightmare celebrities and aggressive, demonic females seen here.The woman who proposes to Toby, is a conniving inquisitor wearing a face of mascara extremis - she's just the kind of hideous creature our loved ones become in nightmares. What the scene resembles most is an overachieving Carnival of Souls, complete with a grinning, chalky-faced emcee reminiscent of Herk Harvey.

The dizzying momentum is all the more exciting because Toby Dammit expresses itself so clearly. Terence Stamp is a lost soul, abusive and abused, but we cannot help but identify with him and hope he'll escape his nightmare. Fellini's phantasmagoria openly presents a warped world where people are just masks, by literally slipping in faces and details that are literal cardboard cutouts -- a random man at the airport, the dogs at the fountain. The car speeding in the maze of streets is pure nightmare, especially when all the alleys turn into cul-de-sacs. The images move so quickly, it's difficult to tell whether you're looking at a man standing still, or a mannequin, or a 2D cutout -- precisely the delirous effect that sucks us into Toby's distorted point of view.

Finally, at the center of the horror is a vision of a demonic child-woman, always partially hidden, peeking out from around her hair with a precociously perverse smile that chills to the bone.  1 Her shots are disturbingly off-center, sometimes composing her half-offscreen. One quick cut to her face is followed by a little 'bump' with the zoom lens that is perfectly timed with our startled reaction ... a brilliant touch that shows Fellini could have made the best horror film ever, should he have bothered.

The razzle-dazzle circus pace is balanced with eerie tempo effects, such as an uncanny use of Ray Charles' mournful ballad Ruby, that enforce our attention on Toby's unstable interior state. Lost souls in Hell would need to be reminded of the beauty of life and love, so as to better appreciate their torment, no? Likewise, after the repetitive, maddening auto maze sequence (capped by an incredibly well-cut spinout crash), comes an ending that slows to a perfect gothic stasis: creepily held shots of a bridge interrupted with a mysterious gash, the demon girl offering herself as the perfect roadkill target for the deranged movie star.

I could go on into details forever on this Fellini episode, it's so rich. I'm pretty sure that there's a quick attempt to jam some Beatle lookalikes into the parade of faces and sensations - look carefully during the auto trip to the awards ceremony.


HVe's DVD of Spirits of of the Dead is a handsome 16:9 presentation with an image that only once or twice shows some compression artifacts, and is otherwise spotless. There are no extras, except for an okay essay that makes points about the essential conservatism of horror films, but tries to relate the film's debauched protagonists to the 'libertine' (Huh?) '60s generation. He also spells Edgar Allan Poe's name wrong, always a bad sign.

The audio track is a thorny issue. The buzz on the web, led by a disappointed Tim Lucas, is the fact that although the picture appears to be an uncut English-language export version entitled Tales of Mystery and Imagination, the track is straight French, with subtitles. Jane Fonda very clearly dubs her own voice for her few French language lines, but Terence Stamp is dubbed for both his French dialogue, and his English MacBeth soliloquy as well. The track is still well-mixed and detailed, but it is true, as Mr. Lucas points out, that without Toby Dammit talking in his Cockney argot among all the continental voices, the dimension of displacement is missing. Stamp's audio performance in English was a full half of his achievement. Here, he's very good, but in English he was world-class great, one of the most arresting performances Savant has seen.

I don't think there's any solution to this, short of editing a new track for the film (Savant volunteers right now). As I said, the American-International dubbed version had the good original Terence Stamp English audio, but it (I believe) dubbed all the Italians into English as well, again ruining the displacement effect. What's wanted is an international version with Stamp dubbed Cockney, and all of Fellini's Italian characters speaking Italian, neither of which we get here.  2

Toby Dammit plays wonderfully on this HVe disc, but there's still the nagging reminder that what we're seeing is a compromise. Perhaps the physical English elements were tied up with AIP/Orion/MGM, or the licensing rights for the film didn't extend past French audio. As Spirits of of the Dead has already seen one inferior Image DVD and a number of confusing VHS releases, this presentation is still superior despite the problem. Savant's suggestion? Perhaps Canal+ or whoever controls a pack 'o Fellini pix, could release a boxed set of several hits, and include as a bonus just the Toby Dammit episode as a stand-alone extra, with a full range of audio alternatives.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Spirits of the Dead rates:
Movie: (1,2,3) Poor, Good, Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent, with a drawback in the language track choice - French only
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 28, 2001


Footnotes:

1. It's the kind of smile that acknowledges a conspiracy of badness, a glee at being BAD. It's always been remarked on in Dreyer's Vampyr, with Sybille Schmitz coming out with subtle, leering faces that seem like eerily detached lechery. If a child gave you a look like that in public, you'd both be locked up. Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas has brought up the fact that the demonic child with the white ball is a direct lift from Mario Bava's Operazione paura (Kill!, Baby Kill!) and apparently has the documentation to back it up. However expressive are Bava's atmospheres and images, one always wishes his career could have taken off in more directions. Even Fellini seemed to have a limited, if expressive, bag of themes.
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2. AN INFORMATIVE RESPONSE FROM writer Mark Wickum, 11/29/01:

Glenn, I read with interest your review of Home Vision's new DVD of Spirits of of the Dead and I thought I'd clear up something about previous releases. About the audio issue you wrote:

"I don't think there's any solution to this, short of editing a new track for the film (Savant volunteers right now). As I said, the American-International dubbed version had the good original Terence Stamp English audio, but it (I believe) dubbed all the Italians into English as well, again ruining the displacement effect."

Actually, the English language track (provided by Tim Lucas) that appeared on the previous Water Bearer DVD and LD featured Stamp's English-speaking voice with the Italian actors speaking Italian. As you noted, the sense of displacement that results is half the point of the story. The problem with the Water Bearer version was that the burned-in subtitles captioned all the dialogue, including Stamp's English. If it wasn't for that distraction, then everything would be cool, but it appears that we just can't get Toby Dammit in English and Italian with optional English subtitles for the Italian dialogue. I'm of the mind that Toby Dammit works brilliantly without subtitles for the Italian dialogue, but of course you have to have Stamp's dialogue in English for the whole thing to work. Tim offered his audio to Home Vision, but he was ignored. -- Mark Wickum
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