Spirits of the dead Review


The concept of treating horror fiction with respect and care when it comes to adaptation to the cinema is one rarely realised. Horror stories are often seen as some kind of juvenilia, an early misstep in talented director's career or a youthful indiscretion which will soon pass. The dirty business of scaring others is often left to the children and those old enough to know better walk away.

Spirits of the Dead, at least in concept, is a welcome antidote to the perception outlined above. Three Edgar Allan Poe stories are given the attention of the great Federico Fellini, the marvellous Louis Malle and the lucky to be here Roger Vadim. Made in 1968, the three stories reflect the time of production despite attempts at historical setting, and with Vadim's opening episode it is very hard to not associate his effort with the era defining Barbarella.
In fact, Vadim's segment, Metzengerstein, is so easily confused with Barbarella that I found myself wondering whether all the PVC cat suits had somehow fallen through a hole in time to reach the middle ages and adorn the very fetching Jane Fonda. Fonda makes sadism and implied incest chic, any sense of moral narrative is sacrificed for appearance and a pop art free love consciousness. I imagine Vadim envisaged the modernity of his treatment to be ironic or surreal or sweetly fluffy, but it is simply misplaced.

Fonda is a wealthy and powerful lady of the manor who indulges her violence and lust out of sheer boredom. When her eye falls on her more modest cousin, played by her brother, Peter Fonda, her efforts at possessing him are frustrated and her vengeance is fatal. A supposedly enlightened haunting occurs through the medium of her love’s sole surviving horse, and sadness and loss are paid back to the spoilt brat.

There is nothing like subtlety or insight here. There is plenty of eye candy and very bad acting. There is also much in the way of an attempt at dreamlike presentation to explain the complete detachment of the story, the cast and production. In the end though, Vadim's film is too cool, too empty and a real trial to sit through.
Beginning with an awful shot of an obviously fake looking dummy falling from a church tower, Louis Malle's William Wilson chooses to keep compounding this error by repeating the sequence throughout his segment. Given Malle's ability to be perverse and unpredictable, I do wonder if this was a case of deliberate subversion rather than shoddy production.

Malle explores the doppelganger tale of William Wilson and stops by some familiar images and ideas on the way. There are sequences in a school yard not unlike Au Revoir Les Enfants, an exploration of perversity similar to Lacombe Lucien and the consideration of religion and the human soul that marks many of his works.

His cast is relatively starry and of the time again, featuring French superstars Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot, here as a raven haired object of Delon's philandering, cheating soldier. The surprise though is that Malle offers no edge or angle to the straight tale of a battle of conscience. As a piece of cinema, William Wilson seems totally consumed by Delon's presence and despite attempts at pace and intensity, this is all very linear, very predictable and lacking any real surprise or depth.

To damn it with faint praise, Malle's segment is competent and no more than that.
If what marks Malle's film as being from 1968 is the presence of Bardot and Delon in their prime, then Fellini's contribution has the same branding courtesy of a very iconic Terence Stamp. This though does not detract for one second from the wildly imaginative Toby Dammit, in fact it is central to the maddening world of celebrity, perfunctory glamour and meaninglessness that the director evokes.

More than the other two segments, the nightmare of an English actor lost in Rome and fame is horrifying. Where the sense of the macabre, perhaps the strength of Poe's tales, is lost in pop art or obvious narrative in his colleagues works, Fellini creates a glitzy, extremely heightened aesthetic of foreboding to reproduce this quality after the underlying story itself has been gutted of everything but it.

Invited to Rome to do a Spaghetti Western, drunken ailing thespian Stamp must brave the paparazzi, the banality and the rituals of fame. Locked in his fate, haunted by visions of the devil and sick to his very soul, our actor must escape through booze, drugs and a Ferrari. The claustrophobia, the estrangement and the outright weirdness of the world of Toby Dammit is palpable and suffocating.
Shot with tremendous verve, stylized lighting and an unreal bounded quality Toby Dammit is not only the best thing in this collection but one of the greatest horror treatments committed to film. Where the other two segments are compromised by their time, Toby Dammit defines its era and transcends it.

If you only ever watch a third of this film, then Toby Dammit has to be that third.

Technical Specs

The film is presented on a dual layer region free Blu-ray with a file size of 32.5GB for the transfer. The transfer is encoded at a frame rate of 23.98 per second using the AVC/MPEG 4 codec, and the soundtrack is offered in two uncompressed monaural options, English and original languages.
Generally, the visual quality here is excellent with light appropriate grain, plenty of detail in and out of light and perfectly balanced colours and contrast. There are though compression artefacts, occasional moments of pixellation and the very odd banding that you'll see in the capture above. You do though have to be looking quite hard to see these and I'd be surprised if it spoiled what is generally a magnificent representation for you.

The monaural sound is similarly impressive with a few caveats. Personally I'd avoid the English track and concentrate on the original language, although the inclusion of both is a nice choice by Arrow. I did notice a little in the way of bad synching of voices to visuals, some of which could be due to post synching and the first segment is worst for that. Generally though the lossless track is a huge improvement on previous releases.

Special Features

With a swinging semi-psychedelic menu, the disc has been constructed with real care. It is presented with a choice of two front images from poster art and an excellent larger poster on the interior of the inlay. A dustcover houses the disc case and the beautifully presented 58 page booklet, which features the original Poe stories and essays by the marvellous Tim Lucas and Peter Bondanella.

Lucas takes the brave route of reclaiming the first two segments from critical maulings, much like my own, and then exploring the obvious links from Toby Dammit to Bava's Kill Baby Kill. It's a very thorough read even if I find myself disagreeing strongly with his views on Vadim's work in particular. Bondanella confines himself to the final story and Fellini's situation and choices in putting the work together with Bernardino Zapponi.

On the disc itself, there is the opportunity to see and hear the opening narration that Vincent Price recorded for the US release of the film, and the chance to watch a standard def French version of the completed movie. The final inclusion is a high-def trailer.

Summary

Arrow are doing fine work in the way they present and augment films such as this one, and this presentation may be their best yet. If only to own a 1080P presentation of Fellini's segment this is a must purchase for those who like their horror with a bit of art.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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