Film history fans should make sure they see Spirits of the Dead at least once, for a capsule version of the styles, obsessions and excesses to be found in the work of three great European auteur directors active in 60s cinema. By 1968, when the Italian/French co-production was released, Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini were all at the height of their powers, having progressed from enfants terrible in the 50s to giants of European filmmaking.
Spirits of the Dead is very loosely based on dark short stories by the 19th-Century master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. The film plays in three segments, each one helmed by a different director, for a total running time of 121 minutes. Although only the middle segment, directed by Malle, features gaming at cards as an integral part of the plot, all three segments involve characters gambling with Fate and Death.
Metzengerstein Segment from Vadim and Fonda
The opening segment of Spirits of the Dead is called Metzengerstein. Vadim cast Jane Fonda as the bored, capricious Countess Metzengerstein during their racy collaboration in Barbarella, and here she plays another uninhibited woman with voracious appetites. In the corny hippie-inspired medieval costumes of the period, she leads her court in hedonistic orgies and cruel amusements. These debauches, seen as shocking at the time, are fairly tame by modern film standards.
However, when she falls for her poor cousin on a neighbouring estate, played rather creepily by her brother, Peter Fonda, her rebuffed advances lead to arson, murder and an obsession with a mysterious black stallion. This is apparently her cousin transfigured, and the countess’ fascination with the animal leads to her violent demise.
Delon and Bardot in William Wilson Segment
Another Vadim protégé, his former wife Brigitte Bardot, stars in Louis Malle’s segment of Spirits of the Dead. Alain Delon, in the 60s one of France’s top male stars, plays the William Wilson of the title. He’s an army officer in a 19th-Century Italian church, still under Austrian rule, confessing to a Catholic priest the terrible things he has done through his life.
His tale climaxes in the story of an all-night cards session with a courtesan, Giuseppina, played by Bardot. Wilson’s own doppelganger turns up to accuse him of cheating, and the action once again degenerates into murder, suicide and grisly horror.
Stamp in Classic Fellini Damnation
After his star-making debut in the mainstream hit Billy Budd in 1962, Terence Stamp quickly began resisting the industry’s attempts to turn him into a safe, respectable leading man by accepting as many edgy projects with controversial directors as he could. The Toby Dammit segment that closes Spirits of the Dead was his only collaboration with Italian legend Federico Fellini.
Ironically, Stamp plays an alcoholic, burnt-out mainstream film star, who has come to Italy to do a film he doesn’t care about purely for the Ferrari he will receive as part of his fee. The segment explores themes Fellini also included in movies like La Dolce Vita and Otto e Mezzo; the vapid insincerity of celebrity and the talk-show culture, and the excesses of the rich and famous trying to fill empty lives.
Like the other two tales, Toby Dammit proves that betting NZ ends well. Spirits of the Dead is an intriguing blend of great cinematography and the somewhat turgid storytelling of cinema’s first rock ’n roll era.