Spirits of the Dead

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The film equivalent of the collateralised debt obligation, the portmanteau movie generally bundles together stuff of questionable quality then sells it on using a big name or a big star to help it achieve a decent credit rating.

In Spirits of the Dead (aka Tales of Mystery and Imagination), three adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe tales, there are plenty of big names – Federico Fellini, Roger Vadim and Louis Malle as directors. Stars such as Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Jane Fonda and Terence Stamp. But no matter how glossy the name, or even how polished the product, the rule of the portmanteau movie applies here as everywhere else – the finished product is less than the sum of its parts.

Vadim is first out of the gate, with a tale of a cruel, debauched and capricious tyrant falling disastrously for her cousin. The tyrant is played by Jane Fonda and the cousin by her brother Peter, Vadim amusingly piling incest on incest in a story that seems at first to be just a swipe at the inbred European ruling class but which develops a strange psychotic power all of its own.

Vadim was just off Barbarella with wife Fonda and demonstrates his eye for an arresting image, dressing her in a succession of borderline ludicrous outfits (see also Barbarella) designed to enhance his wife’s sex appeal – that moulded leather breastplate affair is spectacular; as is that shot of her riding into the sea on a horse dressed in little more than thigh-length leather boots. The outfits (by Jacques Fonteray) in fact are this section’s standout, though Vadim has also brilliantly bottled the sort of phony medievalism that bewitched many a rock star of the era – you can almost imagine a Rolling Stone or member of Led Zeppelin drifting on at any point.

Louis Malle is next, with another story of cruel, capricious tyranny, in a story about a horrible child who grows up to be a horrible adult (in the shape of Alain Delon), one dogged by his own doppelganger, also called William Wilson. Madness and death are Bad Wilson’s just deserts, but not before he’s cheated an imperious beauty (Brigitte Bardot) out of a fortune at cards, whipped her and prepared her for serial rape.

William Wilson dead on the ground
Alain Delon plays both versions of William Wilson

Malle hangs his film on his stars – you get two Delons for the price of one, and a Bardot Malle didn’t particularly want in the film, though she rocks the dark hair pretty well and smokes a mean cigar.

And Fellini brings up the rear with an entirely Fellini-esque story full of grotesques and self-referentiality, about a film star (Terence Stamp), half drunk and drugged out of his mind, in Italy to receive some award. The ghastly awfulness of both the hippie-ish actor and of Italian showbiz are Fellini’s targets and he piles on the ghouls, the freaks and the exotics, the externals standing in for the collapsing interiority of Toby Dammit, as Stamp’s character is called.

If you want a punchy, luridly lit intro to the high Fellini style, this is it, and for car nuts there’s also an extended sequence of Dammit stealing a Ferrari 330 LMB and driving it to Rome, drunk out of his skull. It’s beautifully, thrillingly filmed, with the engine growling away as Fellini’s camera tracks Dammit’s progress through the night, brakes howling and rubber squealing on every bend.

It’s a toss-up between Vadim and Fellini whose is the best segment. Malle trails behind them and only took the gig to raise money for his next film so deserves praise for resourcefulness if nothing else.

Portmanteau schmortmanteau though the verdict generally is on this sort of thing, Spirits of the Dead stands up pretty well to a decades-later examination and also functions neatly as a time capsule of the era’s obsessions – Poe, doubles and sex.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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