Spooky Film of the Day – Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim/Louis Malle/Federico Fellini, 1968)
Why, what do we have here; a horror anthology film directed by three of the most famous continental film directors of the 50s and 60s?
Well, yes… And as you might well expect, Spirits of the Dead is a rather classy affair. Released as Histoires extraordinaires (or “Extraordinary Stories”) in France and based on three different Edgar Allan Poe tales, canny old American International Pictures picked this up for the UK and US, drafting in Vincent Price to read a poem over the beginning and end credits in order to cash in on their own Roger Corman-directed Poe films. Of course, Corman is surely cinema’s greatest ever intrepreter of the legendary horror bard, but perhaps unsurprisingly messrs Vadim, Malle, and Fellini don’t do too bad a job either.
Roger Vadim’s up first with ‘Metzengerstein’, a tale he fills with his trademark raunch and which stars Jane Fonda as a debauched medieval countess who meets a strange fate after murdering her noble cousin (played by brother Peter). Louis Malle’s take on ‘William Wilson’ follows and finds Alain Delon on superbly sinister form as a brutal soldier haunted by his do-gooder doppelganger, who at one point stops him from administering a good whipping to none other than Brigitte Bardot! The absolute cherry on top, however, is Fellini’s bonkers and incredibly spooky ‘Toby Dammit’ (liberally adapted from the Poe story ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’) in which Terence Stamp gives a breathtakingly whacked-out performance as a doomed English actor, losing his marbles and stalked by the devil in a post-apocalyptic Rome.
While Vadim and Malle both weigh in with very fine contributions, it’s almost impossible to overstate just how much Fellini’s instalment really makes Spirits of the Dead worth seeking out. With his tremendous knack for visual flair and a well-honed eye for the bizarre and grotesque, the great Italian auteur always had it in him to make a great horror film and here it is, if only in miniature. The unforgettably creepy long-haired little girl/devil incarnate that drives Stamp to a sticky end at the film’s conclusion deserves special mention, not only as a fantastic visual motif, but also as proof that Spirits of the Dead, for all its lofty talent and sumptuous production values, still has the power to provide a good scare.
Here is the French trailer for Spirits of the Dead, and it’s one of my all-time faves! Keep your eyes peeled for that spooky little girl (and a very rude shot of Jane Fonda riding a horse at the beginning) and listen out for Nino Rota’s fab jazzy score.