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Beyond a Horror Anthology: Spirits of the Dead by Tim Lucas


Spirit 01

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Initiated last year with the appearance of monograph studies of Theatre of Blood and Martin, this enterprising series now includes this study of a trilogy of European Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini, written by that well-known Video Watchdog editor and prolific audio-commentator Tim Lucas who also authored that definitive 2007 study of Mario Bava, All The Colors of the Dark. Divided into twelve sections followed by a selected bibliography, Lucas supplies his usual erudite and meticulous reading of the film’s pre-production, production, and post-production history along with the type of detailed analysis he is well known for, especially concerning different versions. Originally titled Histoires Extraordinaires but commonly known as Spirits of the Dead and released in England under the title Tales of Mystery, this 1967-68 French Italian co-production involved three of European Art Cinema’s major talents directing their selected choices of Poe stories – Metzengerstein, William Wilson, and Never Bet the Devil your Head, the last retitled Toby Dammit (for some reason spelled as “Toby Damnit” on the table of contents) referring to the character of the author’s deliberately “un-moral tale.” The films feature chronologically Jane and Peter Fonda, Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot, and Terence Stamp, hot star properties of the era.

Spirits 02While the author mentions a haunting Sunday night experience in Norwood, Ohio, 1970 of a first showing that changed his life forever in his opening segment “The Mystery of Mysteries,” I, alas, have no life-changing parallel to record following my viewing of it sometime in the Castle Cinema, Swansea, during 1973. Now turned into a nightclub but retaining its exterior, that former cinema offered an escape from the tedium of existence in that hometown “heart of darkness” in the same way it offered a western movie “way of escape” for Dennis Potter’s doomed hero played by Hywel Bennett in his 1966 BBC TV Wednesday Play Where the Buffalo Roam. Promoted as a horror film, Tales of Mystery gave one access to a collective work of three representatives of European cinema whose work was difficult to see at the time (I will restrain from mentioning the widely distributed cut and dubbed version of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita promoted as a sex film in the same way that Simone Signoret’s Therese Raquin (1953) was distributed a decade earlier under the misleading non-Zola title The Adulteress!).

From my memory of the theatrical screening I remember Metzengernstein as lethargic, William Wilson as leaden, and Toby Dammit as inspirational due to the combination of director, musician Nino Rota, and actor Terence Stamp. This monograph stimulated me in trying to see the 2001 Home Vision Entertainment/Janus Film DVD version to revisit and possibly revise my earlier impressions. As opposed to the 2011 Arrow UK version, this has French dialogue with English subtitles, but the version I saw theatrically was dubbed into English.

Reproducing Poe’s original stories before analyzing each different film version, Lucas again reveals himself as a master of consummate meticulous criticism and detailed observations, which characterizes his prolific body of work. He notes generic associations as well as the distinctive flavor each director gives to his contribution to this cinematic anthology.

Metzengerstein is not a vampire film, yet it shares with that subgenre some of its traditional trappings: decadent nobles and their cruel oppression and exploitation of the poor, ruined castle settings, human into animal metamorphosis, and the notion of metempsychosis: the idea that one might die out of one existence to awaken in another on the same plane. (47)

Lucas is certainly alert to Vadim’s casting his then wife Jane Fonda in the title role alongside her brother in the only film they made together to date, as well as seeing the relationship to Corman’s earlier Poe cycle, something the director denied (71-72). He notes the film’s effectiveness in French rather than English, “where the narration feels less intrusive and the dialogue generally sounds more impassioned and ethereal.” (72)

Spirits 03However, while Lucas mentions the 1913 version of The Student of Prague in relation to Malle’s William Wilson, he peculiarly never mentions the 1926 Conrad Veidt version nor the 1935 Anton Walbrook sound remake, though he does note some intriguing parallels to both Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville in one scene in the film (see 107, n.47) as well as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).

However, Fellini’s Toby Dammit appropriately takes pride and place in this volume as it does in the actual film. Unfortunately, the black and white stills reproduction do not do justice either to the original film’s striking visuals nor Lucas’s detailed descriptions. Here the limiting effects of cost intervene and stimulate the reader to seek out the film – the real purpose of any good analysis. Referring to the use of masks by actors, Lucas cites the expertise of cartoonist, educator, and film historian Stephen R. Bissette in terms of Fellini’s knowledge of graphic art. The director “wrote the introduction for the first volume of Jim Steranko’s The Steranko History of Comics, published by Supergraphics in 1970” (153). Lucas also notes that Fellini’s first choice for the role was Peter 0’Toole, who withdrew and was followed by Richard Burton, before they decided to cast Stamp. In a footnote (p. 157, n.64), Lucas notes that the binge-drinking actor ended up playing a similar role in Christian Marquand’s Candy (1968) made directly after Fellini’s film that also used the same cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno. The final choice was ideal, with Stamp representing “the distilled essence of a besotted and tortured Edgar Allan Poe, and a forerunner of every British punk rocker ever indulged with a television spotlight” (158).

Appropriately, the superb score by Nino Rota (1911-1979) receives detailed coverage (pp.199-203). As well as including a detailed list of the various versions of this film up to and including its Arrow Academy Blu-Ray version now available in the USA, Lucas concludes with his astute analysis of a film that is not to be exclusively defined as horror. It is actually a compilation in which each part relates to the other exhibiting a fin-de-siecle decadence first suggested by Tony Rayns in his April 1973 Monthly Film Bulletin review: “Therein lies the Baudelaire” (223). It is a feature that drew each of these very different directors to this project and one that infiltrates each part meant to be seen in relation to its companions.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film international.

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