Thursday, 29 August 2013

Spirits of the Dead (Histoires Extraordinaires)

This French/Italian co-production is a portmanteau movie with three short films based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe, an American author best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre.  An outstanding European director directs each one.

In Tim Lucas notes that accompany the 2011 release of the film on Blu-ray he opines that Histoires Extraordinaires (1968) ‘reinvented the cinema’s approach to Poe, and ultimately, the boundaries of the horror genre itself. Vincent Price was nowhere in sight; instead the films creators used the opportunity to reach back to an older, European tradition of using Poe as the basis of delirious, experimental, confessional cinema[1]. He also argues that the three should be seen as a whole and not as individual films, and I would concur that the three films are certainly better enjoyed as a whole.

Roger Vadim’s (And God Created Woman 1956) Metzengerstein is the mesmerising first segment not set in any particular time span and stars his wife of the time Jane Fonda in a part that reinforces the fact that she was a strikingly beautiful and desirable actress.  In this wonderfully costumed drama Jane plays a character that Poe had cast as a 18 year old male in his original story but in Vadim’s screenplay she is a young women, the Countesse Frederique von Metzengerstain who has inherited the family estate and lives a life of promiscuity and debauchery, a sort of existence that Caligula would have been proud of. Her ancestors have always been rivals with another part of family called the Berlifitzings and who still it impossible to even talk with each other. One day while out in the forest hunting Frederique’s leg gets caught in a bear trap and fortunately her cousin Baron Wilhelm Berlifitzing is also out riding and frees her. The Countesse craves an incestuous relationship with the good-looking young Baron, who is played by Jane’s brother Peter, which does add an edge to the screen portrayal, but he rejects her. Frederique decides to extract revenge on the man that had the audacity to turn down her advances. Her actions lead to a death, a reincarnation and a mystifying incident with a black horse and a damaged tapestry. Partly spoken partly narrated the movie is lushly photographed by Claude Renoir especially the opening scene where we see the Countesse and her entourage riding on the cliffs above Kerouzere Castle in Brittany and I’ve already mentioned the fabulous futuristic costumes designed by Jacques Fonteray.  Is your fate predetermined?

 The Countesse Frederique von Metzengerstain
The penultimate segment is an intriguing piece of work directed by the French director Louis Malle (Lift to the Scaffold 1958) and is set in 19th century France and told in flashback. Atheist William Wilson, played by French heartthrob Alain Delon, enters a church and forces his way into the confessional demanding that the priest take his confession. The Malle co-scripted film tells the story of a cold-hearted sadist who claims he is being pursued by a doppelgänger who goes by the same name, William Wilson! One of his flashbacks involves a card game with a beautiful cigar smoking woman Giuseppina, a man in Poe's original story, but there's no mistaking Brigitte Bardot even with black hair. After an all night card session she eventually looses to Wilson who ends up whipping her after the other Wilson has appeared and accused him of cheating at cards. The ultimate nightmare is indeed a nightmare about a nightmare?

The cigar smoking Giuseppina.

William Wilson!

Like William Wilson in the previous segment Toby Dammit is a gambling man but unlike Wilson his bet is always with the devil with whom he wagers his head! Inspired by Mario Bava's devil in Kill Baby Kill (1966) the apparition takes the form of a young girl with white blond hair wearing a simple white dress holding a luminous ball that she bounces towards him in slow motion. This final segment was originally to be directed by Orson Wells who pulled out at the last minute to direct an uncompleted project in Yugoslavia. Instead Federico Fellini was asked to direct in his place. Fellini decided on a Poe story called Never Bet the Devil Your Head, set it in a contemporary setting, which as Tim Lucas points out was transformed into 'a bizarre, acid tinged, three ringed circus - the closest the cinema has come to bring Peter Blake's amazing Sgt Peppers album cover to life'[2] And who better to play a bizarre acid tinged character than Terence Stamp. Dammit is a famous actor who is loosing his career to the ravages of alcohol and drugs but is still convinced of his own celebrity status and agrees to travel to Rome to appear in a film where his fee is to be a brand new Ferrari. A guest of honor at a film award evening he drinks too much and has visions of a young girl holding a large luminous ball that ultimately leads to him completely loosing his head. He blew his mind out in a car[3].  
Toby Dammit.

Although all three work very well, Fellini’s segment is the most surreal of the three films and probably the best known. Similarities between the three are purely coincidental but what we get is a great example of sixties European film making from some of the eras best directors and best known actors and actresses. The original film made its theatrical debut in Paris in 1968 but did not do remarkably well in the box office. American International Pictures bought the distribution rights for the US, changed its name to Spirits of the Dead and released it in July 1969,it was the first horror movie released in America to carry an ‘R’ rating. This collectively splendid piece of cinematic film history will not immediately appeal to every one but if, like me, you are prepared to give it a go you will be justifiably rewarded in this world if not the next!

Never bet the devil your head!


[1] Tim Lucas Blu-ray Booklet 2011.
[2] Tim Lucas Blu-ray Booklet 2011.
[3] A Day in the Life 1967. Beatles Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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