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Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini) 1967   

    Spirits of the Dead, a handsomely mounted 1967 film that features three segments from three European giants (Vadim, Malle, and Fellini) all based on Edgar Allen Poe short stories. The third segment, Felliniís Toby Dammit, is so incredibly different and dense when compared to the other two that you almost forget youíve watched an anthology by the time the film ends. His work here is as good as heís ever been visually, and the world that he creates perfectly represents the inner turmoil of the self-destructive actor Toby Dammit (Terrance Stamp). The director presents his typical circus or parade; whichever you want to call it, and this time it shows the world of the celebrity in modern day Rome. Itís obviously been liberally adapted from the original Poe story, and itís only nominally a horror tale (Toby is stalked by a BjŲrk-ish devil figure), but the film transcends any generic or authorial labels: itís purely Felliniís, and at a little over forty minutes long it doesnít burn out the audience in the way that his longer pageants tend to.  

    The other two segments are certainly solid, even if they might not top Felliniís work with sheer panache. Vadimís piece is the better of the remainder, and it features Jane and Peter Fonda as feuding cousins. This is the most overtly supernatural segment of the trio, and even it feels somewhat subdued when compared to modern ghost stories. Jane Fonda is excellent in her role, and she brings a combination of refinement and haughtiness to the part that vitalizes the character. Like all of the film, this bit of the film is well shot, but Vadimís captured some gorgeous outdoor scenery, whereas the others take place mostly indoors. The tale itself is spooky enough, and the running time feels sufficient. The only real negative mark here is that the film resorts to a slightly jarring voiceover narration here to fill in background details. Malleís segment is likable enough, but it feels somewhat slighter than the other two. Its gambling scene evokes Kubrickís Barry Lyndon (just as the driving sequences in the Fellini segment recall A Clockwork Orange), even if Spirits was made several years earlier, and there is genuine tension aroused at the card table. Throughout the film, there is a relatively low gore quotient, and the acting is uniformly solid.  As far as psychological horror goes, the films work well, and that they realize Poeís stories were mainly internalized distortions of the world works to their advantage, even as they approach the material in vastly different ways.

***1/2  

12-04-01

Jeremy Heilman