Spirits of the Dead (1969)

“Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
In life before thee are again
In death around thee—and their will
Shall overshadow thee: be still.”

‘Spirits of the Dead’, directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini in 1969, is a portmanteau horror movie made up of three (loose) Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The first two instalments (“Metzengerstein” and “William Wilson”) are fairly bland, albeit beautifully shot, period pieces that lack the Grand Guignol and zest of the British Amicus films, but the final part, Fellini’s “Toby Dammit”, is a masterpiece of weird imagery, imaginative staging and wild performances. This is the selling feature of the film, and it’s unfortunate that it came at the end. Highlights of the whole movie include a particularly creepy and sadistic scene from “William Wilson” set in an autopsy theatre and the use of fire in the opening part. Most of the standout moments occur in Fellini’s section, however: the (possible) depiction of the devil in the form of a small girl with a white ball, the eccentric central character played by Terrance Stamp: a mass of ticks and unexpected mood shifts. “Toby Dammit”, like Fellini’s earlier films such as ‘La Dolce Vita’ and ‘8 ½’ takes place in the modern world of film production and media attention. The imagery Fellini uses almost makes it seem like a twisted mirror image of his earlier preoccupations, demonstrating how the horror genre is perfectly adaptable to his unique and unusual direction. The more I see of Fellini, the more I understand where the equally unusual David Lynch draws his inspiration: the final scene in which Dammit drives a Ferrari through the streets of Rome, populated only by cut-outs and mannequins, then out into the countryside is shot in a style that we see in both Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ and ‘Twin Peaks’.

Would I recommend it? Yes – but really only for the Fellini. Watch in a double bill with ‘8 ½’ for the contrasting use of the same scenario.

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