1968, France/Italy, Directed by Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, Roger Vadim
Colour, Running Time: 121 minutes
Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Arrow; Video: 1.85:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: PCM Mono
(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) Histoires Extraordinaire (or Spirits of the Dead as AIP re-titled it) is quite an unconventional anthology horror movie filmed in 1967, featuring three, almost experimental, adaptations of Poe stories from three well known European directors (Vadim, Malle, and Fellini respectively). They’re not particularly horrifying but there is an air of mystery about them, plus they’re particularly artistic explorations of Poe’s tales of the weird and supernatural. Episode 1, Metzengerstein, relates the fate of a hedonistic woman who becomes attracted to a man - her cousin - living in a nearby castle. When her invite to an evening of entertainment (and probable debauchery) is turned down she extracts revenge by burning down his stables (he’s a horse lover), unwittingly killing the object of her dissatisfaction in the process. After this she develops an unnatural fixation with a horse herself, something that will eventually seal her fate. Vadim’s story is sexy (featuring Jane Fonda in an array of rather amazing costumes) but somewhat wayward, disjointed and protracted. Poe’s poetic prose is reflected in the material developed for the screen to an extent, and would have benefited from some ruthless tightening (I’m guessing each director had a predetermined time slot to fill seeing as they all last around the forty minute mark).
Episode 2, William Wilson, is an intriguing look at a sadistic man with an apparent doppelganger that appears whenever his cruel nature reaches excessive heights. Callous from childhood, Wilson appears to meet his match at a casino-environment when femme fatale Brigitte Bardot challenges him to a card game that lasts all night. When she runs out of money the final round claims her as his slave, but once again the mysterious double appears to put paid to his unethical plans, resulting in a duel to the death between them. Offering no real explanation to help us comprehend what/who the double is and where it/he came from, William Wilson captures a suitable air of mystery alongside its inherent moral commentary. Episode 3, Toby Dammit, skips time to a sort of twisted version of the modern era (à la A Clockwork Orange) whereby a perpetually inebriated celebrity reveals his antipathy towards the world, humankind, and - possibly subconsciously - himself. Following a series of escapades that result in him speeding through a surreal version of Rome in a Ferrari, he finally stumbles upon Satan, the image of whom he has endured prophetic visions of up until that point. Fellini’s final piece famously showcases Terence Stamp’s convincingly deranged performance as a lost, cynical drunk. The director’s approach to the material is exceedingly eccentric and artfully manifested, something which would probably be expected by followers of his work and offering a suitable contrast to the segments preceding it. People who have seen/reviewed Spirits of the Dead generally favour Toby Dammit over the first two parts. Personally I found something to appreciate in all of them, though …Dammit and …Wilson offered the most actual enjoyment. As a whole the film is different to the view of Poe’s material made famous by Roger Corman, though it was obviously picked up for American distribution by AIP because it was the same studio that produced Corman’s classics prior to that. AIP established a certain traditional sex & horror tone, common to the period, with the advertising campaign that I don’t feel is completely in line with how the film should be perceived. They also requested a cut of several minutes (re-instated here) and drafted in Vincent Price (star of the aforementioned Corman movies) to narrate over the opening and closing credits. Clearly they were pulling out stops to present the film as a continuation of their Poe cycle; thankfully it plays here in the manner intended by its makers and can therefore be appreciated in its purest form.
An important film such as this is embellished with a superb transfer for the Arrow Blu-ray Disc - periodically grainy, often exhibiting fantastic clarity. There are a couple of audio language options for each segment and you may wish to flip between these depending on the tale (the first and third tales I believe work better in English due to the fact that the main characters are portrayed by English speaking actors who dubbed their own voices). The fact that Arrow has provided such an array of options is incredibly thoughtful and as a result this release blows the previous video/DVD/laserdisc editions away. The entire French language version is available as a separate entity (can be chosen from the brilliantly designed main menu) but the picture quality of this is not up the standard of the main presentation (though still probably better than DVD quality), plus it’s notable that the colour scheme is very different. The AIP commissioned Vincent Price voiceover is available as a short extra too. The main bonus is a 60 page booklet containing reprints of the three Poe stories that make up the film, plus two essays, one of which is the excellent Tim Lucas study of the film (originally from Video Watchdog in the late 90s). The presentation of this book is very professional and grants a great backdrop with which to understand the film. The Blu-ray Disc is encased in a thin Blu-ray case adorned with poster artwork on every side, and the book plus case are housed in a sturdy cardboard outer box making the whole package supremely attractive. Though the film does take more effort than your average genre outing, this is an essential buy for fans of historical horror and foreign cinema and Arrow are to be congratulated - hopefully Spirits of the Dead, along with their other releases this year, is a sign of things to come.