Synopsis: Three giants of world cinema conspire to bring the dark prose of Edgar Allan Poe to the screen in Spirits Of The Dead. Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini direct Jane and Peter Fonda, Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, and Terence Stamp in three separate stories of souls tormented by their own phantasmal visions of guilt, lust, and greed.
Spirits of the Dead 7.25
eyelights: its collection of short films. its memorable casts. the quality of its productions.
eyesores: its ill-fitting third entry. Terence Stamp’s dubbing. Vincent Price’s reading.
‘Spirits of the Dead’ is the English language version of ‘Histoires extraordinaries‘. Though the original was released in 1968, the producers were unable to secure a North American distribution deal; American International Pictures had made an offer but they wanted to edit Fellini’s bit and the producers refused.
By 1969, they relented, for lack of other options.
But not only did AIP trim Fellini’s segment, which reduced the film’s runtime by three-and-a-half minutes, they also engaged the help of Vincent Price, who had made their Edgar Allan Poe films so popular for much of that decade, and proceeded to tack on an ill-fitting reading of parts of Poe’s “Spirits of the Dead” poem over the opening and closing credits.
The rest of the film was essentially the same, though it was overdubbed in English where English was not already available. For instance, the whole of Louis Malle’s segment was overdubbed, while only some of the performances (i.e. not Terence Stamp’s) in Fellini’s were. Roger Vadim’s segment had been shot and edited in both French and English versions.
It’s fascinating how language changes everything: when I watched the English version of Vadim’s “Metzengerstein”, my impression of Frédérique was that she was truly malevolent, whereas the French version didn’t give me that same vibe. I chalk that up to the fact that the narration in the English version compares her to Caligula, which evokes evil.
It also made more sense for the first segment to be in English because Peter Fonda doesn’t speak a word of French, so at least both he and Fonda spoke their native tongues. In Malle’s short, the overdub is so horrid that it’s definitely better to watch it in its original French; it’s not just the performances, but the actual recording itself which sticks out.
The most interesting change comes with Fellini’s bit. I read a commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, who claimed that it made more sense for that segment to be in English because it portrays an English actor adrift in the madness of Roma, unable to understand the native language. Not only is the behaviour outlandish, it’s utterly inexplicable to him.
This actually compelled me to watch it with the overdub instead of the subtitles and it is true that this approach makes much more sense; one immediately feels Toby Dammit’s discomfort and understands why he gets overwhelms so: though there’s an interpreter, and some of the Italians speak broken English, he’s basically being ushered through insanity.
Bewildered. Delirious with drink.
One of the additional strengths of the English version is that we get Stamp’s own voice which, sadly, is also a dubbing (Italians famously never shot motion pictures with sound, recording it later in the studio!). On the flip side, Stamp’s vocal performance is as eccentric as his physical one, which overwhelms the character, creating a cartoon.
I dare say that a more sober performance would benefit the part.
And this is why I have mixed feelings about ‘Spirits of the Dead’ in its English form. Although it improves the context of Fellini’s segment, it weakens Stamp’s performance, spoils Louis Malle’s bit, and tacks on Vincent Price – I’m a fan and his iconic delivery is always remarkable, but his reading abruptly interrupts the opening and end credits.
I understand AIP’s decision, given their financial investment, but it was ill-conceived; they should have just left the film alone, which had been released in the UK under the less ominous, but more appropriate, title of ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’. In any event, both versions side-stepped box office success and were relegated to history’s dustbins.
Ultimately, the best way to watch the film is via Arrow Films’ UK blu-ray for ‘Spirits of the Dead’: not only does it contain ‘Histoires extraordinaires’ in full, but it also offers a fully restored ‘Spirits of the Dead’ without the Vincent Price readings and with multilingual segments – Vadim’s in English, Malle’s in French and Fellini’s in Italian.
That was my favourite experience of the three, though in the future I suppose that I may want to swap the audio track to English when I get to Fellini’s segment (because, yes, the blu-ray allows you to do that too). It’s really the best of all scenarios. It also includes the Price readings as a bonus – though they can’t be included with the feature itself.
I won’t raise the dead over it, though.
Date of viewing: January 1, 2017