Saturday, June 11, 2011
HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINARIES aka SPIRITS OF THE DEAD
Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, Roger Vadim, 1968
Starring: Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Terence Stamp, Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon
Back in the age of horror anthology films that were actually good, this one blows them all away in a very special and magical way. It isn’t really scary like Tales from the Crypt or Black Sabbath, but it straddles the line between Gothic spectacle, horror anthology and avant garde European cinema. Not only does it have a roster of all-star directors and cinematographers, the budgets were relatively high and the three films are centered around international stars. Though there was mixed critical reception, I don’t think anyone can argue that Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” is not an amazing piece of cinema.
The three films are all based on tales by Edgar Allen Poe: Fellni’s “Toby Dammit” is inspired by "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," Malle adapts "William Wilson," and Vadim tackles "Metzengerstein." The original French title is also taken from Baudelaire’s translation of one of Poe’s poems.
The first film, Vadim’s “Metzengerstein,” stars Bridgit and Peter Fonda. They’re in love and it’s kind of creepy -- if you didn't know, they're siblings -- but in “Metzengerstein” they appear as neighboring, warring royalty. The young, debauched Countess is rescued from a jam by the icy Count and she becomes obsessed with him. When he doesn't immediately return her affections, she gets revenge by burning down a stable full of his beloved horses. He dies trying to save his horses and his favorite horse, though completely wild, survives. The Countess transfers her love to the horse, taming and spending all of her time with the animal. She also finds an old tapestry depicting a similar horse and becomes obsessed with restoring it. Because this is a Poe story, we know it can’t have a happy ending. Especially not when the main character transfers her forbidden love onto an animal.
This opulent, beautiful film greatly benefits from the inclusion of Jane Fonda. Her presence is probably due to the fact that “Metzengerstein” was tacked onto the end of Barbarella's filming schedule. If I had to rank the three stories, I would say this rates second place. The elaborate set and beautiful star give it a leg up, as well as the undercurrent of sexual obsession, extreme hedonism and unrequited love. What makes the Countess's character remotely compelling is that fact that she is a woman used to getting everything wants. When she alone destroys the one thing she really desires, she has to live with the consequences.
Next is Malle's "William Wilson," starring the BEAUTIFUL Alain Delon. For those of you who haven't read the story, it is a pretty common theme in early horror fiction/film: the diabolical double. In this case the young William Wilson has everything going for him. He's successful, charismatic and seems to get what he wants in life. Unfortunately, but probably as a result of this, he has a cruel streak a mile wide. Before he can do any serious damage to his objects of malice, his double appears and stops him in his tracks. As soon as he realizes who the intrusive stranger is, he disappears. As his frustration mounts, the double becomes increasingly involved in his life. When he decides to take action, I don't think anyone will be surprised by the results. Though I consider it the weakest entry in the trilogy, it's still an entertaining way to pass the time.
The real money-maker in the set, as I believe I've already mentioned, is Fellini's "Toby Dammit." Wow. I mean, wow. Forty minutes of PURE JOY. Terence Stamp, almost as beautiful as Alain Delon, but more appealing because he seems to have more personality, nails it as Toby Dammit, an internationally successful actor who comes to Rome to make a film in exchange for a Ferrari. And, apparently, to have an encounter with the devil in the form of a little girl with a bouncing ball. When his drinking spins out of control at various press events and award shows, Toby is desperate to flee the city in his Ferrari, a move that doesn't go particularly well. All the roads seem to lead to dead ends and all the bridges are closed. Will he escape? Is he being prevented from leaving the city or is it all in his deteriorating mind?
I know everyone already appreciates the fact that Fellini is awesome, but... yeah. I don't know if anyone does a Poe film festival, but in my imagination this happens at least twice a year in some city I don't live in, though Philadelphia would be an ideal place. "Toby Dammit" would be an ideal headline.