A rare '60s oddity, Spirits of the Dead takes a weird premise and makes it even weirder. How weird? Try classic Edgar Allen Poe stories given a 1960s spin -- one that lambasts the whole free love/no morals movement the way that only the Frenchies could do. And stars some of the biggest stars of the era -- Fonda! Bardot! Delon! -- and is told in three short pieces, courtesy of three big-time directors -- Fellini! Malle! Vadim!
Roger Vadim takes his Barbarella star Jane Fonda through a very loose interpretation of "Metzengerstein," with Fonda as an aristocrat bored of the constant orgies and swift executions of her enemies. She ends up falling for her cousin, but when he rejects her, she burns down his stable, taking him along with it. Strangely, the cousin ends up possessing the spirit of a horse, which the countess ends up fascinated with anew. It's the weakest of the three shorts, but it's worth seeing if for no other reason than to see Barbarella trot out her French. (To be honest, that might be the only reason -- the story just doesn't make much of an impact.)
Louis Malle heads the second segment, a version of "William Wilson," wherein a barbaric Alain Delon finds himself chased by an alternate version of himself throughout his life, his own conscience casting judgment upon him. And for good reason -- Delon's Wilson is incorrigible, tormenting classmates with live rats as a youth, nearly performing an autopsy on a live and buxom patient, and cheating at cards so he can get revenge on a beautiful card sharp (Brigitte Bardot). The story works well as a parable about how the evil that men do always catches up with them in the end, and Malle tells it with flair -- low-budget '60s flair, but flair nonetheless.
The final act of the triptych is pure Fellini as only Fellini can be. A revision of "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," his Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) is a famous modern-day actor, as well as a drunk and a soulless libertine. Everything about Fellini's mini-universe is sketchy, from a bizarre awards show ("The Golden She-Wolf Awards") to the little redhead he sees in his frequent visions... whom he sees as Satan, naturally. Reminiscent of 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita, Fellini's segment is both beautiful and surreal, with Dammit's self-destruction leading us inexorably toward a foregone conclusion.
Spirits of the Dead is something of a historical anomaly. In a year when films like The Graduate told us that, hey, anything goes, Spirits of the Dead says that it doesn't. I'm not sure I would have expected this from the directors of Barbarella, 8 1/2, and Pretty Baby -- none of which is exactly known for moral restraint -- but hey, we are defined by our contradictions, no?
Aka Tre passi nel delirio.