In an era long, long ago, a group of celebrated actors and directors pooled their collective talents to create a haunting homage to the work of Edgar Allan Poe. To top it off, that master of the macabre, Vincent Price, lent his mellifluous tones to this trilogy of terror.
The film in question is 1969’s Spirits of the Dead (aka Histories Extraordinaires), a curious blend of European art-house cinema and American International Pictures horror hokum, that gave esteemed directors Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini a chance to bring Poe’s vision to the big screen following Roger Corman’s successful efforts that made Vincent Price the king of horror throughout the 1960s.
In Metzengerstein, Vadim directs his then-wife Jane Fonda (they had just completed the sci-fi romp Barberella) in a campy, orgy-filled tale about a debauched heiress holed up in a remote Brittany castle who becomes sexually frustrated over her incestuous desire for her cousin (played by Jane’s real life sibling, Peter Fonda).
In the Louis Malle-helmed William Wilson, loosely based on one of Poe’s best stories (originally set in the north London suburb of Stoke Newington), French matinee idol Alain Delon takes on the role of a 19th-century Austrian solider whose sadistic impulses are repeatedly curbed by the intervention of his mysterious double. Delon’s compatriot, Brigitte Bardot also appears in a dual role.
The final tale is from celebrated Italian director, Federico Fellini, and it’s a treat. Derived from Poe’s Never Wager Your Head to the Devil, Toby Dammit sees Terence Stamp (in a standout performance) playing a washed-up, alcoholic English actor who arrives in Rome to appear in a new spaghetti Western with the promise of the latest Ferrari, but he is haunted by the presence of a little girl playing with a ball which leads to his tragic death.
While Vadim and Malle’s efforts drew mix reactions on the film’s original release, Fellini’s entry was highly praised – thanks to its dreamlike visuals and dark themes that are pure Fellini. Now all three tales have been fully restored in Arrow’s new Blu-ray release, drawn from a new transfer from a HD restoration of the original film negative. To me, this is a really huge improvement over previous releases.
And that’s not all, as Stamp’s original English soundtrack has been reinstated (though it is a bit difficult to find), and there’s the extremely rare Vincent Price top-n-tale narration that was used for the US cinema release.
Despite the quirky navigation – it took me a while to work out what ‘auditorium’ and ‘kiosk’ meant – this is a stunning release with some really worthwhile special features – which includes a 60-page booklet featuring Edgar Allan Poe’s original short stories, essays by Tim Lucas and Peter Bondanella, and reprints of the original lobby cards and posters.
For lovers of European cinema, Edgar Allan Poe – and Vincent Price, of course – this is a serious must-have.