On the Internet Movie DataBase, you’ll find the words “the ultimate orgy of evil” written as the tagline for Spirits of the Dead. I dunno if I could ever call any Poe story truly evil. His stories are often horrific or contain horror elements within them, but none of them have ever exercised evil to, say, the degree of Clive Barker (Hellraiser series). However, within this film we do see Federico Fellini (segment “Toby Dammit”), Louis Malle (segment “William Wilson”), and Roger Vadim (segment “Metzengerstein”) tackle these short stories.
Reviewing these three shorts is rather difficult when it comes to plot synopsis. In short, Spirits of the Dead is an exercise in humanistic qualities that drive us all mad. From rejection to misunderstanding, from confusion to loss — anything within, beyond, and in between these parameters can be found here. Each story is unique, but all contain very similar points that drive the characters mad; the main one here being loss. All characters manage to lose something that just puts the final nail in their coffins.
The part about this film that I think most people will be arguing about is the segment “Toby Dammit.” Some will argue that it’s the best of the three; others will argue it’s the worst. What’s the deal here? Well, “William Wilson” and “Metzengerstein” are more theatrical pieces, whereas “Toby Dammit” is more allegorical. Depending upon your feel for experimentation, you may find yourself heavily torn away from “Toby Dammit.” Personally, I did for a while. It’s easy to dislike “Toby Dammit” because it’s the last piece in the series and a total break from everything else. But you gotta hand it to Terence Stamp. He really kicks some ass as Toby Dammit. The rest of this film is shot oddly; lots of lucidity, awkward angles, and a really messed-up ending drive scene that was arguably too long.
“William Wilson” is the next best due to its sheer cleverness. The film isn’t shot real specially or anything; it’s just kinda there. Not a lot of symbolism or imagination at the core. But classic theater style mixed with classic Hollywood cinema is cool. Alain Delon is a good William Wilson, as he spins a tale of a twin star driving him mad. I can’t really think if much more to say about this one except that it’s done well but could’ve used some tweaks to make it more maddening.
“Metzengerstein” is the first film we’re introduced to. Yeah, I know I kinda reviewed these backwards, but that aside, I can safely say that this one is right up there with “William Wilson” in terms of quality. Picking the superior one is difficult. “Metzengerstein” is a straight-up theatre piece. Had it not been for the elaborate sets and the real outdoor shots, I would almost be tempted to say that this was really shot in a theater. The story is my least favorite. It’s about an odd horse showing up after some…unfortunate events. From there on out, it’s not an extraordinarily exciting piece, but it’s not bad.
If you’re a Poe fan, then Spirits of the Dead is necessary viewing. If you’re into experimental film, then “Toby Dammit” is more than worth your time. It’s not for everyone, though. There’s not much in terms of gore. Spirits of the Dead is mostly just a psychological battle of besting the demons that surround these characters. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something different.