In the 1960s anthology (also known as omnibus or portmanteau) films became extremely popular and were attractive to producers who wanted to appeal to a broad range of viewers. The segmented format also encouraged audiences to make multiple trips to the concession stand, which pleased theater owners. Sex comedies were particularly trendy but the most successful anthologies appealed to horror fans.
In America, Roger Corman led the way with his AIP (American International Pictures) production of Tales of Terror (1962) based on three short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. This was the fourth picture in Corman’s Poe cycle and it received mixed reviews from critics but audiences loved seeing three powerhouse stars of fantasy and horror (Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone) together. United Artists continued the trend with Twice Told Tales (1963) also starring Vincent Price and in Italy AIP worked with Mario Bava to produce Black Sabbath (1963) with Boris Karloff. In Britain Amicus Productions began making a series of horror anthologies that often featured Peter Cushing including Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Torture Garden (1967) while in Japan Kwaidan (1965) became an enormous success earning a Special Jury Prize at Cannes as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
European producers Raymond Eger and Alberto Grimaldi were eager to cash in on this growing trend and decided to follow Roger Corman’s lead by making another anthology based on three stories written by Edgar Allan Poe titled Spirits of the Dead (aka Histoires extraordinaires, 1968). They approached many esteemed directors during the planning stages including Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Luchino Visconti, Ingmar Bergman, Claude Chabrol and Joseph Losey but they eventually procured the talents of Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman , The Night Heaven Fell , Barbarella ), Louis Malle (Elevator to the Gallows , The Fire Within , Viva Maria! ) and Federico Fellini (Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita , 8 1/2 ).
Vadim opens the anthology with his eerie and otherworldly adaptation of “Metzengerstein” starring Jane Fonda who was the director’s wife at the time. Fonda play’s Frederique, a sadistic Countess who becomes obsessed with her gentle horse-loving cousin (Peter Fonda) and resorts to a terrible act of violence after he rejects her. Poe’s original story was inspired by German Gothic fiction and set in medieval times but Vadim infuses his film with decadent French flourishes including gender-bending characters, the implication of incest and plenty of eroticism. Jacques Fonteray, who also dressed Fonda in Barbarella, provides the stunning costumes. They include flowing capes, tall boots, body armor and midriff-baring fashions that give the film a contemporary look while the film’s mise-en-scène recalls Vadim’s work in Blood and Roses (1960) along with the dreamscapes of earlier French filmmakers such as Jean Epstein (The Fall of the House of Usher ) and Jean Cocteau (Beauty and The Beast ).
The film concludes with Federico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit,” a brilliant reimagining of Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” Fellini was inspired to rework Poe’s story after an encounter with Peter O’Toole who happened to be heavily intoxicated at the time. The director hoped that O’Toole would also star in his film but the role ultimately went to Terence Stamp who is sublime as the slender, pale, and strung out Toby Dammit. Dammit is a once proud Shakespearean actor who has fallen on hard times and becomes utterly disenchanted with his accompanying fame and fortune. During the course of the film he attends a glitzy award show but he leaves the celebration early and takes a wild ride through the streets of Rome in a gold Ferrari before meeting his macabre end. Fellini’s surreal segment, which conjures up images of drug-laden, booze-drenched and star-studded Hollywood parties, is rightfully hailed as one of the director’s greatest achievements. It shares little in common with Poe’s original tale but it’s a peerless example of what the French refer to as “Cinema Fantastique.” It’s also a vital bridge between the director’s full-color feature-length masterpieces, Juliet of the Spirits  and Satyricon .
Sandwiched in-between these two bold, colorful and undeniably Swinging Sixties experiments is Louis Malle’s somber adaptation of “William Wilson” starring Alain Delon as a cold-blooded and cruel military officer hunted by his pious doppelgänger. Following a cryptic encounter with a priest, we first meet Wilson as a young boy (played by 12-year-old Marco Stefanelli who looks remarkably like Delon) enrolled in a private boy’s school. It becomes immediately clear that he’s got a sadistic streak and enjoys tormenting his fellow classmates. These scenes anticipate the director’s Oscar-nominated biographical film Auvior les enfants(1987) and there’s a warm sentimentality at play despite the chilly climate of the school setting. We later meet Wilson when he’s an adult attending medical college where he attempts to dissect a poor peasant woman while she’s still alive. His final crime takes place during a card game with a cigar smoking courtesan (Bridgette Bardot sporting a black wig) and the outcome plunges Wilson into a deadly tailspin that he cannot recover from.
Malle’s contribution is the most faithful to Poe’s original story and it is a staid and traditional retelling that has led many critics to find fault with the director’s approach and refer to it as the least interesting contribution to the anthology. It is a gloomy film that adheres to its Gothic origins but to its credit, this allows Delon to deliver one of the richest and most rewarding performances of his career. Delon plays William Wilson as a haunted man, tortured by his depraved deeds and desires. There is very little dialogue so we are forced to imagine the inner-workings of Wilson’s twisted mind and to the actor’s credit, his expressive eyes and evocative body language fill in the gaps left by the script. It’s arguably the best and most understated acting in the entire anthology and that’s no small feat when your colleagues include Terence Stamp and the Fonda siblings.
The dueling double Delons in “William Wilson” epitomize the character’s divided identity. He is plagued by a conscience that won’t let him rest. It is an interesting idea that Delon was able to further explore while playing the title role in Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976), a dark WWII drama about an art dealer’s dubious business practices during the Nazi occupation of France. In both films, Delon is stalked by what Jung called the “shadow self” and does a magnificent job of demonstrating the paranoid nature and quiet desperation of a man in the throes of a psychological breakdown.
It’s worth noting that Delon recommended Malle to the film’s producers and was eager to work with the French director. However, Malle had reservations about his male star. The two countrymen did not get along and there was considerable tension on the set but according to Malle, “Somehow, the casting of Delon worked – because the anger he had against me served the character – and I made sure I kept him angry all the way through!”
Individually, each of the short films that make up Spirit’s of the Dead can be enjoyed on their own but together they achieve something truly magical. The final product, which brought together some of the best talents of the period, is a genuine cinematic treat that challenged the exhausted anthology formula and breathed new life into Poe’s classic tales of mystery and imagination.
Note: Originally published on FilmStruck.com