First released in 1968, Spirits of the Dead is an anthology film, one in which three famous international directors (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini) each took a shot at adapting a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. By their very nature, anthology films tend to be uneven and that’s certainly the case with Spirits of the Dead.
Consider the first story in the film, Roger Vadim’s adaptation of Metzengerstein. Vadim was best known for his visually lavish films, the majority of which starred whoever he happened to be romantically involved with at the time. Vadim’s films were sexually charged and decadent but it was a very specific, late 60s type of decadence. They may have seemed wild when they were first released but, seen today, his films seem rather quaint (not to mention dated).
Anyway, when Vadim was hired to shoot his part of Spirits of the Dead, he was married to Jane Fonda so, of course, she stars as Countess Frederique Metzengerstein (Jane Fonda). That Countess Frederique is evil is obvious from the start. In between having tastefully shot orgies, she torments her servants. She even has one servant boy hung so that she can see if she can shoot an arrow through the rope. (Fortunately, for the servant boy, she can.) It’s an evil, spiritually empty life but, as can be seen in the picture above, her clothes are to die for.
(Though Metzengerstein appears to be taking place in the 19th century, everyone looks like they’ve just flown over from swinging London. There’s a lot of miniskirts, sideburns, and tinted glasses.)
Anyway, things change for Frederique when she meets her virtuous cousin, Wilhelm. She immediately falls into lust with him but he wants nothing to do with her and her evil ways. (Her cousin, I might add, is played by Peter Fonda, brother of Jane.) Upset over being rejected, Frederique sets his stables on fire. Wilhelm dies in the inferno.
After Wilhelm’s death, a new horse suddenly appears outside of Frederique’s castle. Convinced that Wilhelm’s spirit has inhabited it, Frederique grows obsessed with the horse. Soon, Frederique is spending all of her time riding the horse. With no more time to be evil, Frederique becomes less feared.
But, in the distance, there are always flames calling out to her…
So, let’s just start with the obvious. There is a huge ick factor to be found in Metzengerstein. Just as Frederique spends the first half of the movie in love with her cousin, Jane Fonda spends the first half of the movie pretending to be in love with Peter Fonda. Wilhelm, of course, rejects Frederique but still, it just feels undeniably … creepy. What’s odd is that it’s difficult to tell if Vadim was trying to make the audience uncomfortable or if this casting was just a case of Peter having some time to kill while visiting his sister and brother-in-law. For all the attention that he pays to the film’s lush visuals, Vadim is such a detached storyteller that it’s hard to guess what his intention was.
Jane Fonda gives a good performance as the cruel Frederique but otherwise, everyone else in the film is just a part of the scenery. That’s the thing with Metzengerstein. It’s a gorgeous film but, ultimately, it’s all scenery that adds up to nothing.