Short Horror Film Review: Spirits of the Dead — Toby Dammit (dir by Federico Fellini)

Directed by Federico Fellini, Toby Dammit was the third and final part of the 1968 anthology movie, Spirits of the Dead.

All three parts of Spirits of the Dead were based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.  Toby Dammit was based on Never Bet The Devil Your Head.  It seems appropriate that Fellini was the only director to rename his adaptation.  While Toby Dammit may be based on Poe’s story, it’s definitely Fellini’s film.

Terrence Stamp plays Toby Dammit, a former Shakespearean actor turned dissolute film star.  As is quickly established, Toby is an alcoholic.  As we watch him stumble through this film, alternatively bitter and flamboyant, we’re reminded of the stories of other British thespians who were legendary drinkers: Oliver Reed, Trevor Howard, David Hemmings, Peter O’Toole, and others.  With his Shakespearean background, it’s tempting to assume that Toby is meant to be a stand-in for Richard Burton but he actually bears a greater resemblance to Richard Harris.

(If you’re wondering how I came to be an expert on British alcoholics, might I recommend a short but informative book called Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole & Oliver Reed.  It was written by Robert Sellers and it makes for very interesting reading.  Especially the parts about Oliver Reed.)

Toby has come to Rome, to work on a film.  He doesn’t seem to be quite sure what the film is about or what role he’ll be playing.  (Judging from what the people around him say, it appears to be a biblical epic and Toby will be playing Jesus.)  While Toby floats through the city in an alcoholic haze, sycophants and fans surround him.  While he sits in the back set of a limo, a fortune teller looks at his palm and gets a worried look on her face.  Toby doesn’t care.  He just wants to get the Ferrari that the film’s producers promised him.

The only thing that worries Toby is the little girl that he keeps seeing out of the corner of his eye.  She bounces a white ball and whenever Toby sees her, a truly evil smile cross her face.  Interestingly, Fellini always frames the girl so that, like Toby, we only seem to be seeing her out of the corner of our eye.  Is she real or is she a figment of Toby’s alcohol-addled brain?  And what are we to make of the fact that Toby’s normally noise-filled world goes silent whenever he sees the girl?

On a talk show, Toby is asked how he visualizes the devil.  He says that he doesn’t see the devil as being a demon with horns or an old man.  (Interestingly enough, that’s how Poe portrayed the Devil in the original short story.)  Instead, he sees the devil as being a little girl with a ball.

However, Toby can’t spend too much time worrying about the little girl.  He just got his Ferrari…

Toby Dammit is the only unqualified success among the three short films that make up Spirits of the Dead.  I think it helps that, unlike Roger Vadim and Louis Malle, Fellini updated Poe’s story to the 20th Century and set it in the international film world.  If Malle and Vadim both seemed detached from their segments, Fellini knew the world that he was depicting.  I imagine he certainly was acquainted with plenty of actors who were just like the brilliant but self-destructive Toby Dammit.

The images of frequently dream-like.  Everything is filmed slightly off-center, mirroring Toby’s hazy view of existence.  When he sits in his limo, the world outside looks like the ruins of some sort of apocalyptic hellscape.  When he is on a talk show or at an awards show, Toby still seems to be isolated from all of the adoring people around him.  The few times that he does talk to other people, he does so without looking at them.  In fact, the only person who seems to truly capture Toby’s attention is that little girl with the ball.

Speaking of which, it seems obvious that Toby Dammit was meant to be a bit of an homage to Fellini’s friend and fellow director, Mario Bava.  Not only is the film’s color scheme very Bavaesque but that little girl will look familiar to anyone who has ever seen Kill, Baby, Kill.

Valerio Valeri in Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill

Marina Yaru in Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit

Toby Dammit is definitely the best part of Spirits of the Dead.  It’s a true Italian horror classic.

One response to “Short Horror Film Review: Spirits of the Dead — Toby Dammit (dir by Federico Fellini)

  1. I caught “Spirits of the Dead” somewhere, so long ago I don’t remember. I was enthralled by the uniqueness of the thing.

    Thought “Toby Dammit” was the best of the three, by far. Why? Fellini, of course. He did make it his own, but somehow, I imagine Poe would approve.


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