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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

There’s a masterpiece buried in this otherwise awful Edgar Allan Poe anthology film

Illustration for article titled There’s a masterpiece buried in this otherwise awful Edgar Allan Poe anthology film
Screenshot: Spirits Of The Dead

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Antlers, a horror movie adapted from a story by Nick Antosca, is not hitting theaters. In its absence, we’re looking back on other movies based on short stories.

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Spirits Of The Dead (1968)

Though it was conceived by the producer Alberto Grimaldi as a way to cash in on the ’60s Italian craze for multi-director omnibus films, the popularity of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies, and the mass appeal of bare breasts and fake blood, Spirits Of The Dead ended up producing a near-masterpiece in Federico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit.” It remains one of the most grotesque films to ever pass itself off as a Poe adaptation—a death trip of studio fakery, cartoon satire, and paranoia in which an alcoholic English actor (Terrence Stamp) is lured to Italy to star in the world’s first “Catholic Western” in exchange for a gold Ferrari. Looking like a goth vampire (or a caricature of Poe, complete with 19th-century fashion sense and self-destructive drinking), he is led from one scene of delirium into the next. There are movie lights on the street corners, people are being replaced by mannequins and cardboard standees, and a creepy childlike blonde that only he can see won’t leave him alone.

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The whole Fellini circus has come to town: the traffic jams, the paparazzi, the bizarre Catholic imagery, the blatantly phony sets. Finally, Toby Dammit takes off behind the wheel of his Ferrari (in a sequence made all the more thrilling by the fact that Stamp is clearly doing a lot of his own driving), racing around darkened roads and up and down medieval streets before he meets his fate. We are left wondering what it all means. Whatever it is, there’s a lot of it crammed into just 45 minutes. But though “Toby Dammit” is a lot more Fellini than Poe (the only plot points it retains from its source material, “Never Bet The Devil Your Head,” are the climactic decapitation and the name of the main character), it seems to grasp something about the author that’s missing from most Poe adaptations. Poe was a brooding romantic—but he was also a smartass and a notoriously caustic critic, fond of hoaxes and spoofs and distrustful of literary fads.

Of course, there is no shortage of cosmetically faithful Poe adaptations out there, and Spirits Of The Dead happens to include two very bad examples of the form. Both are tasteless in ways that are lazy and unexciting, though it is nonetheless a critic’s duty to acknowledge their existence. The first, directed by Roger Vadim, is a gender-swapped take on Poe’s first published story, “Metzengerstein,” a pseudo-Gothic tale about rich aristocrats, blood feuds, and reincarnation. It stars Jane Fonda in an assortment of Barbarella-ized costumes and is indifferently made and deathly boring. Modern viewers may be surprised to learn that Vadim was once considered to be an extremely erotic filmmaker. The second, directed by Louis Malle, is an absolutely awful adaptation of one of Poe’s finest stories, “William Wilson,” about a man whose attempts to lead a life of sin and debauchery are constantly sabotaged by a doppelgänger who has followed him since boyhood. It features Alain Delon, an attempted gang rape in an operating theater, and an appearance by Brigitte Bardot in a very cheap black wig. Malle later said he made it strictly for the money, but that’s no excuse.

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If Malle’s “William Wilson” is a textbook case of an adaptation that completely misses the point, then “Toby Dammit” is something like the opposite: an extremely loose interpretation that’s faithful to the spirit of the text. Its source, “Never Bet The Devil Your Head,” is a howling send-up of the idea that short stories are supposed to have a moral point, filled with jokes about transcendentalism, homoeopathy, various mid-19th century publications, and the era’s American literary scene. The plot of “Toby Dammit” is in turn an elaborate in-joke about omnibus movies and the star-chasing Italian film industry, riffing on the fact that Clint Eastwood had actually been enticed into appearing in a previous omnibus project, The Witches, with his choice of cash or a 1966 Ferrari 275 GTB. (According to Richard Schickel’s Clint Eastwood: A Biography, Eastwood picked the car because his agent couldn’t take a percentage of a Ferrari.)

It even nails Poe’s parody of his era’s pretensions, with characters who prattle on about a film “about Christ’s return to the desolate prairie” that promises “something between Dreyer and Pasolini with just a hint of John Ford.” The major difference is that Fellini’s Toby Dammit is a tragic figure—a lush who keeps moaning about his promised Ferrari to a vacuous nightmare-world of airport terminals, TV studios, and awards ceremonies. He is destined to an awesomely meaningless demise.

Availability: Toby Dammit” is available on the Criterion Channel, where it can be streamed separately or as a part of Spirits Of The Dead.

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