Essential Upgrades: Fellini Does Horror! Spirits Of the Dead (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Everybody loves anthology horror films, and most of us can appreciate the works of film's greatest masters.  But how often do we get see the two mashed together into one super film?  Well... I'm not sure it's totally happened here either, but Spirits Of the Dead is still a pretty enjoyable, compelling piece of cinematic art.  Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim come together to each direct a short Edgar Allen Poe story.  And it was released in the US on DVD by Home Vision Entertainment... but you all should really import.

Note 6/4/21: Just wanted to point out that *only Fellini's portion of this film* has been remastered in 4k and included in Criterion's 2020 Essential Fellini boxed set, which I cover here.
Roger Vadim, probably the least well known of the three directors, is up first, and his is easily the weakest segment.  It's kind of the gateway you have to pass through to get to the rest of the film.  Vadim is the guy who did Barbarella, and in fact this film was the same year.  It also stars Jane Fonda, alongside brother Peter Fonda, and the whole thing feels like kind of a self-indulgent affair with stars changing from one unconvincing period piece to another seemingly ever minute.  Still, there is Poe at the heart of the thing, and you the dark side of the story comes through.  Jane Fonda is a selfish and debaucherous countess who thinks nothing of misusing the people beneath her until she eventually meets her cousin, Peter, who challenges her for the first time in her life.  So she kills him, steals his prize black horse, and as you can imagine, something ominous and supernatural is sure to follow.  It's not a bad story, but the presentation is such an odd mix of campy and wooden... If you've seen the recent film The Love Witch, this is definitely the type of film it was playing on.
Louis Malle is up next, with a much more respectable looking entry co-starring Brigette Bardot.  A 19th century Italian military officer races in to a confessional to admit to murdering someone who's haunted him his entire life, a sort of evil doppelganger.  This one brings in some serious acting and has a compelling atmosphere, but even if you're not familiar with Poe's writing, it feels like an old story that takes its time going to a very predictable place.  But it definitely sets you up for something more wild and unpredictable, and Fellini does not disappoint with his conclusive segment.  This really feels like a Fellini film, like Roma or Intervista, and you'll spend a good portion of this film wondering what the heck Poe wrote that could somehow connect to what's on screen.  It stars Terrence Stamp as a troubled Hollywood celebrity who's come to Italy seemingly to be celebrated by the entire country's populace.  Eventually we get to the real Poe material and the devil, but even then it feels like the point of the original story has been a little misplaced, an unimportant detail buried somewhere underneath Fellini's wild spectacle.
So Home Vision Entertainment's DVD came out back in 2001, and even for its time it was a mixed bag.  It was anamorphic widescreen and a pretty healthy looking presentation of the uncut version (there have been several trimmed VHS releases in the past).  But on the other hand, it was a French dub with English subtitles, and barebones.  But finally, in 2010, Arrow came to the rescue with a new scan of the original film elements on blu with the original Italian/ English audio track restored, and a few nice little perks to boot.
2001 Home Vision DVD on top; 2010 Arrow blu underneath.
Arrow corrects Home Vision's slightly off framing of 1.75:1 to a more natural 1.85:1, bringing in little slivers of added information around the sides.  More importantly, the color correction dials back its washed hues to reveal the natural colors underneath.  The old DVD wasn't badly compressed for such an old disc, and it wasn't interlaced or anything, but Arrow's blu naturally reveals a much cleaner, robustly detailed picture with sharper details.  Overall, it's just much more pleasant and attractive to look at.

Even more importantly, though, is that sound.  As I said, the old DVD only had a French dub with removable English subtitles.  Well, that French dub is on the Arrow, too, for completists.  But more importantly, the proper track that mixes English and Italian is here.  It's a better track throughout, but it's especially critical in the Fellini segment.  In that film, Stamp's character is out of his element, often being aggressively addressed by complete strangers in a language he doesn't understand.  Some people speak to him in English, others Italian.  But all of that is lost when the whole thing is dubbed into French; you can't tell when people are speaking his language or not.  You lose part of the story and only fully "get it" when you see the film with this track.  Oh, and yes, there are still optional English subtitles on both versions of Arrow's blu, in fact there are two sets, one for each version of the film, both of which were freshly re-translated for their release.
The 2001 DVD was barebones, too, although it did come with an insert with film notes.  And the Arrow doesn't really have any extra extras per se, either, like commentaries or interviews; but it does feature some nice inclusions relating to the presentation of the film.  In 1969, AIP added narration by Vincent Price, where he read some of Poe's "Spirits Of the Dead" poem over the credits, and that narration is available here as an option.  Again, you get the choice of audio and subtitle versions on this release, and they've included the original theatrical trailer.  It also comes with a nice, glossy, thick-spined booklet, which includes all three of Poe's original stories that these segments are based on, plus notes by Tim Lucas and Peter Bondanella.  Like most of Arrow's releases, it comes in one of those windowed slip-boxes, and includes reversible cover art with a crazy Japanese poster on the flip-side.
Admittedly, this film isn't for everyone.  It would fit more at home in the Criterion Collection than the Scream Factory line-up, with an admittedly pretentious bent compared to something like Nightmares.  It's still a fun, anthology horror film, but it's alternatively too campy, dry and then anarchic for more conventional audiences.  It's still pretty great, though.  And by all means, if you are going to get this film, make sure and get the Arrow version, not the old DVD.  And if you already have the old DVD, this is definitely one to replace.  It's even region A/B/C, so my fellow lazy Americans, you have no excuses.  😜

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