This entry is part of the 2nd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon hosted by my brother Kevin at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. It’s a repost from last year’s Top 100 Horror Movies project and definitely a film that doesn’t often get considered when discussing Italian Horror. I’ll be back on Monday with a brand new review.
Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit is the final segment of Spirits of The Dead, an anthology film comprised of two underwhelming pieces and this one superior segment. It's a mere 40-minutes long, but in that short time Fellini has crafted a perfect mix of dark comedy that turns into horrifying madness.
Before I get too far, I implore you to spend the short amount of time to watch the film. There isn't an ideal version of the film on DVD as of right now*, as the only way to see Terence Stamp's incredible English language performance was in a terrible looking print with permanent subtitles. All other released versions included a French-voiceover for Stamp's dialogue. That just shouldn't be, for Stamp's portrayal is pivotal to the appeal of the film (this is one of those rare times where the dubbed version is superior to the original language version). So I put together my own "version" of the film, mixing the English language soundtrack and the best DVD quality rip I could find, coming up with the following:
* Fortunately, I just discovered a Blu-Ray release of SPIRITS OF THE DEAD is going to be released before the end of the year, completely restored and with the preferred language tracks.
Toby Dammit (played by the singular Terence Stamp) is an English actor setting out to Rome to promote a film he is to be a part of. Immediately upon landing, we see a cast of Fellini-esque characters occupying the airport. Toby is initially bombarded by the staring eyes of these people, before a horde of photographers begins incessantly snapping photos of him.
Toby next meets those involved with the film he will be part of, an amazingly pretentious "Catholic Western" that is "something between Dreyer and Pasolini with just a hint of John Ford" (God, if only Fellini had gone through with such a fantastic concept). He is inundated with thoughts and philosophies about the film, all during which it's obvious that Toby has no care about any of this. Pale faced and gaunt, as if fresh off a night of "whisky, hashish, cocaine, orgy, sex" (please watch that video -- fantastic stuff) Toby cares of only one thing, in fact it's the only reason he came to Rome in the first place -- "The studio promised me a Ferrari. Latest model. When do I get it?"
It's at this point that we first see a sinister looking girl with a white ball, an entity that has obviously been following Toby around for quite a while ("I told her to go away but she kept coming back"). Fellini has admitted as much that she was an homage to the ghostly girl from fellow Italian Mario Bava's Kill, Baby Kill. Fellini introduces her with a fantastic eerie effect, showing her face and then zooming in several inches suddenly via a jump cut.
He is whisked away to a television studio for an interview, all the while more absurd and fantastical faces are popping up at a hurried pace. Throughout the interview, Toby is full of himself, coy with his answers, and has a complete disregard for everyone around him, seeing this as an obvious waste of time. We find out here that Toby regards the little girl with the ball as the devil ("For me the devil is friendly and joyful. He's a little girl").
Toby's devil-may-care attitude continues, as he is suddenly at the Italian Oscars, a new group of bizarre people introduced to him one after the other. Toby accepts an award, gives a speech and then rushes off, wanting to do nothing more than get in his Ferrari and get the hell out of Rome.
Only he can't.
He races throughout the city in an effort to leave it. But he keeps coming across dead-ends -- roadblocks, a flock of sheep, cardboard cutouts of people -- everything telling him he can't escape. Until he sees a road with a ravine in front of it. On the other side of the ravine is the girl with the ball, her face almost taunting him to try to cross. Toby picks up enough speed to jump the ravine and in his madness fails to notice the wire just at head height, stretched across the road. Then, pop, off comes his head.
The girl with the ball comes over to collect it and we end our story.
The meaning of the whole thing? Fellini knowingly plays with the original Poe story that this is adapted from ("Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale With A Moral"). As the title makes clear, this was Poe's jab at his detractors who claimed he didn't write with a moral purpose, a satirical spoof against his moralistic detractors. In a similar vein, Fellini uses the story as a satire on the pretentious, facile, and maddening world of film and the leeches and hangers-on that occupy that aspect of society. He shows that working in the film industry is a proverbial deal with the devil, the artistic pleasures that come with it balanced by the pointless interviews and vapid award shows that come with it. In many ways, this theme harkens back to previous Fellini, for as Steve Bissette (in the best review of the film I've yet read) so perfectly puts it, Toby Dammit is "8 1/2 goes to hell."
But even with this satirical edge occupying so much of the proceedings, Fellini doesn't fail to build toward a horrific finale (and really, this wouldn't be considered a horror film if not for the frenzied ending). Key to this is the uncanny image of the devil as the little girl with the ball. Fellini's vision of her is even more malicious than Bava, though, with an alluringly mischievous, threatening look.
Equally disturbing is the viewer implicitly going on this self-destructive voyage into madness with Toby. We too can see the girl, yet no one else can. We too are displaced in this world, with it's hellish tints and surreal award shows, grotesqueries all around, unable to understand anything anyone else is saying (another point towards watching this with Stamp's English only and no subtitles). It's Stamp's manic performance that gets across this feeling of losing control and just wanting out, while Fellini's fog-lit street scenes, showing us Toby's point-of-view as he drive, along with the sounds of the Ferrari's engine and squealing tires, provides the sense of delirium.
I find that in trying to discover the meaning of the film, there are many possibilities; Did Toby sell his soul to the devil for his 15 minutes of fame? Has his descent into self-destruction left him no way out but death? Has his constant tempting of fate finally come back to get him? Any or all of those are satisfying enough, but as with Poe's story, a moral isn't necessary here, not when our eyes and minds can tell us that Fellini and Stamp have combined to make an eerily beautiful and distinct horror film.