Reader recommendation from Steven Ryder
Note: ‘Toby Dammit’ is a segment filmed as part of Spirits of the Dead, an anthology based on
FEATURING: , , Antonia Pietrosi
PLOT: During a trip to Rome to film a Catholic Spaghetti Western, Toby Dammit, an alcoholic, drug-addled Shakespearean actor, falls deeper and deeper into uncertainty, pursued by a devilish young phantom.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Any number of Fellini’s films could be given the “weird” seal of approval due to his preoccupation with dream imagery and Jungian psychoanalysis, but few are as quite deeply rooted in the surreal as “Toby Dammit.” Oktay Ege Kozak described “Dammit” as “8 ½ in Hell,” and seeing as how Fellini’s magnum opus does make the List, it would come as no real surprise to see this shorter, more blatant genre offering creep its way on as well.
COMMENTS: Spirits of the Dead, the anthology that includes “Toby Dammit,” isn’t particularly fascinating, and it is painfully obvious that Roger Vadim and Louis Malle, the directors of the other two segments, either care little about or did not know how to approach the subject matter. These are directors later made made campy science fiction flicks or serious wartime dramas, and neither of these genres reflect Edgar Allen Poe’s Gothic roots as well as Fellini’s style does. Now, if producer Alberto Grimaldi had managed to get on board, as he originally intended, then we may have been looking at a late-sixties masterpiece of horror cinema, but instead we get two forgettable entries and one incredibly weird, incredibly original Poe adaptation from one of the giants of Italian film, fresh off the critical hits 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits. Fellini confessed to never actually read the story he was supposed to be filming, which may have assisted him in bringing his own enduring cinematic style to the table. Aside from the title and the decapitation finale, nothing else remains from Poe’s original tale.
The film opens with disheveled Shakespearean actor Toby, played with a distinct charisma and style by Terence Stamp, drunk on a plane, preparing to meet the producer of his next film in Rome. There is no mistake that Fellini wanted Toby, already a frazzled mess of a man, to be driven further and further into madness, and it wouldn’t be glib to speculate that the red mist his plane descends into is a symbol for the Hell that is to follow—even if the jaunty, instantly recognizable score from frequent Fellini collaborator Nino Rota says otherwise. We follow Toby on his first trip to Rome and watch as the horror around him intensifies: from the airport terminal drenched in a orange hue where the other flyers wear distorted plaster masks and the TV screens don’t quite align with the monitors to the centerpiece of the film, an eerie awards ceremony (which seems to be held in a sickly cavern) that’s likedoing a Fellini impression. And throughout all of this, the director’s camera sweeps and zooms and glides over a barrage of grotesque, flamboyant faces, a circus of unnatural characters that seem to only be there to antagonize and disrupt Toby’s worldview.
It is not only the distinct and visually stimulating camerawork that makes comparisons between “Toby Dammit” and 8 ½ apt, but the themes and characters, too. If you liked watching Fellini stand-in Guido existentially brood over women and art, then Toby offers a familiar wealth of riches; but unlike his art house counterpart, Toby is not caught between the world of craft and excess, but has given in entirely to the latter, repeatedly stating that the only reason he has agreed to make a film in Rome is the Ferrari he has been promised. Terrence Stamp’s misanthropic performance is truly astounding, and his pale, gaunt features and British accent clash gorgeously with the fanciful overkill of Italy all around him. Watching the film without subtitles and with Stamp’s English dub seems like the only logical way to view it, adding to the sense of displacement and panic needed in order to empathize with Toby. A precursor to the caricatures found in, he exudes a desperate yet witty persona, drifting from utter calm to sheer madness. Seeing Toby sprawled out on a chair at the grotesque awards ceremony just as the spotlight hits him is a defining moment for his iconic character; never has anyone worn purple velvet trousers so well, yet never has anybody wanted so badly just to be left alone to die.
His reply to a reporter who asks him if he uses LSD—“Only when I want to feel normal”—tells you a lot about where our protagonist’s head is at, as do the final moments of the film. A suicidal Toby drives around the empty, unreal streets of a previously unseen Rome; the POV camera careens around corners, constantly about to crash, before pulling away again. Simultaneously exciting and nauseating, Fellini makes the sequence work as well as any action director, utilizing his propensity for artificial lighting to give the scene an extra dose of eccentricity.
What many people will remember about this film is Fellini’s genuinely creepy portrayal of what we could assume is the devil in disguise. Dammit is stalked throughout his Rome adventure by an impish blonde girl with a white ball, presumably begging Toby to come play with her. Preceding the famous Asian waif horror motif by a decade or two, the girl’s blonde hair covers most of her face, but not enough to hide a knowing, terrifying smile. She makes her final appearance at the end of the film, picking up Toby’s severed head and walking away with it after he drives his Ferrari at full speed under a thin wire and decapitates himself in a scene straight out of a giallo (a genre which did not yet exist).
This could be a tale about a man unable to escape his fate, or the dangers of making a deal with the devil. It could just as easily be an analogy for depression within the entertainment industry, a theme we have seen explored before by many filmmakers. But either way, it is a forgotten masterpiece of surreal ingenuity that Fellini scholars have swept under the rug as an oddity. It deserves to be talked about in the same vein as La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. Or is it just too weird?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(Spirits of the Dead was nominated for review by Mark K. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)