If you even wondered what it would look like if one of the greatest auteurs in film history directed an episode of “Tales From The Crypt,” look no further than Federico Fellini’s absurdist short “Toby Dammit,” based on a relatively obscure Edgar Allen Poe story titled “Never Bet The Devil Your Head.”
The quickest way to describe “Toby Dammit” would be as “8½ in Hell.” Firmly planted in Fellini’s late ’60s narcissistically colorful, exuberant dream-reality period, “Toby Dammit” represented one-third of an anthology feature consisting of three Poe adaptations from three of the most revered filmmakers at the time: Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim (perhaps “tolerated” instead of “revered” is a better description for Vadim).
The feature is called “Spirits of the Dead,” and even though Fellini received a considerable amount of praise for his segment, the other two shorts failed to impress. Eventually, critics and audiences discarded “Spirits of the Dead” as a failed experiment, dragging “Toby Dammit” down to obscurity with the whole package as a form of cinematic collateral damage. 40-years later, the film was restored and screened by famous cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno during the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, where it garnered extraordinary praise as an underrated Fellini masterwork.
“Toby Dammit” stars Terence Stamp as a pompous English actor named Toby, a man so obnoxious and narcissistic he makes Kanye West and Justin Bieber look like bastions of humility. Bored of every single aspect of fame, he agrees to star in a “catholic western” only to score a brand new Ferrari the studio promised him. As he hazily slumps from one shallow interview to another, he’s haunted by visions of the devil, who might be the only thing he believes in anymore.
The absurd and surreal visual style of the short already communicates to the audience that, regardless of his fear of the devil, Toby might already be in hell, or at least a form of purgatory where he has to answer the same pointless, boring questions from his fans and the press for all eternity. The gory finale was also quite shocking for its time.
It’s interesting to note that Fellini might have invented some of the most notorious J-horror clichés 30-years before the popularity of the style. A creepy young girl portrays the devil and, although she’s not Asian, her long hair covering most of her face and her intimidating wide-eyed stare are eerily reminiscent of J-horror mainstays like “The Ring” and “The Grudge.” Check it out below. [Open Culture]