Tomb of Ligeia

(UK - 1964)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Vincent Price, Elizabeth Shepherd, John Westbrook, Derek Francis
Genre: Horror
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Robert Towne from Edgar Allen Poe's story
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Composer: Kenneth V. Jones

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The final entry in Roger Corman & Vincent Price’s series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations has Price as a mix between his hypersensitive Roderick Usher from House of Usher and malicious Prince Prospero from Masque of the Red Death. The potentially deluded, perpetually bereaving widower Verden Fell (Price) is haunted by his deceased wife Lady Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd), whom he still believes to be alive due to her espousal of the philosophy that one can will themselves to eternal life. Aiding neighbor Lady Rowena (also played by Shepherd) when she’s thrown from her horse, they quickly fall in love with Fell marrying the rich Victorian who looks eerily similar to his cherished first wife.

Though arguably equally tortured, Price trades Usher’s certitude of impending doom for the fragility of an unmendable heart. His marriage is unable to accomplish anything beyond extending the misery, and perhaps opening up a means for Ligeia to return from the grave. Robert “China” Towne’s ambiguous script shows some understanding of Val Lewton, keeping the horror on the suggestive level. He plays up various mysteries including whether Fell’s unaccounted for disappearances and bizarre vapor locks, Rowena’s nightmares and stretches where she appears to become Ligeia, and the menancing black cat that Ligeia seems to control if not be are due to possession, Ligeia’s grasp from beyond, insanity, fears, and/or doubts.

Despite the typically commendable performance of Price, who manages to be sympathetic while remaining ominous and threatening, there’s little reason to believe Rowena would fall for this reclusive loner who spends all his time pining over a corpse. They don’t even bother with the idea she can change him. Even though she wastes away in the terrifying decayed house, she somehow remains uninterested in the younger, handsomer, all around more suitable aristocrat Christopher (John Westbrook).

The startling change from Corman’s previous renderings of Poe is the decision to film on location, morbidly dressing up a ruined abby in Norfold, England. The film is initially atmospheric with the distanced wide-angle shots evoking the thought that the characters are being watched. Fell is dead even in the sunny countryside, though his love for Rowena can seemingly only exist there as in the dark, dank, dreary confines of their cobweb laden home, Ligeia memory overwhelms Rowena’s love.

Coming on the heels of the strongest of the Poe films, Masque of the Red Death, the color photography of Hammer cinematographer Arthur Grant disappointingly lacks any of Nicolas Roeg’s lushly symbolic verve. Bright sunlight has no particular artistic value, and once we get past the watching cemetery, Corman scraps the doable idea of using the camera to represent or at least evoke Ligeia. In between stagy scenes of lifted prose, Corman then reverts to his usual stock of dressed up interiors, dream sequences, and, of course, the requisite fiery conclusion. Tomb of Ligeia is as perverse, delirious, and atmospheric as it should be, but less so than Corman’s best work as the interior scenes wind up conflicting in tone at least as much as they provide symbolic contrast.



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