Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Robert Towne (based on the story "Ligeia" by Edgar Allan Poe)
Edgar Allan Poe wrote about dead women a lot. That's no surprise, for it's such a basic fact of Poe that I've neglected to mention it until now: perhaps the defining moment of his life was the loss of his wife Virginia at the age of just 24, following five years of suffering that would subside only to return again and again till finally it released her into death. Much of the horror fiction he wrote, prose and poetry alike, between the manifestation of her illness and his own death not very long after hers—though, as it's not worthwhile to obscure it, let us acknowledge he was afforded a somewhat longer span than the girl he married when she was 13—can be considered a thinly-veiled autobiographical attempt to grapple with his wife's decline and end. I suppose you can make too much of it, but so much of Poe's stereotypical scenario seems to arise from her death, presaged as it was by a living entombment within her own body. And thus the frequency of wasting illness in his stories; the outright absurd frequency of premature burial, which may've rooted itself in his own guilt-ridden wish that Virginia would either get better or simply die; the inability of his female characters to live; and the inability of his male characters to live without them. In Poe's works, Virginia took on half a dozen names or more—Annabel Lee, Lenore (twice), Morella, Eleonora, Ulalume, Ligeia. It's therefore appropriate that Roger Corman's eighth and final Poe adaptation, The Tomb of Ligeia, brings the series back to maddened grief, metaphorical and/or literal necrophilia, and an irrepressible thirst for self-annihilation, subjects that had been more-or-less put by the wayside after the "Morella" segment of Tales of Terror, and, perversely, abandoned altogether for The Raven, while The Masque of the Red Death's contemplation of mortality had necessarily been of a more cosmic and impersonal sort.
You can call it a return to form, then. But with every one of his Poe films, Corman did something new, and Ligeia is no different: the novelty this time is how serious-minded and intimate it is. This precludes neither a symbolic sheen nor supernatural nonsense, and it's always still fun, but it offers a surprisingly-grounded exploration of a man who lost his wife and really just cannot get over it, even when he marries a new one whom he likes very much. It's not actually subtle, it's Corman, but it distinguishes itself as probably the most adult and "classy" of Corman's Poes—unfortunately, a movie that rests its horror bona fides so readily upon an evil possessed cat probably does still need to have any claim of "classiness" moderated by scare-quotes—but it retreats somewhat from the stylized, larger-than-life grievings of its predecessors in favor of something more delicate, despite embodying those feelings within the same actor, Vincent Price. I have great admiration for that mode, too, but this is the Corman Poe that tacks into character, and even into romance, though Ligeia's romance is inevitably a morbid and doomed one. It's still Poe, so I presume "an unhappy ending" is no surprise. The film's biggest problem, cat and everything, is probably that its ending isn't as unhappy as it should be.
So: as if to let you know upfront that we're back to the fundamentals, things begin with the comforting spectacle of a body being buried. The place is somewhere in Cornwall; the body, that of the Lady Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd, as we see through the curious window in her coffin, probably because it's the same prop from Premature Burial, but it was pretty weird there, too). Attending her funeral is her husband, one Verden Fell (Price), who sneers so forcefully at the clergyman performing the services that the latter all but condemns them both to hell. Yet Verden only scoffs at the suggestion that Ligeia could even be dead in the first place, and when a black cat leaps upon the coffin, and a "postmortem contraction" of the muscles in Ligeia's mirthlessly-smiling face causes her eyes to flutter open, we get an inkling that maybe Verden's right. Verden brings our attention to the words on Ligeia's tomb, "nor lie in death forever." He completes his wife's benediction: "Man need not kneel before the angels, nor lie in death forever, but for the weakness of his feeble will," which isn't exactly what Poe wrote to sum up Ligeia's sorceress's creed, but that's alright, given that in Poe's "Ligeia," Joseph Granville apparently didn't write the epigram that Poe invented and attributed to him, either.
Despite Verden's certainty, time passes, and Ligeia does not return. Nonetheless, he persists in his twilight state, developing an aversion to sunlight and whiling away the months or years alone. The next we meet him, we do so alongside Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine (also Shepherd), who wanders off from a fox hunt led by her father (Derek Francis) when she happens upon the magnificent ruins of Verden's estate (these being played by Castle Acre Priory). Abandoning her dull suitor, Christopher Gough (John Westbrook), by way of a wild trespass over an obstructing hedge, she begins to blithely investigate the grounds; but when she arrives before Ligeia's grave, that cat makes its second appearance, startling her horse and leaving her injured on the bed of blood-red flowers that have sprouted from Ligeia's plot of earth. But Rowena herself is only frightened with the appearance of another ebon figure, Verden himself. Rude and cold, but also in some inarticulable way magnetic, Rowena knows right away that she's fallen in love with him, and contrives to bring herself back to his door. Even when he misidentifies the woman who walked into his house unannounced, and almost strangles her to death—leaving her to wonder just who he thought she was—Rowena does not waver in her object; and, surprised at his own renewed capacity for affection, Verden consents to wed the young noblewoman. But whether Ligeia is truly dead or not, her shadow hangs over this new marriage, and between Verden's somnambulism, the dead voice that speaks from Rowena's own mouth, and the black cat that stalks her, she begins to perceive Ligeia's hold upon her husband is more than just grief.
As per usual, Corman's screenwriter—in this case, a young fellow named Robert Towne working on his very first credited screenplay—uses the Poe tale more as a jumping off point, though it's perhaps more faithful than usual. Ranking them, only House of Usher, Masque, and maybe "Morella" (which is virtually the same story anyway) and "The Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar" (which obviously inspired Towne for the horrifying secret of Verden Fell) beat it out in terms of fidelity; certainly, it captures the spirit of its source material as well as any of Corman's Poes. (There's a strain of criticism that "Ligeia" itself is but a satire of Gothic fiction, but I don't especially agree, and clearly Towne didn't either.) I shall merely express some slight disappointment that Corman deigns not to use some of Poe's more phantasmic imagery, like the drops of Poe-barely-refrains-from-calling-it-blood flying into Rowena's cup, for example, more interested in his own homegrown schemes and symbols (the flowers, the corpse of that ill-fated fox) which ultimately culminates in a pretty rad (if by this point, de rigeur) hallucinatory freakout.
Satire or not, Towne's treatment seizes upon the essentially Gothic heart of it, and while no one's ever come out and said as much, I expect the name "du Maurier" at least crossed somebody's mind during production; yet there's something to Ligeia that's so remarkably tender. There's a sensitivity both in Towne's script and Corman's direction, taking two well-sketched characters and managing to make the very gloom that clings to the widower understandably appealing to the headstrong young woman who tries—successfully, at first—to bring him back to life. Without saying any of it out loud, but finding ways to say it obliquely, we're invited to comprehend why Rowena would find herself irresistibly attracted to the self-isolating old man who fears sunlight and ghosts, because she'd just as soon hide away, too, even if she's young and desirable enough to still have to fend off the dismal courtship of bores like Christopher. As far as distinctions for Ligeia go, then, one of the big ones is that this is the only Corman Poe where the female lead can rightly be called "a protagonist," and plausibly even "the protagonist."
Corman had worries that Price, then 53, couldn't cut it in the role, and long afterwards voiced second, third, and fourth thoughts about whether it would've been better to have cast a younger man. This was never in the cards, as neither AIP nor Anglo-Amalgated—this was Corman's second British co-production to take advantage of that nation's subsidies—would countenance a Poe adaptation without their Poe franchise's big box-office draw, and while Ligeia wound up a middling performer anyway, it presumably would've done even worse without Price. To my mind, a Ligeia that didn't have Price is scarcely imaginable. It's one of his best performances, and quite possibly the most actorly of his whole horror career, if for nothing else because it might be Price's only horror performance that even slightly resists being pigeonholed to the genre.
It is, certainly in comparison to his other Poe roles, a subdued performance; it's "subdued" only in the sense that he spends significantly less time swanning about in a faint, maybe, but the film would at least like us to consider him as a man rather than a single overwrought emotional state. Nevertheless, it maintains, in quieter form, the same self-amused theatricality that makes Price such a charming figure, though it's turned towards more sophisticated ends, a bitterness spiked with self-awareness, so that while he navigates his distasteful encounters with other humans with amusing superiority, the dominant strain is always the angry fragility and barely-disguised hurt that, in Rowena's presence, shades into a certain sweetness that always seems to take Verden by surprise. There's genuine poetry in the line, "your hair makes a shambles of the light" (even if Verden did just try to kill her). And while Towne's script is no comedy, there's often a humor to Verden, emphasized by the floridity of the Victorian dialogue; Price can surprise you with how funny he can be in these circumstances, like when Verden reflects with embarrassment upon the propriety of his attempt to kill the cat with a cabbage.
Get a load of the Price character people call "subdued."
It's no less inconceivable without Shepherd, who navigates the strange balance of arrogance and compassion in Rowena, and uses her sharp, curious eyes to their best effect, constantly gazing at Verden with an expression somewhere between morbid fascination and incipient (and, in the end, full) understanding; she's a good Ligeia when Corman lets her be, too. A parlor game where Verden shows off the mesmeric tricks he learned from his first wife brings on the appearance of Ligeia in Rowena's flesh: on top of this being Corman's best "shot through a roaring fireplace" in the whole octology (and there are at least two dozen), Shepherd chills in her banishment of Rowena's playful liveliness in favor of Ligeia's pure will. (There's even indication that Shepherd, not Corman, is responsible for the most intelligent use of color in the film, thanks to insisting on the same fox-hunt attire as the boys, which means that Rowena trades in her violent-but-life-affirming scarlet for the bloodless gray-beige of her paramour's surroundings only after she's spent an afternoon in his moldering home.) And, in any case, there was only one person whose opinion about Price's age actually mattered, and Shepherd (27 or 28 here, for the record) is enthusiastic to report that it barely occurred to her.
We are dealing with Vincent Price, after all, still terribly handsome, and actually given a flattering makeup job for a change; Verden is immensely charismatic, striking a commanding figure in his black attire, top hat, and double-d sunglasses. (He could be cosplaying DC antihero the Shade, but it's more like the Shade's 1990s revamp is cosplaying Verden Fell.) The rapport between Shepherd and Price is almost shocking for a film series that had never attempted to lean on Price's potential for romance or sexiness, and often didn't care if Price's scene partners could even act; Corman, meanwhile, must've sensed it, and is surprisingly willing to let the romance define his Poe-branded shocker, with much of the first half devoted to their courtship. It was a sound investment: it permits emotions deeper than "gross!" when the horror arrives in full and it turns out, obviously, that Verden has managed a bigamous marriage after all.
The understatement of the horror isn't beneath notice, however, beginning with the location shooting, so that for the first time Corman, in his franchise-long pursuit of that sense of decay that comes with dilapidated ruins, took advantage of being in Britain and just used some real, actual dilapidated ruins. And I'm of two minds about it, frankly: the combination of frequent overcast skies with the paradoxical sunniness of Arthur Grant's exterior photography can be pretty great, particularly when the subject is a crypto-vampire who hates to be outdoors—and even in the second-unit stand-in footage prefers shadow—and the use of the crumbling Castle Acre Priory, though almost too real to fit into Corman's Poe aesthetic (the grass is also too well-manicured), has a certain magic, resembling the fragmented bones of a giant half-buried by epochs of time. (And this symbolism is worked deftly into the script, in a conversation between our lovers at Stonehenge, taking place during the brief happiness of their honeymoon and elliptically cut together by Corman with their return home; here, Towne explicitly likens the priory to the pagan ruin, a hollow place that died long ago, yet which retains the unmistakable power of its purpose even as it decays.)
But it's also joined by art director Daniel Haller's rendition of the priory's lodging, in what may be his least-convincing "this is a soundstage version of a haunted mansion" of the whole Poe series, mostly just a very large single chamber that combines the functions of dining room, sitting room, and private museum for Verden and Ligeia's collection of antiquities all in the same place—there was always something of the theatrical to Haller's houses of Usher, but this really does feel like it's been built for a play, rather than a film—and it's only photographed with a particularly thick mood in a few shots that involve turning off the arclights and explicitly going for something spooky. Moreover, it's initially covered in so much cobwebby filth that you wonder what Verden's butler Kenrick (Oliver Johnston) even does all day. The upper floors are, in every respect, more persuasive, so even when they're not necessarily plausible, there's surely more atmosphere attending them—though the most impressive piece of production design is the one that affords Corman an interesting shot through the guts of a bell tower, wherein that darned cat has attempted to lure Rowena to her doom.
So there's that, and there comes a point where Corman's commitment to a slower-burning Gothic horror-romance does, at last, become more of a liability than a strength. In particular, it's outright baffling that, despite everyone in the audience being aware—from the very first scene onward, assuming that they recognized her in the black wig—that Shepherd will be playing two roles, Corman continually delays actually having her play two roles. This requires Corman to rely instead upon the antagonism of a poor kitty-cat who gets thrown around a lot, and who's only "scary" when it's sitting there looking vaguely portentous, and very much not scary whenever Corman's attempting to present it as a physical threat.
Now, there's still creepy stuff to tide us over, particularly as Verden fades (there's a moment where Price's voice receives an electronic distortion for just a single line where the film gets close to being genuinely frightening). And the climax, when it arrives, does everything you could possibly ask of Corman Poe, up to and including burning the mother down (Price accused Corman of being a firebug; Corman sheepishly smiled). Perhaps it does even more, because this one can actually make you feel sad. It's damned sure not a perfect ending: for one, it only has half the savagery that its tragedy requires; for two, Corman and Towne's clunky maneuvering of their secondary cast belies how much they actually seem to want them around for this finale, which is to say, not at all; for three, this is the movie where Vincent Price has a surprisingly long and drawn-out battle with a cat, even if I'm reluctant to call it "bad" when it at least ends on a suitably powerful image.
The strengths of Tomb of Ligeia, anyway, significantly outweigh its problems, large as they may be, and we can comfortably put it in the top half of the franchise it serves as a conclusion to—not, of course, that it was actually the end of AIP's exploitation of Poe, but it was the end of the line for Corman. No matter how those future AIP Poes shake out (I haven't seen them yet), the AIP Poes under Corman carved out a terrific little niche in horror, and built a legacy that really hasn't been surpassed; it is not, I think, too much to call it the best horror franchise in history, but if that's too far, then you name another one that managed eight good movies in a row.
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