“The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends and where the other begins?” This is a quote of course from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Premature Burial, but ends up in the end credits of The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), Roger Corman’s final film in his Poe cycle for AIP, an eerie and fitting conclusion to a beloved series. (And doesn’t starting with a poetic quote make me sound fancy?)
Released by Anglo-Amalgamated Film Industries in the UK in November with a January rollout stateside from AIP, The Tomb of Ligeia was the least profitable of Corman’s Poe films, and he felt they had run their course, despite good reviews. Far be it from me to argue with the King of the B’s, but as a wave goodbye to the works of Poe, it’s a subdued yet lovely send off.
Our film opens, appropriately enough, with the burial of Lady Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd – Criminal Law), deceased wife of Verden Fell (Vincent Price – Dark Prince of everything good), Lord of a dilapidated manor which he now shares only with his manservant Kenrick (Oliver Johnston – It!). A guarded man, Verden has Ligeia entombed on his vast estate, and expresses his everlasting love for her through darkened shades and hushed intonation. The reasons surrounding her death are mysterious, and the gothic groundwork is laid when she mischievously opens her eyes right before her burial. His time of mourning is short lived however, as Lady Rowena (also Shepherd) stumbles across Ligeia’s tomb while on a fox hunt and literally falls for him, as does he for her.
After a truncated courtship (this is Corman after all – don’t bore us, get to the chorus), Verden and Rowena are married and return to the estate with plans to sell and move elsewhere. Not so fast; it turns out everything is in Ligeia’s name and she wasn’t legally buried. As they settle into their now permanent home, Rowena is visited by the same black cat that hovers around the tomb and the grounds. She has fevered visions of illicit visits from Ligeia; meanwhile Verden disappears in the middle of the night without knowing where he’s been, listless and lorn for his departed even as his new bride feels threatened. Is Ligeia truly gone, or is her spirit out to destroy Verden’s new happiness?
Told in a muted spirit with muted tones, The Tomb of Ligeia plays as a languid dream one has right before waking up; nothing rushed or forced, it unfolds before the viewer with a relaxed sense of unease. This does help set it apart from Corman’s other adaptations; all the staples are here – black cats, fetching bodices, cobweb-candies halls – but are presented less frantically, in an almost resigned fashion.
It’s certainly not a matter of running out of steam; Corman the director is never less than energetic, and often inspired; there’s an eerie dream sequence in which Rowena confronts herself and Ligeia that is among his finest crafted moments, and puts a ribbon on his status as one of the best Gothic horror directors of all time. His Poe films are gorgeously crafted (on small budgets, no less) pop art, with ribbons of the esteemed writer woven throughout; never completely faithful to the source, but rather capturing the essence and romantic dread of each tale.
Tasked with bringing Poe to the screen this time around was writer Robert Towne, who had worked with Corman previously on The Last Woman on Earth (1960), and seemingly a million miles away from Chinatown (1974), Shampoo (’75), and Mission: Impossible (1996). But there’s a quiet sadness to Towne’s script, and it downplays most of the standard tropes; as I’ve said they’re all here but aren’t used to necessarily drape the melodrama in histrionics, instead seeming like affectionate nods from Corman and Towne to a style of film they clearly love.
At the same time, the cinematography of Arthur Grant (The Devil Rides Out) helps set the film apart from the rest of the cycle by expanding the palette; a good portion of the film takes place on the estate grounds, in the cemetery and in the gardens, pushing away from the claustrophobic setting to give Ligeia some scope and air that belies the meager fundage. This is fortunate as the film, until the finale, isn’t exactly action packed; Ligeia chooses instead to act as a study in paranoia and obsession filtered through Rowena and Verden’s eyes, respectively.
Which brings us to the stars of The Tomb of Ligeia, and one who wasn’t even supposed to be cast; Corman wanted Richard Chamberlain for the role of Verden, but AIP insisted on Price even though he was way too old for the role of the crestfallen playboy. So, a lot of hair dye and even more makeup was used but fooled no one then or now; which is fine because what we receive in compensation is a quite subdued Price, and proof to any scoffers that he could dial it back when he felt it necessary. Verden is a broken man filled with frailty, and Price nails his sense of loss. Shepherd has the even harder task assaying Ligeia and Rowena, and she exudes a playful sensuality, strength, and good humor in both roles. I definitely need to track down more of her work.
Dwindling returns may have played a part in this being the end of Corman’s Poe era, but I’d like to believe that he just didn’t have anything more to say on the subject matter; and if he chose to finish the series with a tempered study over pomp and circumstance, I’ll take it. The Tomb of Ligeia is a beautiful whisper.
The Tomb of Ligeia is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory as part of The Vincent Price Collection II.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: EQUINOX (1970)