AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: Now, from ARROW VIDEO in their Six Gothic Tales boxset. Released as a stand-alone Blu-ray February 23rd
RUNNING TIME: 83 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After fighting death for a long time, Ligeia Fell dies, and her husband Verden becomes a recluse who lives in a small part of a now ruined Abbey with his manservant Kenrick as the only other occupant. Affected by vision problems during sunlight which makes him have to wear dark glasses, he remains convinced that Ligeia will return to him. One afternoon, a fox hunt leads the headstrong young Rowena to Verden’s home. Upon encountering Ligeia’s tomb, her horse rears up and throws her to the ground, injuring her ankle. Verden takes her to his home and the two begin to fall in love, despite Verden’s tendency to act crazy and then forget what he did. They marry….
I always say that The Pit And The Pendulum and The Masque Of The Red Death are the two masterpieces of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe cycle, but upon viewing The Tomb Of Ligeia after many many years in order to do this review, there were moments where it seemed to be at least as good a film. It undoubtedly rehashes elements from the earlier pictures, especially The Fall Of The House Of Usher and The Pit And The Pendulum, and doesn’t quite equal the brilliance of what I feel is Poe’s greatest short story Ligeia [but what can, considering how the writing conjures up such intense, overpowering atmosphere], but it’s the most subtle, the most puzzling, and the mature of the films, and it’s easy to understand how it not only made less money than the previous ones, but didn’t particularly impress this writer all those years ago. Watched again, I was struck by how artistic and carefully made a film it is, and how Corman actually made a great effort to make this one different from the others.
This film was the second of two co-productions between AIP and UK’s Anglo-Amalgamated, the first being The Masque Of The Red Death, but whilst that film, though shot in the UK, still remained largely studio bound, The Tomb Of Ligeia utilised much outdoor footage with its entire first reel being shot outside. Proposed titles included The House at the End of the World and The Tomb of the Cat before the existing one was settled on, and Corman was initially reluctant to use Vincent Price in the lead role because he was much too old for it. His preference was for Richard Chamberlain, but the casting of Price, who was undoubtedly the star of these movies, was a condition of AIP investing in the film, and Corman relented, though Price is in a wig and heavy makeup to make him look younger. Lauded future scriptwriter Robert Towne wrote the screenplay, and the film was shot in Norfolk and Shepperton Studios utilising sets erected the previous year for Becket. It still made money, but the Corman/Poe cycle had ran its course, not that it stopped AIP from making more, and sometimes very tentatively linked, Poe movies.
The fact that an opening funeral takes place not in a familiar graveyard set but amidst outdoor ruins immediately tells you that this film will be a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Yes, you get throughout what is virtually a potpourri of Corman/Poe ingredients – Price mourning a dead wife, said dead wife not actually being dead, a cat skulking around, a dual personality etc – but in a more naturalistic manner than before. In fact, Corman and cinematographer Arthur Grant make such evocative use of the English countryside that one wonders why hardly any of the Hammer productions, many of which Grant photographed [and The Tomb Of Ligeia does have a Hammer feel to it at times], did the same. The locations add a bleak atmosphere of their own while the sets are more realistic, though that’s not to say that passages of the film aren’t stylised. In particular, there’s a lengthy dream sequence, probably inserted to pad out the running time as usual, which is really graceful and elegant and features some great and beautiful images, like Rowena lying on a huge flower bed. It climaxes in a superbly unsettling moment of subtle horror when Rowena embraces Verden and the two kiss. As they do so, the camera shows us that a hand touching Rowena is actually Ligeia’s, and then pans up behind her so we only see the back of her head but we know that it’s Ligeia!
The Tomb Of Ligeia, which has some very literary and intelligent dialogue, almost plays like a version of Jane Eyre in places [and what a great Mr. Rochester Price would have made!], though one has to wonder if Rowena isn’t almost as mad as Verden, bearing in mind she visits Verden, then after being attacked and almost choked to death by him when he’s in one of his trances, immediately feels more attracted to him. She’s one of those movie characters you just want to scream at to see sense. The pacing is even more measured than usual for Corman, and much of the usual Gothic feel is muted, but there are some masterfully handled set pieces, such as Rowena chasing the cat up the abbey bell tower while Verden tells someone else of Ligeia’s last few days, and the gradual accumulation of eerie details, from the replicas of Egyptian relics Verden keeps [we’re not told why they’re there, but they add to the odd feel], to some deformed statues that are increasingly shown, to of course the increasingly possibility that Ligeia may actually be alive, and may even have possessed the cat, is very well handled. Towne’s script, while admirably having the courage to give us one very daring plot revelation that makes more explicit an element in some of the earlier films, maybe gets a little too confusing for its own good, but I liked the ambiguity of the piece even while the climax is pretty much the same one we’ve seen several times before – we even see those darned burning barn shots yet again!
This may feature the scariest moment in all the Corman/Poe pictures. Rowena is in her room when she hears the cat scratching at the door. The scratching turns into devilish screeching, as if a monstrous creature is the other side, and bright white light can be seen underneath the door. It foreshadows the classic ‘door bending in’ scene from The Haunting. Then there’s a memorable hypnotism ending in a moment of possession. It’s understated and all the more creepy for being so. There’s even more effective use of mirrors than in the first two Corman/Poe films, while if you don’t like cats this film really will make you feel uneasy. The one here is truly sinister [and I do like cats] the way it slinks around and even gets to commit the film’s two gory acts. What sticks in my mind right this moment though, is why on earth did Corman virtually [he later directed two isolated pictures] give up directing films after. He had such skill as a filmmaker, from evoking strong atmosphere to constructing interesting compositions [damn it, he may have been chiefly out to make money, but he was an artistic filmmaker] to making the most out of a small budget, that I feel he could have gone on to even better things after these Poe films.
In keeping with the somewhat different tone of this film, Price is quite understated as Verden and for me gives his second best performance in the series [the first being his superb turn in The Haunted Palace], and Elizabeth Shepherd [who also played Ligeia] is a most likeable, if foolish, heroine [though she looks like she’s obviously caked in pale makeup]. Kenneth V. Jones’ score is melodramatically exciting when it needs to be but sometimes has a more appropriately pastoral sound. The Tomb Of Ligeia is a tad messy in terms of parts of its script, but overall is really an impressive work which, like a fine wine, actually subtantially improves with age and is overall a classy finale to the evergreen Corman/Poe series. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray doesn’t look quite as impressive as the previous ones in their Six Gothic Tales boxset, with some colour and light fluctuations and some scratches [though of course that couldn’t be helped with stock footage shots of dogs chasing a fox], though it’s still nothing really to complain about really and generally still looks pretty good. The Blu-ray ports some of the special features on the Region A Shout Factory release, loses a commentary but adds some interviews, making up the definitive version of a rather underrated little horror gem.
* High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by MGM
* Original uncompressed Mono PCM Audio
* Optional isolated music and effects track
* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
* Audio commentary by director and producer Roger Corman
* Audio commentary by star Elizabeth Shepherd
* All-new interviews with crew members including cowriter/production assistant Paul Mayersberg, first assistant director David Tringham, clapper loader Bob Jordan and composer Kenneth V. Jones
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil
* Collector’s booklet containing new writing by Julian Upton, illustrated with original production stills
The Six Gothic Tales box set from Arrow Video contains:
* Six Edgar Allan Poe movies starring Vincent Price
* 200 pages Collector’s book containing new writing on the films
* Interview with Roger Corman
* Extracts from Vincent Price’s autobiography
* Full reproductions of tie-in comic books for Tales of Terror, The Raven and The Tomb of Ligeia