#48: Roger Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeia
Corman’s Poe cycle ran out of ideas faster than Vincent Price ran out of his youth
Initial release: 1965
Director: Roger Corman
“I love Vincent [Price]. He’s very sweet. But, going in, you suspect that Vincent could bang cats, chickens, girls, dogs, everything. You just feel that necrophilia might be one of his Basic Things.” —Robert Towne
Thus spake the screenwriter for The Tomb of Ligeia, officially the eighth and last film of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe cycle, one he had to really dig deep in Poe’s repertoire for after exhausting all his major works. After ripping off H. P. Lovecraft for The Haunted Palace and inventing an entire film, The Terror, out of leftovers and a bespoke script, I have to wonder why Corman still bothered with Poe. American International Pictures slapped Poe’s name on half their films regardless of their source material, they could’ve just done it again. This film is also solid proof that while Vincent Price is a fine actor, he should act his age.
While Corman was fresh off #7 in the cycle, The Masque of the Ded Death, which as a high school English class staple is definitely one of Poe’s more well-known works, it’s clear that maybe there wasn’t really much left in this particular cask for Corman to exploit. You can only do the same thing so many times, after all. And let’s be real here: Corman’s built a career on doing the same thing as often as possible if it would save money. His camera work improved over the course of the cycle, but he reused sets, props, actors, parts of scripts… anything he could drive into the ground, he did. All that being said, while The Tomb of Ligeia is as aggressively Corman as ever, with simplistic set design and lighting, a dry script, a performance not really up to par for the aging Vincent Price, and mostly simple camera work, it’s curiously inventive in spots.
Part of the problem with Price’s performance is the fact that he was in his early fifties playing a man in his twenties or thirties. His casting was mandated by AIP, and while the makeup department valiantly tried to make him look younger, they didn’t quite succeed. This changes the dynamic quite a bit, as the film’s leading lady, Elizabeth Shephard, wasn’t even 30 yet. She honestly puts in a better performance than he does, which is good because she was acting for two, both as the titular Ligeia as well as Price’s new bride Lady Rowena.
As always with Corman’s Poe films, the script is something of an expansion on the original idea. The basic concept remains: a man buries his willful, passionate wife Ligeia, and later marries Lady Rowena, who seems to be gradually overtaken by Ligeia’s vengeful spirit. The original story was ambiguous as to whether this transformation was just an opium dream; the movie is instead a tale of (implied) necrophilia and outright possession from beyond the grave, expanding on themes of mesmerism in Poe’s work. And while the film has no relations to Poe’s short story The Black Cat — which Corman covered in the anthology film Tales of Terror — a black cat does feature heavily in this film, often implied to be the spirit of the dead Ligeia, and it sort of serves as the final antagonist.
Shot on location in England, the film makes good use of the exteriors, especially the old abbey ruins. The interiors, meanwhile, are largely the same drab soundstages that Corman has used for years. At some point they stop being interesting to look at.
The soundtrack is of little particular interest; in fact I would say that it’s notable only for how utterly dull it is. While most of Corman’s Poe cycle doesn’t have terribly interesting soundtracks, this one is much more extraneous than most.
Good things about the film… some clever camera work. Putting the camera behind the flames of a fireplace during a quiet hypnotism scene was honestly brilliant. There’s a dream sequence that’s far freakier than the one in Masque of the Red Death. A few actual scares for once.
Ultimately, it’s obvious that Corman was running out of steam; even he seemed to know it. As a way to finish out the Poe cycle I would say it’s a bit of a low note, but there’s something to be said for being an old hand at this. Even if your boom mike’s shadow is visibly moving.