Roger Corman, 1965
Starring: Vincent Price, Elizabeth Shepherd, John Westbrook
At the funeral of his wife, Ligeia, Verden Fell notices that her eyes flutter open, but assumes it is just a final death spasm. He isolates himself in their abbey home and sees no one, except a servant and Ligeia’s vicious black cat. Soon after he meets Rowena, a lovely young woman who comes across Ligeia’s tomb while she is out fox hunting with her father and is thrown from her horse. She is strangely attracted to Verden and soon after they marry. Unfortunately their relationship is haunted, either literally or figuratively, by Ligeia and her malicious cat. They try to sell the mansion, but come to find it is in Ligeia’s name and no death certificate can be found. While under a hypnotic trance, Rowena is briefly possessed by Ligeia and has horrible dreams. It becomes clear that Verden must confront Ligeia’s spirit or he and Rowena will live a life of torment... or worse.
This is the final film in American International Pictures and Roger Corman’s series of Edgar Allen Poe-themed films. Unlike most of Corman’s other Poe adaptations, this is fairly faithful to Poe’s “Ligeia.” It is also notably visually different than the other films in the Poe series, with numerous daytime shots and less of the vibrant, staged sets full of rich colors and dark, Gothic visuals. As with Masque of the Red Death, this was shot in England for financial reasons, though unlike that film, which was shot on a soundstage, much of Ligeia takes place in the ruins at Swaffham Priory in East Anglia.
This is the fifth Poe-themed film from Corman and Price that deals with the fear of being buried alive. The first two films, House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum center their narratives around the horror of a sick wife being entombed while alive and the terrible aftermath. In the later Tales of Terror, an adulterer is walled up while alive, a scene taken from Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.” In Comedy of Terrors, it is dealt with humorously as Price and Peter Lorre’s characters attempt to kill their landlord, played by Basil Rathbone, but he has a rare case of catalepsy and refuses to really die, though he is given a funeral and entombed in the family crypt.
Robert Towne (Chinatown) wrote the thoughtful, melancholic script that carries the same themes of repressed sexuality and madness as the best of the other films in Corman’s Poe series. There is also some implied necrophilia and a general air of death and decay, and like many of Corman and Price’s other Poe films, the issue of a difficult or miserable marriage is at the center of the narrative. The real horror is not being buried alive, but that not even death can separate or end an unhappy marriage.
There is some wonderful cinematography from Hammer regular Arthur Grant (Curse of the Werewolf). Despite the inclusion of one of Corman’s dream sequences and the familiar mouldering mansion and conclusion by fire, this looks strikingly like a Hammer film, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is a beautiful film with some great sets and costumes. It’s main flaw is that pales slightly when compared to the two best of the series, House of Usher and Masque of the Red Death, and has some laughable moments involving Ligeia’s cat.
As always, Price is excellent and his Verden, with period dress and dark sunglasses, is not too far from Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. Without giving away too many plot elements, it seems like much of Verden’s character was lifted directly from Jane Eyre, though I assume that is coincidental. Overall, The Tomb of Ligeia has much in common with women-centric Gothic novels like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and others, as well as with female based paranoia thrillers like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, The Spiral Staircase, and Gaslight.
Elizabeth Shepherd (The Corridor People) is good here in a dual role as Rowena and Ligeia. Rowena is sympathetic and likable, though I can’t help but feel that Shepherd’s portrayal of Ligeia is somewhat of a lesser Barbara Steele. The lovely and unusual looking Steele solidified her scream queen status by appearing in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, as Price’s “undead” wife in Pit and the Pendulum, and as star of a number of Italian and British horror films. John Westbrook (the 1978 animated version of Lord of the Rings) is good as Rowena’s friend and secondary love interest. Derek Francis (A Christmas Carol) puts in a memorable role as her boisterous father.
The Tomb of Ligeia comes highly recommended and is a high ending point for the Poe series. It is available on a split DVD with An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe, a lesser seen anthology film of Poe adaptations narrated by Vincent Price.