The Tomb of Ligeia October 13, 2016
By the time The Tomb of Ligeia rolled into U.S. theaters at the beginning of 1965, director Roger Corman had had it with adapting the works of Edgar Allan Poe for American International Pictures. A series beginning in 1960 with the excellent House of Usher, Corman, with Vincent Price by his side, released one or two pictures a year devoted to bringing Poe’s most unearthly stories to life. Some remain to be magnificent (The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death) and some are relatively subpar (The Terror, The Premature Burial).
But perpetual is the mark Corman and Price made on modern horror. Though touches of camp sometimes seep into the nuclei of their collaborations, presented are mature tales of terror made with wit and style, flashes of schlock kept at a minimum. Considering their generally low budgets and their fundamental lack of star power (save for Price’s always winning presence), the nine films that comprise the unofficial Poe saga comprehensively stand as one of the most ambitious, and most inexplicably overlooked, statements of the genre.
That being said, The Tomb of Ligeia concludes the series not with a bang but with a whimper. Appearing to be more strung together than thoroughly lavish akin to its earlier counterparts, it’s a creepshow with moments of superlative imagery that ultimately proves to mostly be without a personality and mostly be without a sense of fun or urgency. Corman felt no different. He found Price, despite his admiration for the actor, too old for the part. And in spite of believing it to be among the finest of the Poe cycle, he deemed the film to be “overly complicated” and the result of a franchise “running out of steam.”
The Tomb of Ligeia’s not so much bad as it is mostly uninteresting; too short in length to feel like much more than an exercise and too visually familiar to stand apart from its worthier ancestors, it fatigues more than it excites. An unheard of proclamation, especially in the face of a Price vehicle.
Here he headlines as Verden Fell, a bourgeois Englishman mourning the recent death of his beloved wife, Ligeia. Due to her youth and her atheism, a sense of ambiguity hovers in the air — Fell has a strange feeling that Ligeia isn’t so much dead as she is part of the in-between, her spirit remaining restless until her time on Earth is given a satisfying end of sorts. For now, though, Fell is forced to grapple with his tizzy of emotions, which have effectively turned him into an unstable semi-agoraphobe.
Shortly into his period of grief does he, against better judgment, become acquainted with — and eventually fall in love with — the beautiful Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd), an independent redhead who, unsettlingly, is identical to Fell’s dead wife. A brief time later are Fell and Rowena married. But since saying “I do” to someone who looks exactly like your old betrothed when you’re still getting over that said betrothed is not such a good decision to make, the union proves to be toxic and the basis of an apparently endless nightmare for the innocent Rowena.
But Rowena’s never much developed as much more than your typical damsel in distress; Shepherd is miles more interesting when embodying Ligeia, who speaks like the leader of a Satanic cult and who looks like an Elvira of the everyday. It’s even more problematic, then, that Price’s Fell is without much dimension, either. To us, he’s a sunglasses wearing loon with a very rational fear of felines, given gusto by Price but never enough to make him as compelling as the latter’s later seen Dr. Phibes or Edward Lionheart.
And so The Tomb of Ligeia whirls around in a tub of cinematic intrigue to never actually become intriguing in and of itself. Certain scenes shine, from its brilliantly theatrical climax to its initial introduction to Ligeia. But a handful of well-mounted sequences don’t so much make for a worthy viewing, and the film definitively feels like the result of a filmmaker trying to churn something out. C+