I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
Roger Corman has a reputation as a hack filmmaker. While it’s true that dozens of the films he has produced over his extraordinary career are schlocky, low-rent affairs, many of the films he actually took the time to direct are quite good. Yes, they were shot on the cheap, but Corman cast his films well, hired good screenwriters, and managed to squeeze out every last drop of atmosphere from sets that were largely recycled from previous productions. This is especially true of his numerous adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories starring Vincent Price. The Tomb of Ligeia is a prime example of these films.
Verden Fell (Price) is a man haunted by the memory of his long-dead wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd). Unable to escape her hold on his mind, he has spent years living below the Abbey where she is buried. When a fox hunt leads Rowena (also Shepherd) and her potential lover Christopher (John Westbrook) into the ruins of the Abbey, they find Verden. Wearing special sunglasses to block out all light (due to his living in the darkness under the Abbey, he sees better in the dark than in the daytime), Verden is moody, spooky, and speaks in circles about how tortured he is by the loss of Ligeia. Naturally, Rowena falls for him.
After marrying, Rowena moves into the Abbey with Verden, but things immediately go sideways on the couple. Ligeia’s cat hates Rowena and attacks her and Verden at various times. Rowena sees and hears strange things at night, even finding black hair in her brush—hair that is the same shade as Ligeia’s. And just where does Verden disappear to every night and why does he never have memory of leaving his bed? Is Ligeia haunting them or is she still alive?
Everything you could want from a Corman-directed, Poe-inspired film is present. The gothic atmosphere hangs heavy over the film with candelabras lighting the decaying rooms of the Abbey, roaring fireplaces, secretive servants, a black cat, Shepherd parading around in a series of just slightly risqué (for the time) nightgowns, and Price’s hammy lead performance playing up the possibility of a supernatural menace. Sure these elements of the genre are clichéd to a certain point, but Corman uses them so well to build suspense, it’s hard to fault him for sticking with the tried-and-true.
But what raises the film just above the level of many other gothic horror films of the early to mid-‘60s is the script by legendary screenwriter Robert Towne. The central romance of the film between Rowena and Verden is turned into a perverse love triangle with the possibly undead Ligeia. Towne’s script contains several subtle suggestions of necrophilia that become more pronounced in the film’s taboo-pushing third act. It’s a surprisingly adult look at the way intense love can curdle, leaving a lover with malice as their sole motivating force. That Towne and Corman take this idea to its logical extreme is refreshing and uncomfortable at the same time. For all its surface trappings of gothic horror, nothing in the film comes close to be as unsettling as the mental violence at the heart of the relationship between Verden and Ligeia.
This is a skillfully put together film with a smart, occasionally darkly comic script for its spine. It’s a great movie to show to people who want to pigeonhole Corman as an artless schlock-merchant. No matter how many awful films bear his name as a producer, it’s a good thing to remember that he always has been a filmmaker at heart. The Tomb of Ligeia shows just how talented a director he was—and probably still is—capable of being.
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