Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.
Every now and then, something wonderful happens in the film world. One of those wonderful happenings was when Roger Corman, king of the B-movies, was given the go-ahead to start adapting stories from the Edgar Allen Poe canon. Corman has made a lot of crappy movies in his career, but his best work in general is centered on his Poe movies. With The Tomb of Ligeia, we’re moving away from the main canon of Poe’s stories; “Ligeia” isn’t one that most people would consider essential Poe.
I feel like I should cover the story itself before getting to the actual film. In Poe’s original tale, the narrator tells us of his wife Ligeia, who like most of the ill-fated women in Poe’s stories, is resplendently gorgeous and of supreme intelligence in all things philosophical, linguistic, and scientific. Of course Ligeia isn’t going to live that long, and our narrator eventually enters into a second marriage with a woman named Rowena. It’s a loveless affair, but when she takes ill as well, our nameless narrator is still upset. Eventually, the Lady Rowena dies, and during the vigil for her death, he tries to revive her multiple times. Each time, she seems closer to coming back to life. When, at the end of the story she finally does, she has transformed into Ligeia.
Well, guess what. With Corman’s adaptation, we’re getting only the surface of that and not much in the way of the rest of the plot. The movie starts with the death of Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd), buried in a coffin with a glass faceplate and a creepy inscription on her headstone. Her suffering husband Verden Fell (Vincent Price sans mustache) demands that she be buried in consecrated ground over the objections of the local vicar.
Flash forward a few years and we discover that Verden Fell and his caretaker/assistant Kenrick (Oliver Johnson) are now living at the abbey where Ligeia was buried. Verden has had some sort of misadventure and now is forced to wear dark glasses at all times, which makes him very much in the vein of a typical Poe protagonist. One day, he encounters a woman named Rowena Trevanion (also played by Elizabeth Shepherd), who stumbles into the old abbey while on a fox hunt. She is startled from her horse by a cat, and then again by the appearance of Verden. Arriving to rescue her is Christopher Gough (John Westbrook), who is an old friend of Verden and might be something like Rowena’s fiancé.
You can kind of see where this might be going. Rowena finds herself inexplicably attracted to Verden, who is naturally drawn to her because she looks like Ligeia. Eventually the two are married, even though Ligeia never was officially declared dead. In that respect, Verden is still technically married. When strange events start to take place around the abbey, Rowena starts to become suspicious. Verden acts very much like a typical Poe protagonist, frequently lost in his own reveries and taking actions he can’t explain and often can’t remember.
Eventually, people start to suspect that Ligeia might not be dead, a suspicion confirmed when her grave is opened up and the body inside is revealed to be a wax figure. Oh, there’s all sorts of Gothic joy to be had in the closing moments. If you’ve seen a single Corman adaptation of a Poe story in the past, nothing that transpires in the closing minutes of the film will come as a surprise to you.
The Tomb of Ligeia is, sad to say, second-tier Corman/Poe. It doesn’t have the scenery chewing joy of a film like The Pit and the Pendulum or the brass balls of The Masque of the Red Death. It’s fine for what it is, but it really isn’t anything more than what it is. Some of that needs to be placed firmly on the source material, which is the sort of Poe tale that isn’t going to get anybody raring to make a movie. The story itself is fine, but kind of forgettable.
The cast doesn’t help much, either. Both Vincent Price and Elizabeth Shepherd are good. That’s not really a shock. In fact, this might be my favorite look for Price in a movie. The lack of mustache and the weird, rectangular sunglasses make him look almost modern in a film that’s supposed to be much more Victorian in its atmosphere. The rest of the cast is pretty much just there without making much of an impact one way or the other.
Like all such films, it has its moments of overacting and overreacting. That’s part of the fun. The truth, though, is that this one is less fun than it could be.
Why to watch The Tomb of Ligeia: Poe-influenced Corman is the best Corman.
Why not to watch: It goes far off script from Poe’s original story.