Release Date(s)1964 (September 7, 2021)
Studio(s)American International Pictures/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Roger Corman directed eight adaptations of tales by Edgar Allan Poe between 1960 and 1965. Of these, seven starred Vincent Price. The Tomb of Ligeia, the final Poe/Corman film, relies more on psychological horror than graphic violence to build suspense and create an atmosphere of morbid possession. It also makes greater use of exteriors than his earlier films.
Verden Fell (Price) is a widower who lives only with his servants in a massive, ancient abbey. The opening scene shows him burying his wife, Ligeia, despite being told by a priest that the unchristian woman is an affront to God and church and is not fit for God’s soil. A creepy moment occurs when a black cat jumps on the coffin with a loud screech and Ligeia’s eyes open. Fell attributes this to a post-mortem response, but is Ligeia really dead?
Fell meets Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) when during a fox hunt she’s thrown from her horse onto Ligeia’s grave. Rowena is attracted to the morose Fell and soon they fall in love. Yet eerie manifestations continue to appear to Fell, suggesting Ligeia is reaching out to him through sheer force of her will. Fell and Rowena marry, and Rowena is plagued by mysterious goings-on that are complicated by her husband’s odd nocturnal behavior.
With a screenplay by Robert Towne (Chinatown, Mission: Impossible), The Tomb of Ligeia is dialogue-heavy. To compensate, Corman makes good use of an ancient ruin in Norfolk, England and uses a variety of camera movements to keep things visually interesting. With a tale more subtle than those of his previous Poe pictures, he treats it seriously, with virtually no humor, making it rather austere.
In the earlier Poe adaptations, Price had a twinkle in his eye and always managed to find moments to lighten the mood. Here, however, he is weighed down by Towne’s joyless script. Price captures the doom-laden Verden Fell but never has a single big moment. The direction is overly restrained, as are Price and the screenplay, resulting in a slow, draggy pace and tedious stretches. The film feels much longer than its 82 minutes.
This was Elizabeth Shepherd’s first major screen role and she plays both Rowena and Ligeia. This device works in drawing comparisons between the two Fell wives. She’s especially vibrant as Rowena, exhibiting youth, beauty, and life—everything Fell has lost with the death of Ligeia. Whether her Rowena is riding side-saddle, being enchanted by Fell, or panic-stricken when she’s left alone in the enormous abbey, Shepherd holds her own against Price and is far more dimensional in her performance.
Price’s Fell is melancholic when we first see him and snaps out of his funk only briefly after marrying Rowena. Price wears wraparound dark glasses, since it’s explained that Fell has an aversion to bright light. The glasses add to the character’s mystery and provide an ominous look. This is the only film I can recall in which Price’s appearance on screen doesn’t immediately make things better. Like the script, he plods along, subduing everything we love about Vincent Price—the rakish attitude, the sense of foreboding malevolence, the near campy portrayal. His performance as both a romantic leading man and a tortured soul subject to necrophilic madness is vastly understated.
The look of The Tomb of Ligeia is rich and sumptuous. Outdoor locations include a 900-year-old ruin, the actual Stonehenge, and the site of Ligeia’s burial. Arthur Grant’s cinematography is appropriately moody, with lots of atmospheric shadows and dimly lit rooms, and the production design includes costly-looking furnishings, rugs, and wall coverings.
The Tomb of Ligeia is a gothic romance with flowery dialogue and a malicious cat that appears at intervals to provide jump shocks. The film is about love lost, indomitable will, the balance between sanity and madness, and obsession. Though it differs considerably from Poe’s short story Ligeia, Corman captures the essence of Poe. It departs from Corman’s previous Poe films in that it hews more to character than action. Both Fell and Rowena are well crafted characters that draw us in and involve us.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray release of The Tomb of Ligeia is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1 by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. There are no scratches, dirt specks, or solution clouding visible. Images are sharp, with good detail in skin pores, hair, clothing, stonework in the ruins of the abbey, and place settings during a dinner scene. Picture quality overall is pleasing, including the shadowy interiors of the Verden Fell estate, the brilliant red hunting coats and Rowena’s matching hat in the fox hunt sequence, a red and yellow stained glass window, scenes filmed through flickering candles, and a dazzling conflagration at the film’s end. The reds, which really pop, are dominant only during the fox hunt scene and the follow-up scene when Rowena enters the Fell property out of curiosity. Later scenes exhibit a more muted palette.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is crisp and sharp throughout. Both Price and Shepherd are stage-trained actors, so their lines are always precise and clear. The supporting cast, composed of British actors, are also impeccable in their delivery. Sound mixing nicely balances dialogue, music, and sound effects. The Kenneth V. Jones score is very low-key and does little to enhance suspense and contribute to atmosphere. At one point, a raging thunderstorm and flashes of lightning contribute to mood. The one annoying sound effect is the screeching of the cat, obviously a post-recorded effect that is very loud, likely to provide a quick scare in a film that’s short of scary moments. The crackling flames and falling debris of the final scene add some final audio pizzazz.
Bonus materials include three audio commentaries, Trailers from Hell with Joe Dante; and several Vincent Price theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary #1 – Film historian Tim Lucas, who has written extensively about Roger Corman, notes that The Tomb of Ligeia was shot over 5 weeks in a 25-day schedule, much longer than typical American-International films. In the opening scene, Verden Fell’s will causes Ligeia to live on. If the will of man is strong, it can “resist the call of the angels.” The black cat does not appear in the Poe story. The fox hunt in the beginning of the film is about life, with the color red in the riding habits representing life. This scene comes right after the burial sequence and offers dramatic contrast. The Fell estate is apart from the outside world, suggesting Verden Fell is isolated and a recluse. Vincent Price began his career playing dashing leading men, often historical characters. His ability to play suave red herrings led him to the horror genre. Price is not known for playing monsters; he “was principally an avatar of terror itself, a connoisseur of all things dark and unholy.” In The Tomb of Ligeia, he plays a more down-to-earth, troubled human hero than any of his previous roles. Verden seems to be mentoring Rowena under the dark tutelage of his first and forever wife. The careers of key behind-the-camera talent are discussed.
Audio Commentary #2 – Producer/director Roger Corman mentions that because Vincent Price was playing a romantic leading man, more make-up than usual was used to disguise his age. Corman speaks highly of Price’s screen work. Paintings were used under the credits to make this low-budget film look more lush. The Tomb of Ligeia was Robert Towne’s first screenplay. Corman describes the film as an “open air picture” because he was bored with the usual studio-bound Poe pictures. The fox hunt was incorporated to create action right at the beginning of the film. “The location was wonderful.” Corman drove all over the British Isles one weekend to find a suitable location to stand in for the Fell estate. A stunt double was used for scenes in which Rowena’s horse jumps over objects, but Elizabeth Shepherd did much of her own riding after learning to ride side-saddle. Corman always strived for balance in his widescreen compositions. Because the film was dialogue-heavy, Corman used dolly shots to create visual interest. Interiors were filmed at Shepperton Studios outside London. The director points out scenes in which exteriors are blended seamlessly with interiors. Corman discusses types of lenses used to achieve specific results. He remarks that The Tomb of Ligeia was Elizabeth Shepherd’s first lead in a film and she was thoroughly professional. The “180-degree line” is an unwritten rule about keeping actors facing in the same direction in various shots. “Crossing the line” could confuse viewers. Corman points out that often ingenuity had to replace budget to achieve specific effects.
Audio Commentary #3 – Elizabeth Shepherd (Rowena/Ligeia) is interviewed by Roy Frumkes. Corman wanted to film in an actual ruin. The one used was in Norfolk, England. She notes how effectively Vincent Price dominates the screen. Ligeia’s last lines in the short story are heard early in the film. Shepherd refers to the black cat, which had a menacing glare, as “the best actor in the film.” In the burial scene, when she’s playing Ligeia and is seen through a window in her coffin, she was looking directly into the sun and it was difficult to maintain a dead stare. She discusses her horseback riding and the horse wrangler who taught her to ride side-saddle. For the burial scene, debris was brought in to dress the location and make it look more atmospheric. “Roger (Corman) is wonderful about the poetry of images.” The dark glasses on Verden Fell are a metaphor for his refusing to see the light. In the short story, Rowena is just a cipher. In the film, Verden is “bookended by strong women.” The heightened emotion, heightened language, and heightened stakes in the film are similar to Shakespeare, in whose plays both Price and Shepherd had acted, so she felt right at home. It felt natural. Corman entrusted the roles to Price and Shepherd and relied on them to deliver. Corman worked out the blocking, since composition is an important part of storytelling. Referring to the conflagration that concludes the film, Shepherd recalls Price saying, “I always get singed in Roger Corman films.”
Trailers from Hell with Joe Dante – Dante refers to The Tomb of Ligeia as “a pretty darned good movie,” noting this was the last of Corman’s Poe films. The film possesses subtlety and a lot of atmosphere. It was originally intended to star Richard Chamberlain. Elizabeth Shepherd was the first woman to play Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers. Scenes from the trailer are shown.
Theatrical Trailers – Eight Vincent Price horror trailers are included: The Tomb of Ligeia, The Raven, The Comedy of Terrors, Master of the World, The Last Man on Earth, Scream and Scream Again, Theater of Blood, and House of the Long Shadows.
Not carried over from the Shout! Factory Blu-ray release is an audio commentary with Constantine Nasr, the PBS introduction to the film by Vincent Price himself, and a stills gallery. Also not carried over from the Arrow Video Region B Blu-ray release is a 1980 audio commentary with Elizabeth Shepherd and David Del Valle, an isolated score and effects audio track in 1.0 LPCM, and a set of interviews with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, first assistant director David Tringham, clapper loader Bob Jordan, and composer Kenneth V. Jones.
The Tomb of Ligeia illustrates the development of Roger Corman as an interpreter of Poe. Living with Edgar Allan Poe for five years, he was eager to do something different—shoot on location, stay closer to the intent of Poe, and deal in greater depth with a troubled, haunted soul. Though he accomplished these goals, he also sacrificed a sense of cinematic fun, making this Poe adaptation overly talky, relentlessly somber, and one of the series’ least successful.
- Dennis Seuling