THE TOMB OF LIGEIA: One Last Baroque Flourish In Corman’s Rue Morgue

By the time Roger Corman made his final Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, The Tomb Of Ligeia, he had well and truly run the gamut of the author’s famous stories and poems.  The seven films building up this stretched as far as a Lovecraft adaptation with a Poe poem/title thrown on (The Haunted Castle) and a fantasy comedy that gently sent up all the gothic conventions he’d built up along the way (The Raven).  Fittingly, The Tomb Of Ligeia finds Corman going back full circle to the doomed romanticism that defined House Of TombOL-posUsher and capping his series on a suitably baroque note.

The Tomb Of Ligeia was adapted from a Poe story entitled “Ligeia” by a young Robert Towne.  The tormented protagonist is Verden Fell (Vincent Price), a widower who is convinced that his recently deceased wife isn’t truly dead because her will is too strong to accept such a fate.

Things take a turn for the better when noblewoman Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) falls for him and talks him into marriage – but the spectre of Ligeia drives a wedge between them, with the spirit making more than one attempt to drive both halves of the couple to madness or death.  In classic Corman Poe adaptation style, the tale ends in a flurry of malevolent supernatural events, death and castle-consuming flames.

TombOL-01The Tomb Of Ligeia trades comfortably on all the tropes that Corman had developed in his Poe adaptations: the possibly mad Price protagonist, the possibly undead spouse, spooky castles and a fiery finale.  That said, it feels familiar instead of derivative because it weaves in a few new wrinkles.  For starters, it features a surprising amount of exteriors, including several scenes in daylight (a gesture unheard of in other Corman/Poe films).  Corman and cinematographer Arthur Grant also make excellent use of a real set of castle ruins in England’s Norfolk region to achieve the right gothic atmosphere.

It’s also worth noting that Towne’s script not only has charmingly flowery dialogue but also boasts a novel heroine in Rowena: she’s strong and independent, an equal match for Verden instead of the usual doomed love or nasty schemer that pops in other Corman/Poe films.  Shepherd TombOL-02gives a suitably graceful performance that acts a nice counter-balance to Price’s expected mad theatrics.  As for Price, he does everything you’d hope for in the film, evoking fear and pity in all the right spots.

Finally, Corman’s brisk direction seals the deal.  His legend as a smart producer and finder of future Hollywood talent often supersedes the appreciation of his skill as a director.  The Poe adaptations remain the high water mark of his artistry as a filmmaker and it can felt in full force here: he hits the right blend of narrative drive and creepy atmosphere, using precise camera moves to drive it all along.  The last twenty minutes of the film allows him to really strut his directorial skills as the tragic tale ends with a fiery bang.

Simply put, The Tomb Of Ligeia is a nice summation for Corman’s cycle of Poe adaptations and a treat for fans of gothic horrors.  Like his other Poe films, it offers a distinctive mood and style that holds its own against Hammer’s pop-gothic horrors from the same era.

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