“And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, ‘Man,’
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.”
After the extremities of the Meatball Machine franchse I felt a need for more sedate horrors. I recently purchased Fright Factory’s re-release of the first Vincent Price collection and I had intended to enjoy something from that. Then I remembered that one of the films NOT in the collection – Tomb of Ligeia – was available on Shudder. (As is my current favorite Vincent Price film, Theater of Blood.) This also had the added benefit of being a movie my wife could watch with me.
I read a ton of Poe when I was a kid. It was my primary access to horror before discovering a copy of Carrie in my parent’s bookcase. For a few years almost all of my reading consisted of 19th century stories and novels, with Jules Verne, Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, HG Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle providing the bulk of it, and I still find that particular rhythm of prose to be soothing.
I somehow missed most of the Corman Poe cycle when it came to watching movies, though. I’m not sure why, except that I don’t think they made a lot of appearances on Saturday afternoon cable. (Nor on late night TV channels – at least the ones we got.) There is one notable exception, and that was one time that my mother, my brother Scott and I watched House of Usher. My brother and I were keyed up enough during the film that at a pivotal moment (the return of Madeline Usher) she slapped us both and we jumped about ten feet, screaming out loud. Good times!
By the time I was able to rent or purchase films I was firmly entrenched in more modern horror films and couldn’t be bothered with the stuffy, hammy gothic stuff. It probably wasn’t until the advent of Netflix that my interest in horror began to move to expand again, reaching out to cover classics that I had adored in my childhood, like the Universal monsters, and films that I had missed or never seen, like a ton of 70’s horror. So I’ve caught up on a lot of the Poe cycle of films, but certainly not all.
Which is my typically long-winded way of saying I had never seen The Tomb of Ligeia, and was looking forward to it!
Streaming on Shudder, as I mentioned. I think this is the same transfer that is in the second of the Scream Factory Vincent Price Blu-ray box sets, as it looks very good. It is also available for rent and purchase on Amazon and Vudu. I’d suggest picking up the Scream Factory box set that contains it, but it’s currently out of print. (I hope for a re-release, as with the first set.)
Verden Fell (Vincent Price) mourns the death of his wife, Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd), an extraordinary woman of unique outlook and will who died of a mysterious disease. Despite his grief, and an accompanying eye condition which forces him to wear smoked lenses, Fell finds himself wooed by and attracted to the lovely and headstrong lady Rowena Trevanian (Also played by Shepherd) and they are married. Unfortunately for them both, it appears that Ligeia’s will extends beyond the grave…
The Tomb of Ligeia is the last of the Corman Poe cycle of films, and the second (after The Masque of the Red Death) to be shot in England. It makes great use of this by filming at Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk. The scenic ruins lend the film a truly gothic appearance and the whole film seems much more like a 19th century gothic romance than a horror story. That changes, however, as strange events begin to occur in the old house. Fell is gone from his room at odd hours of the night with seemingly no memory of his absence. A black cat prowls the halls and seems to have an overwhelming hatred for Rowena (once luring her to narrow ledge in the belfry just before the tolling of the hour).
The May/November romance between Fell and Trevanian should feel a bit awkward – DOES feel a bit awkward – but Price manages to invest the doomed man with a melancholic charisma, foregoing his usual pencil mustache for a clean-shaven look and Byronesque wig. Price, despite his central role in most of the Corman Poe films, was NOT the first choice for the character, (Corman wanted a then 31 year old Richard Chamberlain) but AIP insisted. It works, but you can’t help but wonder how things might have been.
A demonstration of hypnosis at a dinner party inserts sinister suggestions into the proceedings, and these bloom into full-on horrific reality when Verden’s absences are finally revealed to be nightly assignations with the preserved corpse of Ligeia, kept on a bed in a room of Egyptian trappings in the tower. This is apparently the result of a post-hypnotic suggestion Ligeia had given to Fell, exerting her influence over him even after her death.
Faced with this horrific reality (and the seeming death of Rowena as a result), Verden attempts to escape Ligeia’s control over him in a flame-filled finale that includes a battle with the black cat, which may be possessed by Ligeia.
The Bottom Line
Tomb of Ligeia is a very enjoyable entry in the Corman Poe cycle, and one I’m sad to have overlooked before! It’s slightly less camp than previous iterations and Vincent Price’s performance is one of his better ones, alternating sympathetic sadness with arrogance and violent outbursts. I love his early costume with it’s top-hot and dark glasses that must have inspired the look of Shade in James Robinson’s 1990’s era Starman comic.