After losing his beloved wife Ligeia to an untimely death, Verden Fell (Vincent Price) is left to amble around their sweeping estate in a state of mourning. Unable to bear sunlight he is forced to wear dark glasses in the daytime; his anguish thus manifested in his physical appearance. One day on his daily visit to Ligeia’s tomb he meets the feisty Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) who has fallen from her horse. The two become smitten, and soon marry. Verden leaves his tragic past and the ill-fated estate behind to travel with his new wife and heal old wounds. On their return it is obvious Ligeia still haunts more than Verden’s dreams. Rowena becomes troubled by a presence that appears intent on doing her harm. Faced with this Verden isn’t much help, becoming distant and, at times, confused. They say three’s a crowd, with Ligeia apparently back from the dead things are going to get a little bit claustrophobic for our lamentable pair of newlyweds.
…And so to the final instalment of the Corman/Poe cycle of films. Following the gorgeously macabre Masque of the Red Death (1964) the director takes on a slower, less visually garish approach in the last episode -The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). As with Masque the film was produced in England and is a US/British co-production- as opposed to the initial six films which were strictly American made. What this means is access to new locations, different production teams, a new cast and consequently yet another ‘look’ for this entry into the cycle. In all honesty The Masque of the Red Death is a hard act to follow and some of Ligeia’s standing as a more obscure entry could be due to having to stand in the shadow of the magnificent beast that is its predecessor. Alongside the brilliant The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the two are the most exquisitely crafted films of the whole series. Maybe because of this Tomb of Ligeia tends to get little attention. But while this parting shot for Corman might not reach the epic heights of his penultimate effort, it is a very solid piece of gothic horror nevertheless. It certainly deserves far more attention than it has had in the past.
If you look at the Corman/Poe cycle as an entity you can pick out certain themes. There are usually tragic circumstances in the central story arch that lead Vincent Price’s character to violence/madness or both- admittedly something not seen in Masque; Price’s character is just inherently mad and violent in that. All of the films, in line with traditional gothic literature, take part in imposing settings; so we have crumbling old castles, creaky mansions, creepy old tombs, ornate fireplaces, flickering candles and period set dressing which denotes something of grandeur or opulence. Last but not least the Corman/Poe prerequisite- a good old fiery conclusion. Spotting the stock Corman tropes as they pop up is an entertaining exercise in itself when watching these films. However, while each film does follow a similar pattern it is unfair to say they are all the same. In fact regardless of these similarities each and every episode of the cycle has its own personality and appearance. When it comes to Tomb of Ligeia it is all about the exterior locations. Settings such as the crumbling 10th century Church and grounds of Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, and National monument Stonehenge, inject the piece with a generous dose of English charm. Because of this Ligeia is the one film in the entire cycle that has more in common, in tonal quality, to something which could have been made by Hammer- on that note fans of Hammer would do well to check this one out.
Of course the setting would mean nothing if the essence failed to fuel the imagination. But yet again, and thanks to our capable leading man Vincent Price, there is much to love about the piece. Clad out in weird dark glasses- there is a bit of a sixties hip thing going on about the offbeat design of these- he casts a mesmerising presence from the offset. The perfect Byronic hero, a poor tormented soul destroyed by the death of his lover, Price immediately sweeps you up and carries you into the narrative. Price imbibes his role with his usual theatrical style acting and camp melodrama which is, as always, a delight to behold. Co-star Elizabeth Shepherd as both Rowena and Ligeia presents one of the strongest Corman/Poe heroines of the series. As was a sign of the times most of these films were littered with very glamourous but terribly weak female characters. Exceptions to this rule are, in my opinion, the amazing Barbara Steele in The Pit and the Pendulum- who is such a force of nature it almost goes without saying- and Hazel Court’s inspiring bride of Satan part for The Masque of the Red Death. Shepherd presents Rowena as a strong willed, capable and feisty type of woman, proactive in taking charge of the difficult situation that surrounds her; unlike Price’s character Verden who is weak willed in comparison. Then you also have Shepherd in the role of the venomous Ligeia, which is an equally powerful performance. Genre fans will probably recognise Shepherd from her role as the tenacious reporter Joan Hart from Damien: Omen II- she is the one who gets her eyes pecked out by a raven before careering into a heavy goods vehicle. Of course the roles, which are some of the most fleshed out of the series, owe a debt to Academy Award/BAFTA winning (for his script for Roman Polanski’s China Town) scriptwriter Robert Towne. But both actors, Price and Shepherd channel their consecutive experience of classical theatre to put in solid performances that complement the tone of the piece.
This release comes as part of the Arrow Video Vincent Price Six Gothic Tales Collection Blu-ray box set. The film (and its associated extras) will also be available as a standalone Blu-ray/DVD combo pack at the end of February 2015.
• High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by MGM
• Original uncompressed Mono PCM Audio
• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• Audio commentary by director and producer Roger Corman
• Audio commentary by star Elizabeth Shepherd
• All-new interviews with cast and crew members including co-writer/production assistant Paul Mayersberg, first assistant director David Tringham, camera assistant Bob Jordan and composer Kenneth V. Jones
• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil
Unlike the other films in this series of releases The Tomb of Ligeia is a little light on extras. Perhaps this could be a reflection of its status as more obscure than some of the other entries into the cycle. It would appear everyone wants to line up and talk about the excitement to be found within The Pit and the Pendulum, but when it comes to Ligeia even the usual faces fail to appear. However the audio commentary by director Roger Corman is extremely valuable and there are some entertaining interviews from cast and crew.
If there was one film in the cycle which was well in need of an upgrade to BD, it was this one. When the series was announced I was most pleased to see the title listed as part of the set. What a sight for sore eyes it is too. Restored to BD and presented in 1080p high definition, you can really revel in the sumptuous production design involved. This is especially evident in the Rowena/Verden introduction scene that features a strong colour palette of reds- the red flowers of Ligeia’s tomb, which match Rowena’s red hunting jacket. There is also the brilliant haunted dream sequence to behold, the colouring and detail of which has greatly improved with this quality release.
Overall another worthy addition to the Vincent Price Six Gothic Tales Collection and one that should appease fans who have been clamouring for an upgraded release. Newcomers and especially those with an interest in British gothic horror could do a lot worse than check this one out. A great piece of solid gothic horror with a classical period edge.
Words: Kat Ellinger