Richard Gavin on The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Richard Gavin is one of my favorite contemporary writers of the supernatural, and I’m also lucky enough to consider him a friend. (Whether he feels the same is a mystery.) I also happen to know that he shares my love of a good Vincent Price movie (is there any other kind?) and so when I went looking for contributors to this countdown, he was more than happy to wax poetic on The Tomb of Ligeia:
I never celebrate Halloween without Vincent Price. His presence is as requisite in my home as carved gourds and candy. So when I received the invitation to participate in this list of suggested viewing for All-Hallow’s, my confirmation was instant. The only difficulty to be overcome was selecting a single title from Price’s long and impressive filmography.
Because he was as diverse an actor as he was a distinguished one, Vincent Price wore many masks over the decades, from the ridiculous to the sublime. I prefer my Horror straight rather than sly, so my taste has always run toward Price’s more earnest roles, the ones in which he manages to step out of his endearing persona and avoids giving audiences his subtly reassuring wink, reminding them that it was all in good fun. As my initial choice, Michael Reeves’ unflinching Witchfinder General (1968), is in the capable hands of another contributor, I turned my attention to what I consider the most sterling entry in the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman for American-International Pictures: The Tomb of Ligeia (1964).
None of the Corman/Price/Poe films are without merit, even those that play fast and loose with their source material. But one of the elements that elevates Tomb is its faithfulness to Poe’s original 1838 story (titled simply ‘Ligeia’). All of the story’s major beats are hit and it is also further fleshed out by excellent dramatic performances.
The Tomb of Ligeia’s plot centres on a recent widower, Verden Fell (Price) who simultaneously mourns for and fears his dear departed wife, Ligeia, whose otherworldly willpower may just enable her to conquer death itself. When Verden becomes smitten with the aristocratic Rowena Trevanion, Ligeia’s wrath begins to stain the lives of Verden and his new bride.
Price is pitch-perfect as the Byronic lead, exhibiting the classical Poe obsessions of desiring what one fears and fearing what one desires. His mourning for the Lady Ligeia never really slips into hand-wringing melodrama. He delivers his lines in a controlled, morose tone and traipses his ruined priory as quietly as a walking corpse. He is a man who longs for the grave as much as he dreads it. With his strange aversion to sunlight, his emotional torment, his undertaker’s garb, Price becomes the very embodiment of Poe’s world-weary misfits. (Rowena: “Don’t you ever laugh?” Verden: “Only at myself.”)
The film roams that thin boarder between private obsession and the supernatural, and thus strongly echoes Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). (Roger Corman made no secret about the fact that his Poe films drew inspiration from the Master of Suspense.) Both films feature broken men who harbor passion for a deceased woman, both also feature lead actresses assuming the dual role of the departed and the new love who reminds the protagonist of the object of his obsession. Like Kim Novak in Hitch’s masterpiece, Elizabeth Shepherd is excellent as the vengeful Ligeia and the rather innocent Rowena.
The Tomb of Ligeia is an elegant nightmare. The bounty of outdoor scenes really give this film a more organic, less “stylized soundstage” feel than the other titles in this series. Kenneth V. Jones also provides a wonderful score.
Like all great horror films, the supernatural elements are ambiguous and archetypal. Shapeshifting, or rather the possibility thereof, is a recurrent theme. The dominant suggestion is that Ligeia’s determination to return from the great beyond is so strong she will assume the form of a cat or a fox in order to keep a baleful eye on Verden.
The divinity of the female was one of Edgar Allan Poe’s lifelong obsessions. Romantic love was both his Muse and the demon that hounded him until his tragic death at the age of forty. Because Poe’s real life romances often ended tragically (several of the women he loved suffered protracted and painful deaths due to consumption), love and death became inextricably bound in his life. This marriage of seeming opposites is the thread that unifies his most notable work. He was forever in search of the ideal Woman, one whose spirit was so great it might even enable her to defeat death itself. The Lady Ligeia is the ultimate expression of this wish.
The ecstasy of love and the insufferable silence of the grave; these were the inevitable forces in Poe’s life, in the life of Verden Fell, and indeed in our own.