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The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) was the seventh and last film in the AIP "Poe cycle" of collaborations between low-budget producer/director Roger Corman and actor Vincent Price in creating loose adaptations of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. While earlier entries in the series, which started with House of Usher in 1960, were marked by the creative use of sound stages and matte paintings to create an atmosphere of gloom, and by an equally creative license in expanding the source material to feature length, The Tomb of Ligeia is notable for staying quite close to Poe's original story "Ligeia", and for shooting several of its major sequences outside in bright sunlight.
In his book Vincent Price: The Art of Fear Denis Meikle quoted the actor, who took some of the credit for the unusual look of the picture: "The Tomb of Ligeia was vaguely based on an idea that Roger and I had once. I had said I had always wanted to do a picture in a ruin, but actually using the ruin as an actual place, with real furniture in it and the ruin around it, which I thought would be very effective. This is sort of what he adapted to The Tomb of Ligeia, which I think was the best one we ever did." The actual shooting location was at the ruins of Swaffham Priory in the county of Norfolk in East Anglia.
The film opens in 1821 in the English countryside as aristocratic Verden Fell (Vincent Price) is attending the burial of his wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd). Fell believes his wife is not truly dead because she had denounced the concept of death itself as a lack of will; when her eyes appear to open through the glass window of her coffin, Fell half-heartedly accepts it as a post-mortem response at first. But when a black cat perches on her headstone Fell takes it as a further sign of his wife's living spirit. Fell lives with his servants in an abbey near the burial site, and several months after Ligeia's death he comes to the aid of his neighbor Lady Rowena (also Elizabeth Shepherd) when she is thrown from her horse, landing near Ligeia's gravesite. Fell nurses her back to health and they fall in love. Despite the protests of her father Lord Trevanion (Derek Francis) and her former beau Christopher (John Westbrook), Rowena marries Fell. The marriage that follows is beset by odd circumstances to say the least: Fell disappears for hours at a time with seemingly no recollection of his doings, and Rowena is plagued by nightmare visions and a vicious black cat that roams the estate all possible signs of Ligeia's influence from beyond the grave.
The script for The Tomb of Ligeia was by Robert Towne, who had earlier written the ultra-low-budget Last Woman on Earth (1960) for Corman. Towne would later pen such iconic 1970s screenplays as The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974) in addition to being one of the most in-demand "script doctors" of the 1970s. His script for The Tomb of Ligeia was subtle and cerebral compared to earlier examples in the series such as those by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. As Meikle observes, "with The Tomb of Ligeia, a sense of realism finally intruded upon the Poe series not only because the tale was staged in natural surroundings, but because the script constantly questions the Gothic precepts which previous films had taken for granted. What Robert Towne attempted was a genuine ghost story...a real tale of the supernatural along the more suggestive lines of the Val Lewton thrillers of the 1940s."
The Tomb of Ligeia was the 2nd film in the Poe series to be filmed in England. The previous entry, The Masque of the Red Death (1964) had been shot, with very inventive use of color, by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. For The Tomb of Ligeia, Corman employed Arthur Grant, longtime director of photography for many Hammer horror films, including The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), and Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969). Alas, the inventiveness and innovation of The Tomb of Ligeia runs out before the final reel is finished, and Corman falls back on a stock ending relying on a fiery climax (which recycles footage from his previous Poe films). Vincent Price later said (as quoted in A Daughter's Biography by Victoria Price) "I have been singed many times. While making Tomb of Ligeia, in which the whole set was sprayed with liquid rubber, someone lit a cigarette and the whole thing went up. But then Roger's a fire fiend. He's a firebug."
The Tomb of Ligeia earned some of the best reviews of any of the films in the Poe cycle. The writer for The Los Angeles Times found that "the fluid camerawork, first-rate color, sumptuous period sets, and an impassioned performance from Vincent Price blend perfectly to bring a great Gothic tale of terror to life on the screen." The London Times said, "Here at last Mr. Corman has done what it always seemed he might be able some time to do: make a film which could without absurdity be spoken of in the same breath as Cocteau's Orphee ." In The New York Times, Howard Thompson writes that "Mr. Corman has made stunning, ambient use of his authentic setting, an ancient abbey in Norfolk, England, and the lovely countryside. The picture is not nearly as finished as Masque of the Red Death, also shot in Britain and The Pit and the Pendulum  remains our favorite of all. But the Corman climate of evil is as unhealthy and contagious as ever."
Variety, meanwhile, panned the film saying, "More Poe but no go about sums up The Tomb of Ligeia, a tedious and talky addition to American International's series of chillpix based on tales by the 19th century US author. Roger Corman produced and directed a script that resists analysis and lacks credibility, with all performances blah monotones and color lensing of no help. Widescreen pic tries serious supernatural approach minimizing gore angles, but it doesn't jell." Most fans of Corman's Poe cycle have tended to disagree with this assessment over the years, feeling that the macabre romance and implied perversities of The Tomb of Ligeia provide a fitting capper to the series.
Producer: Pat Green, Samuel Z. Arkoff
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Robert Towne, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editing: Alfred Cox
Production Design: Colin Southcott
Makeup: George Blackler
Music: Kenneth V. Jones
Special Effects: Ted Samuels
Cast: Vincent Price (Verden Fell), Elizabeth Shepherd (The Lady Rowena), John Westbrook (Christopher Gough), Derek Francis (Lord Trevanion), Oliver Johnston (Kenrick), Richard Vernon (Dr. Vivian), Frank Thornton (Peperel).
by John M. Miller