Wanting to talk about love, obsession, and death, what could be better than combining an Edgar Allan Poe tale with a 1964 Roger Corman movie, The Tomb of Ligeia?
Moreover, the protagonist of this macabre story is the legendary Vincent Price, here playing the sinister Verden Fell, who, from the very beginning, we see burying his beloved wife, Ligeia, dead of a mysterious illness while still young.
Amidst the horror of those present, the woman reopens her eyes just before lowering the coffin into the grave as if she were still alive. Yet, the man downplays the incident, claiming it is only an involuntary reflex.
Several years later, during a walk in the fields near his English estate, he meets Rowena Trevanion, another beautiful young woman who bears a striking resemblance to his late wife.
Verden is initially skeptical of her and her friends, but Rowena’s charm and kindness soften him, penetrating his withdrawn and dark temperament.
So they begin dating, fall in love, and marry to his happiness but also in the man’s fear of awakening the anger of his late ex-wife Ligeia.
Indeed, he believes she is not dead, and her spirit is left to watch over him through a strange black cat roaming the house.
The same cat injures his new wife several times, while Verden even begins to experience visions in which Ligeia appears to him in the flesh, trying to convince him to follow her into the afterlife.
Increasingly exasperated, Rowena grows closer to Christopher Gough, an old friend of Verden’s who tries to help him overcome his grief over Ligeia’s death.
Together they discover a secret that Verden hides even from himself, the victim of mesmeric hypnotism by dying Legeia.
Low-budget but high-talent movies
The Tomb of Ligeia” of 1964 fits neatly into the movie cycle of Edgar Allan Poe‘s novels produced by Corman and American International Pictures, iconic genre moviemakers of the 1950s and 1960s who also made the early movies of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
This intriguing Gothic 1960s filmography included transpositions of plays such as The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, and the episodic horror Tales of Terror, among others.
Besides Vincent Price, these stories starred other legendary actors of the genre, such as Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, who were always enigmatic and disturbing characters.
As usual, Roger Corman works with a limited budget and time, yet his ability to creatively use the few means at his disposal more than makes up for the production’s constraints.
First, Corman uses many exterior shots of the English countryside, creating an atmosphere of spaciousness and isolation from the rest of civilization.
This is in stark contrast to the interior shots, characterized by a claustrophobic and eerie atmosphere, along with cinematography featuring many backlit and shadowed frames, creating an additional sense of uncertainty and ambiguity.
Vincent Price’s character is almost portrayed as a vampire, at least aesthetically, mostly wearing large black glasses because of his sensitivity to sunlight.
Even more alienating are the constant close-ups of Verden and Rowena’s eyes, which heighten the emotional tension almost as in Sergio Leone‘s famous duels that would come in later years.
No less uneasy is the black cat symbolizing Verden’s obsession and his fear of Ligeia’s ghost, cinematically becoming a constant jumpscare that terrorizes the helpless Rowena.
Despite the low production budget, the critics well received the movie, and it was a major commercial success, representing an essential addition to the Poe & Corman cinematic series.
The love against the obsession with death
Among the various figures in this macabre and romantic tale, Vincent Price is undoubtedly the essential pivot around which everything revolves.
With his incredible charisma and talent, this iconic horror actor perfectly captures the sense of madness and despair enveloping the character of Verden Fell.
His ability to switch with equal elegance from moments of lucidity to moments of delirium and violence is impressive, always keeping the tension high with his colleague Elizabeth Shepherd.
The latter is called upon to do double work, playing both the morbid ghost of Ligeia and that of Rowena Trevanion.
In both roles, the actress maintains her beauty and charm, with a dark sexual attractiveness as the ghost and instead an irresistible innocence and vulnerability as his delicate new wife.
Between wife and husband will then come to John Westbrook, who plays the character of Christopher Gough, an English nobleman and close friend of Verden Fell.
This actor’s performance was not too exciting, jarring in the overall perfection of everything else.
However, the character is essential to get to the last and terrifying part of the movie, where we finally understand the importance of Kenrick, the keeper and servant of the protagonist.
Played by Oliver Johnston, we discover he is not only the keeper of the estate that Verden is desperately trying to sell and from which, at the same time, he is unwilling to leave but also keeps the greatest secret from the past, even his master does not remember.
As with the entire cycle of Poe/Corman movies, The Tomb of Ligeia from 1964 is one of those few movies that brought audiences and critics together, receiving positive reviews and excellent box office receipts.