Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe Surprisingly Good
Several months ago, I saw an interview with Cassandra Peterson-aka Elvira-discussing Tomb of Ligeia, one of her favorites in the American Pictures International’s Poe series by director Roger Corman. Unfortunately, for the life of me I couldn’t recall having seen this final adaptation starring Vincent Price. When the 1969 film came on out on a double billed DVD with An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, I gave the set my full attention. Perhaps it’s not a total shocker since I like the rest of Corman’s Poe series, but Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe are surprisingly good.
Verden Fell (Price) vows that his late wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) will defy death. He becomes reclusive and keeps away from sunlight with his dark colored glasses-until the beautiful Rowena (also Shepherd) erroneously comes to his ruined abbey. The couple falls in love, despite Rowena’s previous attachment to Verden’s friend Christopher (John Westbrook). They marry, but Rowena is ill at ease in Ligeia’s former home. Ligeia’s Egyptian antiques are everywhere; her spirit seems to linger over Verden during the night, and there’s a nasty black cat about that makes her displeasure known.
Director Roger Corman (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) takes a few departures from his earlier Poe films by brightening up Tomb of Ligeia with natural locations and a little more romance than usual. Adapted by Robert Towne (Shampoo, Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise) from Poe’s short story, the analysis of mind and will power over death itself weaves the film together with ancient Egyptian allusions and plenty of ambiguity towards black cats. Each plot resolves satisfactory, but Poe’s twists and Corman’s interpretations leave the viewing thinking longer than prior pure shock conclusions.
Even though this is the last of the Poe pictures, Vincent Price looks younger here. His Verden is a little more sympathetic than his earlier, often evil roles. Not only is Price not as over the top as we love, but he’s actually sad sometimes, even pathetic with his dependence on his little glasses. But of course, Tomb of Ligeia does have the bizarrity we’d expect, including some ambiguity about necrophilia. Ew! Thankfully, Price looks good with Elizabeth Shepherd (Bleak House, Side Effects, Damien: Omen II). Any age difference doesn’t seem to factor in; they match well, and have nice, genuine chemistry. The more romantic tone between Verden and Rowena isn’t so tough to believe amid the scares. Nice as it is to have the sweet emotion amid the creeps; Shepherd is freaky in the duel bits as Ligeia. It’s obvious it is she, of course, but the showdown with Ligeia and the dream sequence with the ladies are well done. John Westbrook’s (The First Churchills) Christopher is in the odd middleman position in this love triangle, but his outside, sane perspective helps the audience balance out some of the horrors.
While not as stylized as its Poe predecessor The Masque of the Red Death, Tomb of Ligeia has some beautiful natural locals and production. There’s a hefty amount of daylight scenes here-and they all work in the spooky, gothic, Early Victorian setting. There are some great ruined abbeys, the English countryside, and even a romantic stroll through Stonehenge. You might think these pieces don’t go together, but the morbid set interiors match the abbey in gothic look and spooky tone. The Victorian costumes are also early in style, alluding to a bit of the Bronte Sisters, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre. And of course, there’s a very disturbing classic Corman dream sequence that scares better than some of the stranger, more bizarre visual dream trickery previously done.
Side B of our set offers more Vincent Price in a one-man show called An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. Price showcases four tales from Poe in various stage settings, beginning with “The Tell Tale Heart.” I imagine you’re familiar with the tale, and Price is delightfully over the top here. His crazed style suits the story. The production here looks a little low and bare, but theatre fans can certainly enjoy this spirited Poe dramatization. “The Sphinx” is actually a Poe story that’s new to me. Price changes his looks and time period for each tale, strengthening his suave approach to the audience. He is clearly enjoying the punch line here, and this tale is better dressed than “The Tell Tale Heart.” Some might think a one-man production is stale and boring, but swift camera movement keeps things fresh. Not the crazy angles and dizzying modern zooms, but there’s just enough cuts and close ups to create the illusions needed.
So, that’s how “The Cask of Amontillado” is pronounced! I was never quite sure. The older Price is made up even older here for this unusual interpretation. You’d expect to see this one played out, not in effect told as perhaps “The Tell-Tale Heart” can only be. Price, however, does the voices of both men involved, playing on the amusement of the story and the unreliable status of the narrator. The camera again moves with him, cutting from several sides and using duel tricks almost like Gollum and Smeagol in The Two Towers. It’s a simple maneuver, but it works with the very handsomely dressed dining room stage.
It’s strange that director Kenneth Johnson (V, Alien Nation) would do “The Pit and the Pendulum” here in 1972 when Roger Corman did the feature length film ten years earlier. Nevertheless, Price looks the old and crazy part. Each tale has progressed his age, the time period, and the story’s deceit. This short here is more abstract and dream like than Corman’s back story filled movie. The fire and brimstone effects in this Pit go for more frights rather than a Twilight Zone twist ending. You would think Vincent Price effectively reading books line for line onscreen would be boring, but no. The stories dramatized in these readings are all told in the past tense with Poe’s great unreliable narrator telling his askew interpretation to the audience. Even though it may look old or too theatre to modern audiences, An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is perfect for Vincent Price fans, film students, or literature teachers looking for a short and sweet visual accompaniment for the classroom.
The DVD set of Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is relatively simplistic, with only a commentary of Roger Corman and Elizabeth Shepherd. It’s a little slow in pacing, but fun and informative for the die-hard fan. The subtitles for Ligeia are great, too. Fans of the previous Poe pictures or sixties horror films can enjoy Tomb of Ligeia, but period piece and gothic fans should tune in, too. However, hardcore viewers looking for a blood fest and straight horror should skip these stylized tales. Likewise, I also don’t know about cat lovers enjoying Tomb of Ligeia. Feline folks will delight in the pesky cat scenarios, but cat enthusiasts won’t like some of the black cat bashing, either. Ah, it’s the beauty of Poe, something for everyone!