Monday, October 12, 2015

Film Review: The Tomb of Ligeia

"The Tomb of Ligeia"  *** (out of ****)

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, 
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore-
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently tapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"Tis some visiter" I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door-
Only this and nothing more."
                                 Edgar Allan Poe - The Raven

"The Tomb of Ligeia" (1964) was the final movie in director Roger Corman's "Poe Series" - eight screen adaptation based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Unfortunately "The Tomb of Ligeia" has very little about it that is new and fresh. Roger Corman would admit as much in an interview with the British Film Institue (BFI). Mr. Corman says he was simply running out of new ways to film Poe adaptations. He tried to use humor for some stories and in the case of "The Tomb of Ligeia" he says his intention was to make a love story.

Mr. Corman also states he never wanted to make a series of Poe adaptations. Although he admits he was an admirer of Poe's writing, all he wanted to do was make an adaptation of the "Fall of the House of Usher" (1960). The movie made money and so the studio asked Mr. Corman to adapt more Poe stories.

Roger Corman is generally considered to be a "B" filmmaker and his often associated with horror and science-fiction movies. He also would shoot feature length movies in 10 days. He has been cited as a mentor to such distinguished filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Ron Howard. Jack Nicholson acted in some of his movies very early in his career, one of them was a Poe adaptation.

I mention this because I found often there are some that thumb their nose at Mr. Corman and his movies. His work was too low-brow. He was not an auteur. His movies were campy. I can't deny the "campy" charge but Mr. Corman has his place in the history of cinema. He was an important American filmmaker on the independent scene. I very much admire his spirit. Making the movies he wanted to make. Not feeling the pressure of a major studio and being told what was "commercial" and what wasn't.

According to the movie website Roger Corman is credited with having directed 56 movies starting back to 1955. Of these movies his most critical acclaimed are the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. These are among my favorites as well and are the only movies Mr. Corman had directed that I have reviewed.

Prior to "The Tomb of Ligeia" Mr. Corman had directed "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961), "The Premature Burial" (1962) and "Fall of the House of Usher". You will notice similarities between all of them. I even thought of Poe's "The Raven", hence why I quoted it. That is why I feel "The Tomb of Ligeia" has little about it that is new. We have seen so much of this before. We have seen these characters under different names. How many movies can you make with a dead body, of a loved one, buried in a secret tomb or crypt in a castle? Apparently the answer is eight and "nevermore".

The plot revolves around Verden Fell (Price). At the beginning of the movie Verden is burying his wife, Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd). A priest warns Verden the ground he is burying his wife on his holy ground and as Ligeia was an atheist her soul will not rest in peace. Verden however dismisses this as he believes Ligeia is not dead. She will return. Her last words to Verden expressed her will to live and how she would return and forever be his wife.

The years pass. Verden has fallen out of social circles. He spends his days in his castle and visits the resting place of his wife. He is still tormented by her lost and perhaps fearful of her return.

One day Verden notices a young woman, Rowena (Shepherd again), on his estate at his wife's resting place. When he approaches her she is startled and faints as her friend, Christopher (John Westbrook) has followed Rowena to the castle. Christopher and Verden are old friends. Verden invites Rowena and Christopher inside.

From this chance meeting we suspect Rowena is taken by Verden. Maybe because she finds him so mysterious and senses he is a tragic and lonely figure. Verden we suspect sees his wife, Ligeia, in Rowena and so the two get married.

Rowena soon discovers something is not right at the estate. Verden disappears for days. There is a black cat which persistently bothers Rowena, at one point even scratching her. Could it be the spirit of Ligeia is haunting the caste? Could Ligeia have taken control of Verden? Does Ligeia want Rowena out of the caste and away from Verden?

These are the questions which arise in this somewhat Gothic tale of lost love, torment and grief and the shadowy line we must confront between life and death.

What is different about "The Tomb of Ligeia" and what leads me to give it a minor recommendation is the acting. I think the performances here are the best Mr. Corman had gotten from actors in the previous movies. To my astonishment I also must say Vincent Price has moments when he really tones down the level of camp. He is not as animated as he usually is. There is something much more subtle about his performance this time around. But, by the end of the movie, he lets it all out.

The downside is I don't feel many of the actors have any chemistry between them. It is difficult to accept Verden and Rowena in love. It is difficult to see Rowena and Christopher as potential lovers. Each performance is fine, on its own, but all three actors seem to be in their own movie. It doesn't feel like the actors are reacting to one another.

Elizabeth Shepherd is playing a sort of prim and proper upper-class English woman who seeks some thrills and wants to escape the hum-drum order of her life. John Westbrook represents the "order" Shepherd's character is trying to escape. Nothing in the material allows Westbrook to stand apart from the other performers. By the end of the movie he is put in the role of hero. Vincent Price is the mysterious figure. Think of him as the eccentric millionaire who lives a secluded life.

"The Tomb of Ligeia" really starts to pick up in the last act. While the plot twist may become too complicated for some to follow, I found it intense and liked some of the "cheap scares" the movie throws our way. I responded positively to the psychological aspect of the movie. What is real and what isn't?

This theme is complimented by some nice visuals in the movie. Movie critics (sheep) go out of their way to emphasize Mr. Corman used exteriors shots. Which was not part of the norm for Mr. Corman. The movie was filmed on location in the UK at an actually Abby. However the most arresting visuals in the movie I believe occur doing a dream sequence. Mr. Corman would routinely incorporate dream sequences in his Poe movies and they usually had a "trippy" quality. The dream sequence here is filmed in slow motion which intensifies the action.

As is the case when adapting a novel or short story to the screen, the movie adaptation may not be faithful. I have never read Poe's short story, Ligeia, however, from what I can gather, there seem to be some differences. For example, it has been suggested Poe's story was a satire on Gothic romances. Mr. Corman doesn't treat this material in a satirical fashion. I believe the movie handles this material in the most serious way it could. The screenwriter was Robert Towne, who would go on to write "Chinatown" (1974).

In the end though it doesn't matter if the movie is a faithful adaptation or not. Movies are a visual art form and need not restrict themselves to what is on the written page. Movies and novels are two different mediums. Novels have a greater ability to dwell into the psychological and from what I can tell, Poe's writings deal more with the mind. So, a movie must come up with ways to visual express this and sometimes alter events.

Still, a faithful adaptation or not, it should not affect a viewer's appreciation of "The Tomb of Ligeia". While this is definitely familiar material for Mr. Corman, "The Tomb of Ligeia" does have its moments. I enjoy the acting in the movie, especially the performance given by Elizabeth Shepherd. There are nice visuals and some intense moments and sequence which make you jump out of your seat a bit. Can the movie scare today's audiences? Probably not. But, it is still a decent viewing experience.