Roger Corman is often celebrated for his economies, but nobody ever told me that he was also a wonderful cinematic craftsman. ‘The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)’ is my second Corman film (after the throwaway cheapie ‘The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)’), and I’m now intrigued by the prospect of seeing his other Edgar Allan Poe-inspired creations. Horror maestro Vincent Price stars as Verden Fell, a wealthy widower who becomes obsessed by the possibility that his deceased wife somehow survives. Inexplicably drawn to Verden’s sinister charms, the lovely Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) agrees to marry him. However, on their wedding night, she is tormented by the memory of her predecessor, who seemingly takes the form of an ominous black cat. Though one could argue that nothing much happens in this film, it is nevertheless exceedingly dense with atmosphere, almost stiflingly so, every frame an overwhelming banquet of garish colours. The darkness of the nighttime is vividly punctuated by the gleaming scarlet of blood, hellish yellow flames, and an invisible black enemy that skulks in the shadows.
While I don’t expect that ‘The Tomb of Ligeia’ stays particularly close to the original story, the screenplay from Robert Towne (later to write ‘Chinatown (1974)’) emulates the gloomy Gothic overtones of classic Poe. Discomfort is gleaned, not only from the dialogue, but the silences between words. Not that Verden Fell is not given his fair share of dialogue; the film is so apparently entranced by the dark, charismatic tones of Price’s voice that he often breaks off into superb, meandering monologues that give voice to the obvious. Not that the audience is complaining, of course – the way Price presents himself to the camera, with complete and utter conviction, is mesmerising. While the film, of course, owes a debt to Poe’s literature, it is also an expansion of the Gothic melodrama sub-genre of the 1940s. Consider Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca (1940),’ in which young innocent Joan Fontaine is plagued by the “ghost” of her husband’s previous wife; or Mankiewicz’s ‘Dragonwyck (1946),’ which finds Gene Tierney harassed by her mentally deranged husband – played, appropriately, by Vincent Price.