The Tomb of Ligeia/Ligeia/Last Tomb of Ligeia/Tomb of the Cat (1965) **½
When you really think about it (or even if you don’t, for that matter!), very few movies ostensibly derived from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe resemble the stories or poems on which they purport to be based in any way at all. The tradition goes all the way back to the 1930’s, with The Black Cat and The Raven (well, there’s a raven in it, even if it is stuffed and mounted...), but it was in the hands of American International Pictures that it really took off. After the first time I saw Tales of Terror and said to myself, “You know, that’s not how I remember those stories going,” I’ve made it a point every time I see a Poe movie to re-read the work from which it takes its title and amuse myself by noting all the drastic departures the film makes from its source material. When I turned to my trusty copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe after watching The Tomb of Ligeia, the last of the Poe films directed by Roger Corman, I noticed something truly amazing. This movie actually follows the story pretty closely right up to the last couple of pages!!!!
On the other hand, it also pretty much ignores the first half, although doing so is entirely understandable— what would be the point of filming a demented opium addict mooning over how smart and pretty and well-read and indomitable his dead first wife was? Instead, it picks up with Verden Fell (Vincent Price) burying his wife, Ligeia, on the grounds of the ruined English abbey whose one inhabitable section he has converted into his home. Fell, oddly enough, doesn’t seem quite convinced that Ligeia is dead. He keeps going on about her last words to him: “Herein lieth the will which dieth not. Man need not kneel before the angels, nor lie in death for all eternity, save only for the weakness of his feeble will,” and I grant you, that certainly makes it sound like Ligeia figured she’d be coming back. And who knows— maybe she did. Can it be a coincidence that the black cat that appears out of nowhere on the tombstone and pounces on the officiating minister does so at the precise moment that Ligeia’s eyes pop sightlessly open behind the little glass window in the lid of her coffin? Not in a horror movie, it can’t.
Some time later (it has to be a good long while because this scene is separated from the last one by the really snazzy opening credits), a group of England’s idle rich are out hunting foxes in the vicinity of Fell’s abbey when one of them, a young woman named Rowena Trevanion (Elizabeth Shepherd, from Damien: The Omen II), accidentally discovers Ligeia’s tomb. She dismounts to read the inscription on the headstone, and is scared half out of her wits when she notices Fell standing behind it looking at her. Her scream brings Christopher Gough (John Westbrook, who supplied the voice of Treebeard the Ent in Ralph Bakshi’s feeble, cost-conscious version of The Lord of the Rings), another of the fox-hunters, running to her aid, a development which leads to a reunion of sorts— it seems that Fell and Gough are old friends, though they haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. The two men take Rowena to Fell’s home so that he can perform some first aid on her ankle, which she twisted while fainting at the sight of Verden, and after a little while in his company, Rowena finds herself strangely attracted to her “doctor.”
It’s a bit hard to see why. Maybe it’s different in England, but where I’m from, living in the ruins of a musty old abbey filled with reproductions of ancient Egyptian grave-goods and leaving the house only at night because you have “a morbid sensitivity to the sun” is likely to consign you to a life of eternal bachelorhood or— even worse— restrict your contacts with the opposite sex to a limited pool of 15-year-old goth girls. Rowena herself doesn’t quite get it, but the attraction is definitely there, and once Fell notices how closely Rowena resembles the late Ligeia, it becomes mutual as well. Rowena becomes Mrs. Verden Fell a couple of scenes later.
Okay, ladies, listen closely. Do not— I repeat, do not— under any circumstances, marry a man who lives in a tomb-like ruin and who likes you principally because you remind him of the wife he buried in the back yard some years ago, especially if that man bears even the faintest resemblance to Vincent Price. Nothing good will come of it. And nothing good is exactly what comes of Rowena’s marriage to Verden Fell. To begin with, Verden periodically lapses into a trance-like state and vanishes for hours at a time; he has no memory of what he does when this happens, but sometimes he leaves signs of his activities behind— like the time he gets up in the middle of the night to chisel the date of death off of Ligeia’s tombstone. Then, there’s the small matter of evidence which seems to point toward Ligeia’s spirit attempting to re-enter the world by commandeering Rowena’s body. That black cat that debuted in the opening scene has been hanging around the abbey ever since, and it seems to have both some sort of special hatred for the new Mrs. Fell, and a vaguely-defined roster of supernatural powers. Not only that, Ligeia (in whose name all of Fell’s property is held) proves to have left the estate in a state of legal limbo such that Verden is unable to sell anything he owns— almost as though, again, Ligeia figured she’d be coming back, and would want that stuff to be there waiting for her when she did. Finally, and most troublingly, when Rowena undergoes hypnosis for no reason that can be defended in plot terms, she ends up uttering Ligeia’s last words while she’s under.
Eventually, Christopher begins to worry about Rowena’s welfare, suspecting that Ligeia isn’t really dead at all, but hiding somewhere in the abbey’s secret recesses for diabolical reasons known only to her. With the grudging assistance of Fell’s butler Kenrick (Oliver Johnston), Gough sets himself to the task of exposing Verden and Ligeia. But while his intuition that that the body in Ligeia’s coffin is a fake is right on the money, the true nature of the situation has escaped his practical lawyer’s mind completely. Let the twist endings begin...
Those twist endings are the biggest problem with this movie. Up until the concluding scene, The Tomb of Ligeia looks like it’s on its way to being Corman’s finest contribution to the Poe movie subgenre. The frequent outdoor photography and the use of real ruins in rural England for the exterior of Fell’s abbey make for a striking and advantageous contrast with the nothing-but-sound-stages-and-matte-paintings technique employed for the earlier films in the Corman-AIP Poe cycle. Price is in top form as Verden Fell, and Elizabeth Shepherd puts in a strong performance in her Barbara Steele-like dual role (though having Steele herself in this movie would have been even better). That climax, though, is a real problem. If any aspiring horror movie directors or screenwriters are reading this, allow me to offer some advice: one twist ending is all you need. And if you absolutely must use more than that, stop at two, for fuck’s sake!!!! The Tomb of Ligeia’s ending has an utterly ridiculous quadruple twist, and you can see the returns diminishing right before your eyes as it unfolds in all its florid glory. The recycled footage from Corman’s own The Fall of the House of Usher doesn’t help, either.