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The Tomb of Ligeia / An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe

After seven cinematic interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe works for American International Pictures, from The Fall of the House of Usher to a comic romp (The Raven) to the dreamscape of The Masque of the Red Death, producer/director Roger Corman had grown tired of the repetitive series. Eager for some travel, Corman shot Masque (1964) and his eighth and final Poe film, The Tomb of Ligeia (1965), in England. Those two are lauded as the masterstrokes that concluded his Poe cycle at its gorgeous, broody pinnacle. AIP tried continuing the series without Corman, but the times as well as the audiences and Corman himself had wisely moved on. So had Corman's star, Vincent Price. But Price's association with Poe continued, and this popular screen actor reminded us that he was also a respected Broadway veteran by appearing solo in an hour-long TV special, a four-part stage performance called An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe.

In The Tomb of Ligeia, Price is melancholic widower Verden Fell, who lives with only his servants in an enormous ancient abbey. We first see him burying his wife Ligeia, her face visible through a glass window in the coffin lid. At the screech of a black cat (that has slinked in from another Poe story), Ligeia's eyes snap open. Attributing the phenomenon to a mere physical post-mortem response, Fell closes the grave — but it's not long before we must wonder whether Ligeia, a woman determined to beat death by the sheer force of her indomitable will, actually achieved her goal. Spooky manifestations continue after Fell meets Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd), thrown from her horse at Ligeia's grave site. Rowena is attracted to the doomladen, light-sensitive Fell, and soon the two fall in love. They marry, and that's when Rowena is driven to the brink of madness by mysterious goings-on, which aren't improved by her husband's strange nocturnal behavior. In their "ill-omened marriage" they share neither bedroom nor bed, and he disappears throughout the night to places unknown.

In a particularly creepy scene, Fell demonstrates the new technique known as hypnotism to their dinner guests. Using Rowena as a willing subject, he's as surprised as anyone when his mesmerized wife speaks in Ligeia's voice ("I will always be your wife ... your only wife"). More ghostly occurrences, several returns of the tormenting black cat, one of Corman's trademark gorgeous nightmare sequences, and a revealing exhumation pass before Rowena discovers the secret behind Fell's nighttime occupations. When she finds him catatonic within a secret room of the abbey, then pulls back the curtains of a four-poster bed and sees Ligeia's corpse locked in a recently vacated rigor mortis embrace — then falls into those stiff, open arms — it's the most macabre moment in all the Poe series. The appealingly overwrought climax that follows is an operatic feast of possession and conflagration.

The Tomb of Ligeia lacks Masque of the Red Death's fever-dream energy and surrealism, although the sheer look of Ligeia is stunning in its own right. This is the only Poe film that Corman shot on location and largely outdoors. Ligeia is visually sumptuous as the fetid ambience of English ruins such as Stonehenge and a 900-year-old abbey fills every widescreen inch. Lush photography (by Hammer cinematographer Arthur Grant) and elaborate dark interiors relish every gothic morsel we love about this series. Price delivers his innate dignity and intensity with nuanced twists as both the romantic lead and the (admirably restrained) vessel of necrophilic madness. And aristocratic Shepherd is the best leading lady in the AIPoe canon. The Hitchcockian screenplay by Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Chinatown) is overly talky and the pacing is sometimes too contemplative, resulting in tedious stretches. But when it all clicks Ligeia is one of Corman's most eyeball-grabbing, Poetic achievements.

An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe is a 53-minute television item videotaped in 1970. Price is all on his own in four dramatic monologues enacting Poe's "The Tell-Tale heart," "The Sphinx," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum." In each, Price appears in a period costume on a small, well-appointed stage, like a "black box" theater piece. His interpretations are dynamic and frequently riveting, by turns maniacally intense or slyly humorous or quietly somber. This is simple two-camera TV fare (only "Pendulum" is tricked-out with post-production video flourishes), so Price carries the evening with a strong one-man show that lets him trod the boards again with material that fits him the way Mark Twain fits Hal Holbrook.

*          *          *

On MGM's "Midnite Movies" double-feature disc, The Tomb of Ligeia looks gorgeous with a sterling print, sharp definition, and ripe colors in its full 2.35:1 (anamorphic) widescreen. The DD 2.0 monaural audio is clear and robust and noise-free. Originally taped for television and then duped down to 16mm film, An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe doesn't fare as well. This edition is struck from the 16mm, not the videotape master, so it's not the sharpest version available. (The superior video-mastered print plays occasionally on cable stations such as TCM and the Sci-Fi Channel.) Still, it's in good shape and perfectly watchable. Its DD 2.0 monaural audio likewise qualifies as unremarkable but plenty good enough.

Ligeia arrives here with two commentary tracks. By far the better of the two is the new one with Roger Corman. As in his lucid, revealing commentaries for House of Usher and Pendulum, Corman points out his particular approaches to framing, camera movement, and whatever director's techniques were required to give his films the look and feel of productions with three times his budget. He's especially keen to note the scenes of "pure cinema" where he indulged his love of no-holds-barred filmmaking. The other commentary is a relic from the previous Laserdisc edition. It's a poorly recorded interview between Elizabeth Shepherd and film scholar David Del Valle. It sounds as though it were taped on a cheap cassette recorder in Shepherd's den with the movie playing on a small TV in the background. What she has to say is not completely without interest, but listening to it is such an irksome experience that it seems hardly worth the effort. The original release trailer is here too, of course. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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