The last of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Roger Corman directed for American International Pictures - though by no means the last one that AIP cranked out - The Tomb of Ligeia is the most polished and classy film of the entire cycle, and it is not uncommon to find people arguing, on those grounds, that it is the best. I am not one of them, but it's still an excellent conclusion to the cycle, and a fine achievement of penny-pinching filmmaking of the sort that Corman did better than anyone else.

Technically, it wasn't an AIP movie at all: for somewhere along the line, Corman discovered that the British government had any number of tax incentives for American filmmakers and stars to drift across the Atlantic and work on British productions. Seeing a grand possibility to get more bang for his buck than he could in the States, Corman arranged with producer Pat Green and Anglo-Amalgamated to act as his front, and proceed to make the most lavish Poe movie of them all, aided considerably by the fact that for once, he could afford location photography and that England had a good selection of ready-made Gothic locations in the form of all the run-down old castles peppering the countryside.

And so, instead of AIP's standing sets, The Tomb of Ligeia was produced at the almost 900-year-old Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, and while I bow to nobody in my love for an effusively artificial movie set, it's impossible to deny that an actual ancient stone building has the kind of decrepit atmosphere that all of Daniel Haller's lovingly crafted low-budget efforts could never, ever replicate. Even the interiors done at Shepperton look rather more convincing than all but the very best of the earlier Poe movies. And all of this matters: while in a lot of ways, the screenplay (by Robert Towne, writing only his second-ever feature screenplay) is one of the flimsier in the cycle, the locations are so thick with menacing mood that the film's narrative shortcomings frequently don't even register unless you're specifically looking for them.

Taken from Poe's 1838 story "Liegeia", the film opens with a funeral: Lady Ligeia Fell, wife of Verden Fell (Vincent Price), has died, though her husband is convinced that she has unlocked the secret to returning from the grave. He might even have something there: the burial is rudely interrupted by a black cat that jumps on Ligeia's casket right at the exact moment that her eyes pop open, freaking her husband out terribly (why, exactly, there was a glass panel in her coffin right where her face would be, is left pointedly unaddressed). This is lightly dismissed as being a final reflex action of her dying muscles, but I imagine we all know better than that.

Some time later, a fox hunt is bounding through the countryside, and one of the hunters, a pretty blonde woman, Lady Rowena Trevanion (Elizabeth Shepherd) takes a wrong turn and ends up by Ligeia's tomb. She peers at it curiously, but gets two huge shocks right in a row: the black cat pouncing at her from nowhere, and the gaunt figure of Verden Fell, wearing a curious pair of sunglasses, sweeping in to see what's the matter. The second of these occurrences is enough to make Rowena faint dead away, just before a certain Christopher Gough (John Westbrook), who has some unstated romantic claim on the girl, comes along to find her. He knows Fell a little, and they bring Rowena back the gloomy abbey where Fell lives, to tend to her injuries. Somewhat amazingly, she manages to fall for the pale, sun-averse, dead-wife-obsessed spectre who has rescued her, and in no time at all, they're married.

The marriage goes about as well as could be expected, and before very long, strange things start occurring: that black cat has it out for the second Lady Fell, apparently, and Verden comes to the belief that the spirit of his wife is trying to come back to the world of the living by possessing Rowena. Christopher's fears are significantly more prosaic: he just assumes that Fell lied about Ligeia's death, and that she is in hiding somewhere, plotting with her husband to drive Rowena mad for ends unknown. Since this is a Poe movie, it's not terribly hard to guess which of these two men is closer to the mark, although it remains tantalisingly possible throughout that Fell has just gone completely off the deep end and is imagining all of his wife's spectral doings (a neat tip of the hat to the story, which according to one line of thought is all the hallucinations of an opium addict).

All things considered, this plays fair by the story it's based upon - I am, in fact, tempted to say that The Tomb of Ligeia bears more of a resemblance to the source material than any of Corman's Poe movies since the first one, House of Usher. This says more about the Poe movies than Towne's screenplay, admittedly: the black cat is such an important figure in this film that it was very nearly titled The Tomb of the Cat, and there is, in point of fact, no cat in "Ligeia". Nor a Christopher Gough. But compared to the wholesale invention of Premature Burial or The Raven, those are tiny changes.

Playing fair by a short story, even a pretty good one (it was a favorite of George Bernard Shaw) is not the same as being an unimpeachably great screen story, though. It's not very hard to walk out of the movie and conclude that there is not, ultimately, 81 minutes worth of story in The Tomb of Ligeia, and that results in some wheel-spinning: a huge portion of the middle seems to consist of restating the same point over and over again, and the final 10 minutes are a hectic dogpile of ideas that try to wrap things up in a clean way, but largely come across as hopelessly complicated.

That's what the atmosphere is for, though, and the film has atmosphere in spades: shot by Hammer Studios veteran Arthur Grant, The Tomb of Ligeia is as thick with gloom as any Poe film since the very first one, and the trip to England, and the chance to shoot outdoors and use real locations instead of matte paintings clearly did Corman a world of good. It's a visual treat, and while I personally prefer the presentational, theatrical quality of a House of Usher or The Haunted Palace, it's probably the case that, objectively, this is the finest piece of visual storytelling the cycle.

If there is one huge, criminal disappointment, it's that Price doesn't have very much to do, and he really doesn't do it with much enthusiasm, and particularly coming right off of The Masque of the Red Death, one of his most gung-ho performances ever, the hushed, plaintive Verden Fell is altogether lacking in the steaming hamminess and operatic extravagance that made Price who he was - it's not in any way a deficient performance, just a subdued one, and perhaps that's because the film itself is so much less stylistically excessive than the rest of the Poe cycle. It was not his own farewell to Poe movies, not by any stretch, but it's dismaying that the final Price/Corman collaboration should find the actor in such an uncharacteristically sedate mode. Ah well. The film works without Price being on fire, and that is ultimately good enough: better for a striking and haunting film with a fine but unexceptional central performance than the other way around. The Tomb of Ligeia isn't the best of the Corman Poe movies, but it's absolutely good enough to leave us feeling like he ducked out on a high note.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)