Cinema St. Louis is holding a Vincentennial celebration this week to honor Vincent Price's hundredth birthday. They've got a fabulous schedule of films, including a Laura/Dragonwyck double feature and Price's hilarious Champagne for Caesar. I'm probably not going to have the opportunity to see the showings I really want to see (including showings tonight of The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia introduced by Roger Corman his ownself!). But I'll get over it. I live two and a half hours away from the festivities and I'm starting to weigh the price of gas with my need to see movies I already own in a festival setting. I'd like to support the whole thing, though, because these kinds of things are important to me. My partner and I may go see The Raven and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, even though there's nothing particularly special about those showings, unfortunately. In any case, if you happen to be in St. Louis this week, check it out.
My own favorites of Price's films are non-horror movies like the aforementioned Laura and the crazed His Kind of Woman, and I take some solace in the fact that they were Price's favorites, too. My favorites of his horror movies were Witchfinder General and Theater of Blood. Tonight's showings of The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia represent my favorites of his work with Corman, and since I can't be there to hear Roger speak, I'll have to content myself with reprinting my thoughts about The Tomb of Ligeia here in honor of the event. From 2006:
Synopsis: Verden Fell has just buried his wife, the heretical Lady Ligeia, whose belief in her own immortality haunt Fell. After some time has passed, Fell meets the vivacious Lady Rowena, who stumbles upon Ligeia's grave during a fox hunt. He falls in love with her, and she is intrigued by him. Soon, they are married and vacation on the continent. But when they return to Fell's crumbling ancestral home, his behavior becomes erratic and he withdraws from his knew wife, a wife that so resembles his Lady Ligeia. Is Lady Rowena Ligeia come again? She gives Fell a shock when Ligeia's words come from her mouth during a demonstation of mesmerism. Fell is having spells, too, when he withdraws into a secret part of the manor. Rowena probes her husband's secrets and discovers the shocking truth of his devotion to Lady Ligeia..
It's a pity that Roger Corman grew tired of the Poe films when he did. By the end, he had the formula down so well that the resulting movies began to serve as bold stylistic experiments. The final Poe films demonstrate that Corman was a first-rate director when he set his mind to it. Corman was producing his own films by this time, so it's entirely possible that the increased stylization of the late Poe films is due to the free hand Corman had now that he was out from under the commercial imperatives imposed by Sam Arkoff at AIP. The Tomb of Ligeia is the last of Corman's Poe movies. Alone of Corman's Poe films, this one takes the camera and heads out into the English countryside where Corman and company have found some crackerjack locations. This by itself gives the film a different "feel" than the other Poe films, but the rest of the film has a different visual design too. After the wild color experiments of The Masque of the Red Death, this one dials back the color and becomes an exercise in placing bright colors in selected areas of a largely monochromatic frame. It makes for a pleasing formal exercise, and one that builds a large degree of mood. Corman and his film editor, Alfred Cox, have punctuated the design of the film with some striking editorial flourishes--the most artful being a cross-cut sequence between Vincent Price at Ligeia's graveside while Elizabeth Shepherd chases a black cat into the forbidden bell tower. While it's not as showy as The Masque of the Red Death, in its own way, it is more stylish.
My own experience of the film is colored by its video presentations over the years. I first saw it on television many, many years ago. Like many of the films I saw on late-night television in those days, this one was eviscerated by commercials and by a crop job that eliminated most of the film's careful production design. The Tomb of Ligeia has always been the most divisive of Corman's Poe films, hailed as the best of them by some critics and condemned as the worst of them by others. I suspect that this dichotomy is a function of the way the viewer first sees the film. The DVD edition was a revelation to me, restoring the widescreen design of the film and elimating a lot of the grain that showed up in previous video and television editions.
Unfortunately, the whole house of cards is built on a pretty standard screenplay (by future Oscar-winner Robert Towne) that rehashes most of the previous films in the series. Vincent Price plays Verdan Fell, yet another variant of Roderick Usher haunted by the prospect that his dead wife will some how return from the grave. When he remarries the vivacious Lady Rowena, a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to the dead Ligeia...well, you get the picture. This is another exercise in Gothic necrophilia, though in its particulars, this film also resembles Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, as well as the other Poe films. Corman gets some props for introducing a degree of ambiguity into the proceedings by suggesting that Lady Rowena really IS Ligeia come again, but it drops this idea in favor of a more literal necrophiliac climax.
The real surprise in the film is the performance by Elizabeth Shepherd, who manages to hold the frame against Vincent Price, though, admittedly, Price has restrained his usual histrionics to give her more of the film. It's rare to find an actor giving Price as good as he gives during this period of his career, but here, the actor himself seems to (correctly) sense that giving the stage to Shepherd will only enhance his own performance. It's one of Price's best turns of the 1960s, and evidence that acting is a collaborative effort.
Perhaps fittingly, this film re-uses the burning barn footage Corman shot for House of Usher, putting an appropriate bookmark at the end of the series. Maybe Corman was right to quit when he did, because that footage had long since worn out its welcome.