Monday, October 24, 2011

Gloom from the Tomb

When it comes to Poe on film, you might as well give up on comparing the films to the stories. Filmmakers hardly ever pay any heed to what Edgar Allan Poe actually wrote. The movies are jumping off points for improvisation. Certainly, that's how Roger Corman went about it, and Corman is an inevitable yardstick for films, too, I guess. So color me surprised to discover that The Tomb (2009, directed by Michael Staininger) finds a way to do it both ways: it's veers wildly off model only to discover that what's in Poe's story is pretty durable. It's a neat trick. The movie has problems, though, and not the least of them is the fact that Corman's version of the same story, The Tomb of Ligeia, is one of the best of his Poe films. I think Corman might have admired how the filmmakers have gone about this, though. They've gone to eastern Europe (and St. Louis, which is like eastern Europe for filming purposes: cheap and evocative), they've hired a well-known science fiction and fantasy writer in John Shirley to write the screenplay, and they've populated the cast with familiar actors perhaps on the downward spiral.

The story here follows one Jonathan Merrick, an academic who is due to marry the fair Rowena, an opera singer on the verge of stardom. At a lecture on the romantic poets, his eye is caught by the dark Ligeia Romanova, who steals him away. Ligeia has dark secrets, though. She suffers from a rare family malady that she keeps at bay through sorcerous means. Her experiments in the metaphysical involve extracting the souls from people and feeding on their energy. She bewitches Jonathan and soon they are married. He restores her to her ancestral home in Ukraine, but soon discovers her dark secrets and vows to leave her. She throws herself from her mansion's tower, and Jonathan is free to marry Rowena, who inexplicably takes him back. But Ligeia isn't done with Jonathan, because she's marshalled the forces of the spirit world against him and manages to possess Rowena. Tragedy ensues.

As I say, this is fairly close to what actually happens in Poe, though in terms of individual incidents, it's very far afield indeed. This movie has a lot of incidents to cover during its run time to take Jonathan from where he starts the film to where he ends it. It has a crowded plot, and director Michael Staininger doesn't quite know how to elide some of the film's ideas without giving each of them their time center stage. It's a cluttered movie, and a depressingly literal one that leaves no room for ambiguity. What happens on screen has no meaning beyond what happens on screen. The Tomb also falls into some stock Gothic effects: stormy nights, ruins in the countryside, the eerie mansion, the evil woman in black, the virtuous woman in white. It's kind of naive this way.

Sofya Skya is some kind of goth girl fantasy as Ligeia, played in the film as an absinth-swilling, soul stealing femme fatale. Wes Bentley's is no Vincent Price in the lead, but he does dissolution well enough. Kaitlin Doubleday is white bread as Rowena, and frankly, I'd take Ligeia of the two, given that she has agency of her own. Rowena is totally an object of patriarchal authority, passed from her father to her husband as a kind of commodity (Rowena's father is well aware of Jonathan's wealth). Speaking of which, Michael Madsen plays Rowena's father and I'm coming to the realization that Madsen is turning into Lawrence Tierney as he ages. If I close my eyes during his scenes in this movie, I can almost here Tierney's growl. Eric Roberts is on hand, too, as the caretaker of Ligeia's mansion, and he affects a distracting Slavic accent that makes him sound like he's doing Bela Lugosi. Neither actor is on screen enough to steal the movie.

In all, The Tomb is a diverting way to spend an hour and a half and it doesn't overstay its welcome. It's pretty to look at, regardless, with well-chosen locations and nicely muted, nicely dismal cinematography. But it lurches from plot point to plot point and what should be disturbing just comes off as goofy. That's a risk when you make Gothic movies, which may be why Gothics aren't made that often anymore.

Current tally: 21 films

First time viewings: 20

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