The last of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, Tomb of Ligeia (1964) is generally considered the second best of the series, with top honors going to Masque of the Red Death. Yet, while Ligeia may not be as “finished” as the earlier film (to quote the New York Times review), it represents Corman channeling Hitchcock by creating a thematic cousin to Rebecca.
Adapted from a Poe short story by Robert Towne (Chinatown), Tomb of Ligeia stars Vincent Price as Verden Fell, a Victorian gentleman recovering from the death of his beloved wife Ligeia. To perhaps even his own surprise, he meets and quickly marries the strong-willed Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) and brings her to his dilapidated country estate. Rowena quickly learns that Ligeia still maintains a hold on Verden, whether it’s through supernatural means or merely in Verden’s mind. Like the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, she believes she must battle the memories—or ghost—of Ligeia in order to save her marriage. But unlike the second Mrs. de Winter, Rowena begins to worry that she is becoming Ligeia.
An example of the abbey’s influence is when Rowena, under Verden’s hypnotic spell, inexplicably becomes Ligeia. At first, this appears to be a supernatural occurrence, but it can also be explained by the influence of the abbey (containing memories of Ligeia) on Rowena’s subconscious mind. No matter where she goes in the abbey, Rowena is confronted by memories of Ligeia (e.g., Ligeia’s cat and portrait…shades of the dog and painting in Rebecca). In fact, the influence of the abbey and its memories are so strong that Rowena begins to dream about Ligeia.
Corman also creates a supernatural quality through his use of narrative viewpoints. Throughout Ligeia, it is difficult to discern who is telling the story and when the camera is being subjective. Corman seems to change viewpoints as the film progresses, presenting his story from four different viewpoints: third-person objective, Ligeia, Rowena, and Verden.
However, once Rowena enters the abbey, the film begins to change its narrative. Sometimes, it seems as if Ligeia is the camera and she is spying on Rowena and Verden. Corman's camera peeks into bedrooms and follows Rowena down the darkened hallways in long dolly shots. The camera (Ligeia) spies on Rowena and her former beau Christopher when they have breakfast on the porch. As they talk about Verden’s strange behavior, the camera zooms beyond them and to the tower. It seems as if Ligeia is laughing at them because they know nothing of her secret.
Finally, the camera also becomes subjective at several points in the film, allowing the audience to see what Rowena or Verden is seeing. This subjectivity often adds a supernatural quality to something that could be easily explained. Following the cat’s first attack on Rowena, she becomes convinced that the cat is trying to keep her away from Verden. This belief continues to the point where she believes that the cat is Ligeia. When Corman gives us a close-up of Rowena's face, then a shot of the cat, you see the cat the way Rowena does--as a creature intent on killing her. Hence, the montage scene in which Rowena runs from room to room and finds the cat waiting in each is purely subjective. Rowena imagined the cat’s movements and we saw them because she did.
Throughout Tomb of Ligeia, Corman plays with the audience’s perceptions. He has structured his film so that it can be viewed as either a supernatural tale or a suspense drama. Corman’s dividing line between the two is a very thin one. More importantly, he has created a finely-textured film in which what we see isn’t influenced by just our own perceptions. The eye of the beholder is important, but of equal weight is the identity of the beholder. Ligeia challenges the viewer to take note of who is seeing what…as well as what they are really seeing.