Saturday, June 18, 2011

Roger Corman Blogathon: Creating an Illusion of the Supernatural in "Tomb of Ligeia"

(This review is part of the June 17-19 Roger Corman Blogathon, hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. Click here to check out the rest of the blogathon entries. The review below was originally written in 1979 for a film class taught by noted Hitchcock historian James Naremore. It does contain plot spoilers and assumes you’ve seen the movie. For the record, I got an A- on it…but an A for the course!)

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.

While the parallels with Rebecca are obvious, Hitchcock never suggested a supernatural presence. Corman, on the other hand, strives to create the illusion of it through his use of setting and narrative viewpoint. One of the most important characters in Ligeia is the abbey on Verden’s estate. In fact, the film’s title refers to the abbey, which is—in reality—the tomb of Ligeia. By treating the abbey as a character, Corman suggests that it is alive or perhaps even haunted by a ghost. There are no doors which open and close at will; Corman is more subtle than that. Instead, the abbey becomes the setting of all the “supernatural” events. As long as Verden and Rowena are outside of the abbey (e.g., on their honeymoon), they are happy. However, once they return to the decaying abbey, their happiness is shattered.

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.

The film begins with a third-person narrative, as if Corman is telling the story and we are watching. This viewpoint represents the “reality” in Ligeia. There is nothing supernatural about events such as the fox hunt or Verden’s sudden appearance at the graveyard. And nothing supernatural occurs while Rowena and Verden are on their honeymoon. As long as Corman remains outside the abbey, his narrative viewpoint remains objective and realistic.

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.

A better example of this technique is in the final scene. Verden carries Rowena out of Ligeia's tower room. When he lays her on the stone floor, he sees that she has transformed into Ligeia. This would appear to be the most supernatural event in the movie: We see Verden carry out Rowena; we see him lay Ligeia down. Yet, Corman has deceived us by changing viewpoints in the scene. Verden did carry out Rowena, but she did not change into Ligeia--except in Verden’s mind. When Christopher walks into the room, we see the two lovers from his viewpoint. Verden is holding Rowena, not Ligeia (as he imagines). When Verden starts to strangle her, he too sees Rowena. But it has been Rowena all the time, because Verden imagined the transformation.

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.


  1. Never in a million years would I have made the connection to Hitchcock when considering or reviewing this film! But if you want to go the Hitchcock route...I'm sure I can throw in a thing or two...

    You rightfully mentioned "Rebecca" and compared its themes of obsession with a "dead" woman. But I'm a little surprised that you didn't also mention "Vertigo." Ferguson's obsession with the "dead" woman controls and permeates all he does. Of course, the big difference is that while Ferguson wanted to be obsessed, Vincent Price's character in "Tomb of Ligeria" seemed to be repulsed with the obsession.

    I could probably also draw comparisons to Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" and Robert Altman's "3 Women"...but this is just a comment. Something like that would require a blog post of its own!

    But in the meantime I want to personally thank you for participating in this blogathon! I always felt that Ligeria was one of Corman's more cerebral films...even for his Poe cycle. It required a surgical eye to assess and you have done a marvelous job dissecting this little macabre masterpiece.

    Also, don't forget to vote for the Readers' Choice Award on Monday and to vote for the topic of our next blogathon by voting at the poll on my site's home page.

  2. Rick,

    I have not seen this one, believe it is the only one of Corman's horror films I have not seen, but this is one of your best reviews for sure! From your desription, the film sounds more complex than most of Corman's work and Price is priceless (excuse the bad pun) in all of these RC films. I have to add this to my list of "to see" films which continues to grow and grow.

    - John Greco

  3. Rick,
    This was such a well written review of one of Corman's films that I haven't had the pleasure of seeing.

    With your description of RC's style here with touches of Hitchcock and my favorite film, Rebecca it certainly has me interested in finding it right away.

    When first seeing the poster with the black cat (I immediately thought of Simone Simon) then knowing RC's other work I was pleasantly surprised after reading your beautifully written review.
    Fantastic from beginning to end as always Rick.

  4. Rick, this was a well thought out work, especially for a film paper! I liked your excellent comparison with "Rebecca." To take it a step further, Verden may "become" like Mrs. Danvers. Away from the abbey he is able to love Rowena but returning to it, he wants Ligeia, as Mrs. Danvers did. Rowena is less like the second Mrs. de Winter but unfortunately neither is Verden like Maxim when at home at the abbey, which puts her in great peril. Great blog, all!

  5. This has to be one of your most intricately thoughtful reviews, Rick. I would have given you an A plus! Your link with Rebecca is a very interesting concept. I've always loved the Corman/Poe movies, but I had to get a little older to really appreciate Ligeia. It is certainly the most subtle of Corman's Poe cycle.

    The part of your review that struck me as your best work was in discussing the point of view technique, always changing, the "eye of the beholder" as you so aptly put it. That is the key to the nuances of the film that keep the viewer wondering and thinking.

    Excellent work on Ligeia, Rick. Kudos!

  6. I haven't seen Tomb of Ligeia, but all these Hitchcock references are making me think that I really, really need to. And breaking down the camera movements and the subjective reality...well, it was a pleasure to read.

  7. Thanks so much for your terrific review - your point of view analysis was insightful. With the Hitchock/Rebecca comparisons that you make, it's interesting to wonder if Corman may have been influenced by Hitchock in his Poe cycle - certainly Corman's adaptations of Fall of the House of Usher and Premature Burial use Hitchcockian motifs of romantic obsession, the influence of interior spaces (in houses), and subjective viewpoint. Excellent post!

  8. I love reading reviews like this because it allows me to see things from a different perspective--I never really thought about the parallels to Rebecca (and as Nathanael mentioned, Vertigo) but they're undeniably present and accounted for. I'd personally rank Ligeia below Red Death and Pit and the Pendulum but it still remains one of my favorite Cormans and demonstrates that when it came to making the most of economical filmmaking Rog simply had no peer. Great review, Rick!

  9. Very insightful review. I also noticed a bit of a similarity to Rebecca.

  10. Rick, if I'd been your teacher, I'd have given you an A+ as well! I've never had an opportunity to see Corman's version of TOMB OF LIGEIA, but after reading your intelligent, beautifully crafted post, I'll definitely watch for it on TCM and such, especially since you mentioned a strong REBECCA/Hitchcock undercurrent in the film. Well-done, good sir!

  11. A wonderful post! I love Tomb of Ligeia, and just recently bought the official DVD of it, having worn out my self-recorded copies. You're so right that there are some really clever Hitchcockian elements, but I never would have thought of the similarity to Rebecca -- and now I can't help but think it!

    Vincent in those glasses... oh my yes.