American International Pictures’ Corman-Poe film cycle remains the finest interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary heritage on the big screen, and it reached its opus with 1965’s The Tomb of Ligeia. Here, Peter Fuller reveals some amazing facts about Roger Corman’s Poe series swansong.
1) Roger Corman knew The Tomb of Ligeia would be his last Poe film.
Wanting to move onto more contemporary projects, Corman planned to go out on a high with his eighth film in the Poe cycle: a psychologically driven love story fused with Gothic horror and melodrama that replaced the gloom of the studio for the sunshine of the English countryside. Proposed titles were The House at the End of the World and The Tomb of the Cat.
2) It was all handsomely captured in Eastmancolor by cinematographer Arthur Grant.
Grant (1915–1972) is best known for his long association with Hammer Film Productions, where his films included Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), The Devil Rides Out (1968) and his final film Demons of the Mind in 1972.
His exquisite camerawork captures Ligeia‘s gorgeous locations in all their glory, while the art direction (by uncredited Corman regular Daniel Haller and Colin Southcott) uses a bold primary colour palette throughout to extenuate the film’s themes of life (light) and death (darkness).
This is very much evident in the physical appearance of the two leads, as Elizabeth Shepherd’s feisty Rowena is decked in red velvets and blue silks while Vincent Price’s brooding Verden Fell adopts pitch-black funerale garb and wrap-around sunglasses to combat his ‘morbid reaction to light’.
3) Corman shot it in 25 days.
Working in the UK afforded Corman more time to shoot the film as, in the US, he was limited to 15-day schedules. And while the British crews worked at a pace that he was not used too, the longer time frame (five weeks in total, beginning in June 1964) actually gave Corman the chance to do a full week of location shooting as well as an extra week in the studio. But in order for the film to qualify for a tax subsidy, Corman had to give his title of producer to a British one, Pat Green, who worked on all of AIP’s European titles, including The Oblong Box and Madhouse (his last for the company).
4) Location! Location! Location!
After doing a recce in a hired mini, Corman found the perfect setting for his haunting tale, Castle Acre Priory, a ruined Abbey in Swaffham, Norfolk. The other suitably-atmospheric locations that he used included the 900-year-old Church of St John in Swaffham and Stonehenge (although stand-ins were used in place of the film’s two leads).
5) Ligeia is one of Poe’s earliest works
First published in 1838, Ligeia is an exquisite Gothic short story narrated by an unnamed, opium-addled nobleman who retreats inside a ruined abbey in after the death of his wife, the raven-haired Ligeia.
A ‘moment of mental alienation’ leads him to take a new bride, the Lady Rowena. But, still morbidly obsessed with his lost love, the narrator pays little attention to Rowena. That is until she falls ill, composes The Conqueror Worm, and quotes lines attributed to 17th-century philosopher Joseph Glanvill and, on her deathbed, appears to undergo a chilling metamorphosis into Ligeia…
For his efforts, Poe was paid just US$10 for the story which George Bernard Shaw later regarded as a literary wonder and its story ‘unparalleled and unapproached’.
6) Corman’s story is totally original and only evokes the spirit of Poe
In order to dramatise Poe’s tale, Corman constructed a tragic love story, set in the year 1821, which turns Poe’s unnammed narrator into Verden Fell, a reclusive widower who lives in a ruined abbey with his manservant Kenrick (Oliver Johnston), and remains haunted by the memory of late wife, the lady Ligeia.
However, on meeting the lady Rowena Trevanion (Shepherd), Fell falls in love again and the couple marry. But Ligea’s forceful spirit continues to haunt the very walls of the abbey and still has Fell under her influence. Soon it becomes a life and death struggle for both Rowena and Fell to finally break free of Ligeia…
7) There’s a Poe-etic link to Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo?
Poe’s morbid obsession with death and resurrection (especially when it concerns a beautiful and beloved woman) heavily influenced both Corman’s Ligeia and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it’s plain to see when you compare them. Both feature a single actress playing dual roles: Rowena/Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) and Judy/Madeleine (Kim Novak), and both feature a highly symbolic scene (Corman also also greatly informed by Frued) involving a bell tower. Incidentally, the surrealist director Luis Buñuel also used the device in very much the same way in his 1970 period piece Tristana.
8) The screenplay was by a future Oscar winner
Robert Towne (b 1934) is best known for his Academy Award-winning original screenplay for Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), widely considered as one of the greatest screenplays ever written. He was also the uncredited writer on big hits like The Godfather and Marathon Man. Incidentally, he also acted in Corman’s 1960s sci-fi’s Last Woman on Earth and Creature from the Haunted Sea. His script for Ligeia captures the essence of Poe, but also bears the influence of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Patrick Hamilton’s Gas Light. Uncredited is Roger Corman’s personal assistant on the film, Paul Mayersberg, who did rewrites of the script.
9) Vincent Price gives a noticeably subdued performance
At 53, Vincent Price may have been a little over-the-hill to play a Byronic-styled romantic lead, but, as he was still tied to American International Pictures (until 1973), he was forced to comply to whatever role came his way. And, Vincent being Vincent, he excels at making ‘the unbelievable believeable’ – tousled wig and all. Yes, Vincent’s trademark eye-rolling is evident, but he still gives a rather restrained performance.
And his iconic creepy malevolence is superbly illustrated in two graveyard speeches. Shepherd recalls the first: ‘I remember watching him create that moment at Ligeia’s funeral when he reads from Glanville, and the priest says, ‘Blasphemy!’ and he snaps the book closed and declares, ‘Benediction’. It is daring, full of panache and utterly believable – passion and high style combined’.
One thing that Price did like about making the film was that he got to be clean-shaven for a change: ‘I looked in the mirror and for once Vincent Price doesn’t look back’.
Corman originally had Richard Chamberlain in mind for the role, but Price came with the project, and when he broke the news to screenwriter Robert Towne (who did not like the idea of Price in the role) he said: ‘Don’t worry, Bob, I’ve got Marlene Dietrich’s make-up man!’.
10) Elizabeth Shepherd was original Mrs Emma Peel
London-born Shepherd (August 12, 1936) is best remembered for role in Ligeia, but she was often seen on British TV in the late-1950s and early 1960s in shows such as Emergency-Ward 10, The Citadel and Amelia.
In 1964, she landed the role of Mrs Emma Peel in TV’s The Avengers. After filming all of The Town of No Return and part of The Murder Market, she was replaced by Diana Rigg (who famously would go onto work with Vincent Price on Theatre of Blood). Shepherd’s other iconic foray into horror was as the ill-fated journalist Joan Hart in Omen II: Damien, directed by Don Taylor (whose second wife was Hazel Court – Vincent’s co-star in The Raven and Masque of the Red Death). Primarily a stage actress, Shepherd continues to perform in productions throughout the US and Canada, where she resides.
11) Where have I heard John Westbrook’s voice before
The English stage and screen actor (1 November 1922 – 16 June 1989) who plays Christopher Gough, Rowena’s one-time suitor, was well-known to British audiences in the 1960s as he was the reader of A Book at Bedtime and Story Time for BBC Radio. But horror fans will recognise his voice from Corman’s Masque of the Red Death as the messenger of Death.
12) The black cat also gives a star turn
The other uncredited star of the film is the black cat which is inhabited by the spirit of Ligeia and provides some of the film’s most atmospheric moments. It also dominated the publicity for the film which had taglines like: CAT or WOMAN or a Thing Too Evil to Mention? and His first wife is dead- but still a little CATTY! Three cats were used in the film. The one that appears in the opening sequence actually ran off during shooting and was never found again. Which must have upset its owner, a elderly local lady in Swaffham.
13) The film’s interior set went up in flames!
While the exteriors are all shot on location at Castle Acre Priory, the crew were not allowed to move any of the furniture inside as it was a national monument. As such, the film’s interiors were all shot at Shepperton Studios, where flammable liquid rubber cement was used to paint the sets. Of course, someone accidentally lit a match and the whole thing exploded before the camera started rolling. As such, the set had to be rebuilt.
14) Price thought Corman was a bit of a firebug.
Fire is a common motif in all of the Poe films, with Corman often including stock footage from a burning barn during the climax (and he does so again in Ligeia).
Asked if his horror pictures ever frightened him, Price often remarked: ‘I was never frightened by the plots. The scariest thing was all those fires blazing. I have been signed many times. But then Roger’s a fire fiend. He’s a firebug.’
While filming the climactic scenes for The Tomb of Ligeia, the fire effects got out of control, causing Price to help Shepherd to safety. ‘It was really terrifying – reality carried a little too far,’ said Price of the incident. ‘Elizabeth and I had to drag ourselves out from under the timber. I grabbed poor Elizabeth by the hair and dragged her off the set so quick!’
15) The music score is a big departure from the other Poe films
Kenneth V Jones (b 1924) is an accomplished British composer and conductor, who wrote for a various of film scores in the 1950, 1960s and 1970s, and was the founder of the Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra. His score for Tomb of Ligeia uses lots of wind instruments to produce a melancholy melody that suits the moody and look of the film. Jones’ other scores include Freddie Francis’ The Brain (1962) and Curtis Harrington’s Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) and he so deserving of wider appreciation.
16) It had a great publicity stunt for its US premiere
The Tomb of Ligeia had its world premiere in London on 12 December 1964 (according to the BFI). Its US premiere, however, took place on 20 January 1965, and was held in LA’s Hollywood Boulevard alongside a suitably spooky publicity stunt. A horse-drawn hearse led a motorcade bearing Vincent Price, and his ghoulish brides: Elsa Lanchester, Vampira (aka Maila Nurmi) and Mark of the Vampire’s Caroll Borland. Oh, to have a time machine to see that gig!
17) The film’s campaign booklet also had some neat gimmicks
These included getting theatres offering smelling salts to cinema patrons, having a costumed doctor or nurse in attendance, and using a strait-jacket with a sign calling attention, ‘Only to be used in case of severe shock’. Other elaborate ideas involved a special midnight preview for gravediggers and having the foyer decorated with a headstone and a live black cat.
18) There was even a comic book
To tie-in with the film, a comic book was also released by Dell, who previously released one on Corman’s Masque of the Red Death and would follow it up with Wargods of the Deep.
19) The Tomb of Ligeia was released to great acclaim
On its release at the end of 1964, the film got Corman some of the best reviews of his entire career.
The Los Angeles Times praised the film’s ‘fluid camerawork, first-rate color, sumptuous period sets and impassioned performance from Vincent Price’, while The Times called it ‘a film which could without absurdity be spoken of in the same breath as [Jean] Cocteau’s Orphée ’.
20) Even AIP was stunned by its success
On seeing the final cut, AIP’s Sam Arkoff, concluded that it was just another ‘good picture, with enough sadomasochism, necrophilia, and black magic to appeal to the tastes of even the most aberrant moviegoers’. But he was ‘stunned’ by the good notices. And it was because of its success that Arkoff and AIP’s London-based chief, James Nicholson, decided (in the words of Vincent Price) to continue ‘milking the Poe cow’, even without Corman’s involvement. But none that followed would match the stylish brilliance of The Tomb of Ligeia.