Monday, October 31, 2011

Octoberfilms: "The Tomb of Ligeia" & "An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe" (1964, '70)

And so, on Halloween day, we close the tin reel can lid with the final post of this year's Octoberfilms and a respectable conclusion to Roger Corman's AIP Poe series from the 1960s. And here's also a final happy 100th birthday shout-out to Corman's Poe-pourri star attraction, Vincent Price.

After seven cinematic interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe tales for American International Pictures — from House of Usher to the comic romp of The Raven to the vivid color dreamscape of The Masque of the Red Death — producer/director Roger Corman had grown tired of the repetitive series. Eager for some travel, he shot Masque (1964) and his eighth and final Poe film, The Tomb of Ligeia, in England. Not coincidentally, those are the two most lauded as the masterstrokes that concluded his Poe cycle at its gorgeous, broody apex.

Of all the Corman-Poe-Price films, The Tomb of Ligeia is the least celebrated. This one tends to get lost down the memory hole, yet it competes admirably with Masque as one of Corman's most lavishly executed mood pieces, with the highest production values of his faux-Poe titles.

The Tomb of Ligeia's richly portrayed and meticulous screenplay expands Poe's narratively flimsy early short story "Ligeia." It was written by no less than Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Chinatown, the first two Mission Impossible films). It's a pleasure to say that he's still active here in the final third of 2011. Earlier this month GK Films announced that Towne is set to write Battle of Britain, and he's currently writing "Compadre," an original television pilot, for FX. Internet rumors have attached him as writer-director on a remake of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, though if true that project seems to be stalled in development hell. Still, that's a pretty good way to spend the past fifty years, I'd say.

The Tomb of Ligeia gives us Price as melancholic widower Verden Fell, who lives with only his servants in an enormous ancient abbey.

We first see him burying his wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd), her face visible through a glass window in the coffin lid. At the screech of a black cat who has slinked in from another Poe story, Ligeia's eyes snap open. (Fear of premature burial also haunts House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Premature Burial.) Attributing the phenomenon to a mere physical post-mortem response, Fell closes the grave — but it's not long before we must wonder whether Ligeia, a blasphemous woman determined to beat death by the sheer force of her indomitable will, actually achieved her goal.

Spooky manifestations continue after Fell meets vibrant and lovely Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd again, now wholesome blonde), thrown from her horse at Ligeia's grave site. Rowena is attracted to the doomladen, light-sensitive Fell. Although he shuns sunlight and society, and is reluctant to give up mourning his beloved Ligeia, Fell and Rowena soon fall in love.

They marry, and that's when Rowena is driven to the brink of madness by mysterious goings-on, which aren't improved by her husband's strange nocturnal behavior. In their "ill-omened marriage" they share neither bedroom nor bed, and he disappears throughout the night to places unknown.

Before long, Fell realizes that he has two beloved and strong-willed women in his life, one on each side of the Great Divide. Trouble is, the headstrong ex on the far side is working hard to step back through to this one. In a particularly creepy scene, Fell demonstrates the new technique known as hypnotism to their dinner guests. Using Rowena as a willing subject, he's as surprised as anyone when his mesmerized wife speaks in Ligeia's voice: "I will always be your wife ... your only wife."

More ghostly occurrences, several returns of that tormenting black cat, another of Corman's trademark gorgeous nightmare sequences, and a revealing exhumation pass before Rowena discovers the secret behind Fell's nighttime occupations. When she finds him catatonic within a secret room of the abbey, then pulls back the sable drapes of a four-poster bed and sees Ligeia's corpse locked in a recently vacated rigor mortis embrace — then falls into those stiff, open arms — it's the most macabre moment in all the Poe series. The appealingly overwrought climax that follows is an operatic feast of possession and conflagration.

The Tomb of Ligeia lacks Masque of the Red Death's fever-dream energy and surrealism, although the sheer look of Ligeia is stunning in its own right. This is the only Poe film that Corman shot largely outdoors, and no British horror movie had ever displayed such sensational location shooting. Ligeia is visually sumptuous as the fetid ambience of English ruins such as Stonehenge and a 900-year-old abbey (Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk) fills every widescreen inch. Lush photography by Hammer cinematographer Arthur Grant and elaborate dark interiors relish every gothic morsel we love about this series.

Price delivers his innate dignity and intensity with nuanced twists, playing a romantic lead who's also a tragically tortured antihero prone to necrophiliac madness. And aristocratic Shepherd is the best leading lady in the AIPoe canon. It's a shame we didn't get more of her.

Towne's screenplay brings something of a Hitchcockian touch (you can spot points of connection with Vertigo), although it is overly talky and the pacing is sometimes too contemplative, resulting in tedious stretches. But when it all clicks The Tomb of Ligeia is one of Corman's most eyeball-grabbing, admirable achievements.

Nonetheless, the bell was tolling for his Poe films. According to John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows...

The Poe series was a major profit center for AIP as long as the vogue lasted, and Roger Corman was in for the first eight of them. House Of Usher garnered $1.4 million in domestic rentals, a near-record AIP number exceeded only by that year's Goliath and The Barbarians (!), which did $1.8. Pit and The Pendulum was slightly better, and captured a whopping 13,627 bookings, more than a lot of major studio features were getting. American-International really knew how to push its product back then, and they worked hard at good exhibitor relations. Tales Of Terror was the first one to fall below a million, but Corman's comedy approach with The Raven got good word-of-mouth among the kids, and the rentals spiked to $1.2. After that, it was a slippery slope. The Haunted Palace was down to $797,000 --- Masque Of The Red Death tumbled further to $535,000 --- and Roger's last, Tomb Of Ligeia bottomed out at $348,000. Bookings for Ligeia were less than half in number to those of Pit and The Pendulum. It was a great series, but as Sam Arkoff often pointed out, when a thing has run the course, bring down the curtain.

And thus, as the man said, nevermore.

Well, mostly.

After Corman hung up his Poe hat, American International Pictures tried to continue feeding off their success with The Oblong Box ('69) and other films. But the heyday was over, audiences wanted more visceral thrills, and without Corman and his crew the results were at best troubled and tiresome. The world had moved on.

So had Corman's star, Vincent Price. But Price's association with Poe continued, and this popular screen actor reminded us that he was also a respected Broadway veteran by appearing solo in an hour-long TV special, a four-part stage performance called An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. That appears on MGM's "Midnite Movies" DVD with The Tomb of Ligeia. 

An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe is a 53-minute television item videotaped in 1970. Price is all on his own in four dramatic monologues enacting Poe's "The Tell-Tale heart," "The Sphinx," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum." In each, Price appears in a period costume on a small, well-appointed stage like a "black box" theater piece. His interpretations are dynamic and frequently riveting, by turns maniacally intense or slyly humorous or quietly somber. This is simple two-camera TV fare (only "Pendulum" is tricked-out with post-production video flourishes), so Price carries the evening with a strong one-man show that lets him trod the boards again with material that fits him the way Mark Twain fits Hal Holbrook.

On the DVD, Ligeia arrives with two commentary tracks. The better of the two is the newer one with Roger Corman. As in his lucid, revealing commentaries for House of Usher and Pendulum, Corman points out his particular approaches to framing, camera movement, and whatever director's techniques were required to give his films the look and feel of productions with three times his budget. He's especially keen to note the scenes of "pure cinema" where he indulged his love of no-holds-barred filmmaking.

The other commentary is a relic from the old Laserdisc edition. It's a poorly recorded interview between Elizabeth Shepherd and film scholar David Del Valle. It sounds as though it were taped on a cheap cassette recorder in Shepherd's den with the movie playing on a small TV in the background. What she has to say is not completely without interest, but listening to it is such an irksome experience that it seems hardly worth the effort.