As the 1960's dawned, American International Pictures found themselves with a bit of a problem. Sure, they'd been tremendously successful through the 50's, cranking out ultra-low-budget double bills for less than the liquor budget of any given Warner Brothers' epic. But their very success with disposable black & white cheapies made it unlikely that they'd be able to continue much longer. AIP was in a comfortable rut: a highly profitable rut, but a rut nonetheless.
Not that AIP's managers saw it that way. Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson knew they'd come up with a winning formula, and likely would have been content to continue in the same vein until sharply declining returns told them it was time for a change — by which time it might well have been too late.
But somebody realized that there were only so many cheap gangster flicks, so many rubbery Paul Blaisdell monster suits, so many JD drag-racing stories the company could sell to the moviegoing public... somebody knew it was only a matter of time before Sam Arkoff's legendary tight-fistedness caught up with him. And somebody knew this was going to be an impediment to his own career, which had so far been closely tied to AIP's success. And that somebody was a young man named Roger Corman: the man who was the philosopher's stone in AIP's alchemical formula to change dross into box office gold.
(At any rate, ahem, that seems to be how Corman himself remembers it...)
Corman had a phenomenally acute business sense, and tremendous skill at managing people on both sides of the camera; but most of all, he had a genuine passion for film-making. His skill as a director, producer, writer, and all-around problem-solver had helped change AIP's formula from a simple gimmick into a successful money-making strategy. And his hard-won problem solving skills told him that AIP's formula wasn't helping him grow as a film-maker, any more than it was helping AIP grow as a production and distribution company. So when Arkoff and Nicholson approached him to do yet another no-budget black & white double feature, Corman suggested something completely different: spending the entire budget for both movies on a single film — to be made in color, on a longer shooting schedule, but with the same laudable goal of squeezing every penny's worth of Production Value out of Arkoff's laughably small allowance.
Corman suggested adapting "The Fall of the House of Usher", Edgar Allan Poe's famous macabre story. Britain's Hammer Studio had already cornered the market on Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, though they'd had to negotiate with Universal for the rights; but Poe was still up for grabs. Also, Poe's title had tremendous recognition-value: everybody knew who Edgar Allan Poe was, and everybody had at least heard of "Fall of the House of Usher", even if they'd never actually read the story (Corman knew that effective titles were a big concern of Nicholson's; he'd been forced to make several pictures from nothing more than the lurid titles Nicholson came up with). Actually, the familiarity of the title almost doomed the project: Arkoff and Nicholson pointed out that their target demographic, teenagers and young adults, was hardly likely to pay money to see a story that had been required reading in High School English. But Arkoff and Nicholson surely saw the benefits of using Poe's story: it was in the public domain, so in addition to being well-known it was also free; and the story used only a few characters in a very restricted location — which meant it could be filmed cheap.
Perhaps, had Arkoff and Nicholson been more literary men, they might never have given Corman the go-ahead for House of Usher (1960). In addition to the advantages Poe's story provided, there were some scary disadvantages as well: had Corman not approached the film as the labor of love it so obviously was, the movie could have been a complete disaster. For Poe, despite his reputation as a master of horror, is one of the most difficult of all horror writers to adapt for the screen.
Poe's gothic stories are brief, and such plots as they have usually revolve around their protagonists's mental state rather than on lurid events. He leads us into spaces that are not only confined, but claustrophobic: a dank, nitre-encrusted catacomb; a pentagonal tower room; a pitch-dark, rat-infested cell in the bowels of the Inquisition... but more than this, far worse than this, he forces us into an even more confining location: inside the skull of his tormented protagonists — a hopeless prisoner being slowly tortured to death, a murderer driven mad by his growing guilt, a madman realizing too late his obsession has turned him into a monster... There is no shortage of ghastly images in Poe — for example, the dismemberment of the old man in "The Telltale Heart", or what's found in the graveyard in "Berenice" — but these things are not dwelt upon in detail, and are even sometimes (as in "Berenice") kept completely off-stage, and reported to us rather than revealed. The true horror is not found in these gruesome details, but in the psychology of Poe's doomed narrators, which seems to look a half-century ahead to the work of Sigmund Freud. We're worlds away from the garish spectacle of the gothics of Walpole or Lewis, just as we're also worlds away from anything AIP had so far produced as a horror film.
Arkoff and Nicholson seem to have known Poe only by reputation — as seems to be the case with so many of the people who have gone on to make "Poe movies". Knowing little more than that Poe was a famous writer of horror stories, they gave Corman permission to go ahead with House of Usher.
But Arkoff's lack of familiarity with Poe's style almost worked against Corman in one sense: if AIP was going to invest all its money into one color production, said Arkoff, then it was literally going to have to look like a million bucks. It would have to be shot widescreen, like a major studio production. Where Corman envisioned House of Usher, Arkoff saw...
House of Usher IN CINEMASCOPE AND COLOR
...as the movie's poster eventually read. Corman, who was familiar with Poe, was temporarily taken aback: he realized how ill-suited scope format was to the claustrophobic world of Poe. Still, it wouldn't be a true AIP-Corman collaboration unless there were Arkoff-inspired problems to solve, now would it? And this time, for a change, the legendarily tight-fisted Arkoff was insisting on a luxury. So Corman and his cinematographer, Floyd Crosby, set themselves to figuring out how Poe's vision could be brought to the screen in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
In the meantime, Corman assembled a top-flight cast and crew — most famously, Vincent Price to star as the doomed Roderick Usher, but equally importantly such behind-the-scenes talent as Daniel Haller as production designer, Les Baxter providing one of his finest musical scores, and the young Richard Matheson expanding Poe's short story into a suitably commercial, feature-length script. The result surpassed everybody's expectations, and House of Usher soared to the top 5 box office hits of 1960. Even more surprising, Corman's film drew favorable critical responses, especially from European critics (making this the film that truly justified the "International" in American International). Some critics even contend that House of Usher is Corman's best film. But the most astonishing thing of all about House of Usher is this: in spite of all the compromises needed to turn Poe's tale into an AIP flick, much of the original story can still be discerned in the result. It's clear that everyone involved in the production treated Poe's source material with great respect — which is not something you can say about the vast majority of Poe-themed films made either before or after.
Of course, part of the AIP philosophy was: if something works once, repeat it until it stops working. Thus Corman's attempt to do something unique and different eventually stretched into a series of 8 films over the next four years, until Corman decided he'd had enough. The movies that followed included:
And that brings us to Corman's final Poe film, The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), also shot in England. Only four years had passed since the filming of House of Usher, yet this was the eighth installment. After the sumptuous excesses of Masque, Corman returned (for the most part) to the restraint of House of Usher in his approach to Ligeia.
Now, as you look over this potted history of the Poe series, do you notice a sort of schizophrenia to it? Does it strike you as odd that Roger Corman, the notorious cinematic hired gun who always shot from the hip, should insist on making these carefully-adapted, meticulously-filmed gothics that were so far removed from the work he'd done previously? Does it boggle the mind to realize that Corman, the master of exploitation, was so acutely aware of the work of Ingmar Bergman — and does it boggle the mind even more to realize that after the Poe cycle was concluded (though his production company would import many important foreign art-films), Corman would never again direct a movie that anybody would even think to compare to the Swedish master? Can you believe that the man who essentially scammed the British government in order to make the finest films of his career is today producing direct-to-cable flicks like Sharktopus?
Well, then: welcome to the divided world of Ligeia, where the sublime and the ridiculous fight for the soul of the film as vigorously as the living and the dead fight for the spirit of its protagonist.
Fortunately, the sublime far outweighs the ridiculous. Let's deal with the good stuff first, starting with Poe's original story:
Poe's "Ligeia" is limited to three characters — an unnamed narrator, his late wife Ligeia, and his second wife, Rowena — and only two specific locations: a wide pentagonal chamber in a desolate abbey, where the narrator has chosen to make his home; and, even grimmer, the inside of the narrator's grief-haunted, opium-raddled brain. The narrator confesses he was rendered "child-like" before Ligeia's superior intellect, submitting himself to her guidance and surrendering to her rather bizarre metaphysical speculations; in the very next paragraph, he says her premature death left him "as a child groping benighted". Whatever personality he may have developed before coming into contact with Ligeia, the force of the woman's own personality has obliterated it and left little trace in her passing. And the narrator doesn't seem to care what parts of himself have been lost. He thinks only of Ligeia.
(Strange, then, that he can't seem to remember her family name, or anything at all about her origins. There's a vague hint that perhaps Ligeia is an impossibly old soul that has migrated from body to body for centuries. This suggestion, and a later reference to the cast of her eyes being mirrored in the light of certain stars, points to Ligeia as an inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's Asenath Waite in "The Thing on the Doorstep".)
The late Ligeia had had only one passion greater than her love for her husband (at least as the narrator remembers it), and that was for life: "It is this wild longing — it is this eager vehemence of desire for life — but for life — that I have no power to portray — no utterance capable of expressing." When her precious life begins to slip away, the narrator is surprised to find Ligeia's near-total self-possession desert her. She composes the poem "The Conqueror Worm" as she feels death approaching, and has her husband read it to her just before her final struggles begin. Ligeia dies repeating a phrase from one of her metaphysical texts: "Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will."
Utterly unable to cope with the loss of Ligeia, the narrator turns to opium and despair. For reasons even he can't fathom, he chooses to remarry, and takes for his new bride the Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine. Rowena is, frankly, a non-character. We find out next to nothing about her, except that she is no Ligeia. She has nothing of Ligeia's stern intellect, and apparently has no interest in bending her husband to her implacable will. For this, the narrator comes to hate her.
It's the total contrast between Rowena and Ligeia — assisted by the ever-increasing doses of opium — that start to bring Ligeia back, with astonishing clarity, in the narrator's imagination. As he retreats into hopeless memories, something begins to happen to Rowena: she starts to suffer from periodic illnesses, which grow more and more alarming and seem to resist treatment. Just before her very last seizure, the narrator sees (of believes he sees) several drops of liquid appear from the air and fall into Rowena's cup. He says nothing — and Rowena dies.
Our narrator keeps vigil over the corpse, thinking all the while only of Ligeia. Between his grief and the opium, we can never really be sure if what happens afterwards is real or a hallucination: but it seems to him as though Rowena's body shows signs of returning to life. Each time it does, her collapse back into death is even more remarkable and extreme. Yet finally, the body sits up on the bier and staggers out into the room — revealing the stature, the hair, and lastly the eyes of the lost Ligeia, as the narrator loses his last tenuous grip on his sanity.
Like most of Poe's stories, Ligeia is a rational gothic tale — not "rational" in the disappointing, prosaic sense of Mrs. Radcliffe; but rational in a sense that makes it surprisingly modern, in spite of its early nineteenth-century language. Poe was not writing stories of the "supernatural", as we understand the idea today. You will not find traditional vampires, werewolves or zombies in his work (get that, Todd Sheets? Next time you make a movie in "Poe-o-vision", maybe you should actually read the man's work). When the dead come back in Poe, as they often do, they come back either because they weren't truly dead to begin with (as in "Usher", "The Premature Burial", or "Berenice"); or because of metempsychosis — the migration of a human soul into a different body (either human or, in the case of "Metzengerstein", animal). Now, metempsychosis may indeed be a supernatural phenomenon, but it's the kind of "supernatural" that's discussed by priests and philosophers... not whispered about in dark and lurid folk-tales. Metempsychosis was considered a legitimate area of speculation for some of the best minds of Poe's time, but Poe's treatment of the subject is often ambiguous. The apparent return of characters like Ligeia or Morella from death may simply be the result of their having impressed themselves in life over the psyche of a weak and impressionable man.
To a modern reader, it seems clear that the narrator of "Ligeia" has poisoned Rowena, and is unable to admit this to himself. The image of drops of poison appearing out of the air is too strange to be given credence: ghosts do not need poison, and disembodied souls waiting to be reborn are rarely known to be this... practical. The physical transformation of Rowena into Ligeia is likely to strike a modern reader as being a result of opium on the narrator's guilty conscience. The rising of the dead woman may very well be another case of catalepsy: the poisoning attempt has failed. She does, after all, recoil from the narrator when he throws himself at her feet — not behaviour we'd expect from Ligeia as she's been described to us, but perfectly understandable from a sick woman whose husband has just tried to murder her. Or the whole thing could be a hallucination. On the other hand, it's also possible to read the story as though every word was true, exactly as the narrator has related it.
In any case, this is the story that Corman and screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) needed to adapt. As written, Poe's story provides just about enough material for a typical 23-minute television episode. But it's not just the brevity of the story that makes adaptation so tough: for instance, Poe takes about 700 words at the story's opening — about 11% of the whole tale — to describe the lost Ligeia: her hair, her forehead, her lips, above all her eyes... and though this is crucial to the story as literature, when translated to the screen it adds up to about 3 seconds of film. The picture is not "worth" a thousand words: it does the job, but it does it very poorly. The screenwriter has to find another way to introduce Ligeia to us, and to immerse us at once in the decadent atmosphere of the tale.
Towne's solution to that particular problem turned out to be a good one. He begins the story with Ligeia's interment. We glimpse Ligeia only as a corpse, through a glass pane in the coffin lid (a gesture which brings to mind Corman's Premature Burial — though Premature Burial cribbed its sequence rather blatantly from Carl Dreyer's Vampyr). In fact, in marked contrast to the story, Ligeia never appears as a living presence in the film. Rather, we are drawn into the story by a confrontation between Vincent Price's protagonist and a Christian minister, who knows of Ligeia's heathenish beliefs and demands she not be buried in consecrated earth. The confrontation allows Towne to preface the story with Ligeia's favorite quotation, just as Poe does.
We are introduced to Poe's Ligeia through Price: here is the overwrought narrator of "Ligeia" — given by Towne the appropriately autumnal-sounding name Verdon Fell — with his wife's influence at its strongest. It's Price/Fell rather than Ligeia who maintains his hauteur against the feeble Christian dogma of resurrection... while under his cold, smiling self-confidence, we catch glimpses of his "eager vehemence of desire for life — but for life" — a desire Price has every power to portray; his every utterance capable of expressing... but it's Ligeia's life he desires. When a black cat leaps onto the casket, and Ligeia's eyes open beneath the glass lid, Fell springs to her side; when this turns out to be a mere "nervous contraction, nothing more", Fell hides his disappointment, and turns his own discomfort into the priest's. We never again see Price's Fell behaving as he does in the opening. It is Ligeia's character he presents to us here.
Ligeia herself is played as a very convincing corpse by Elizabeth Shepherd. Shepherd also plays the Lady Rowena Trevanion, and it's to the movie's enormous credit that the two characters seem to look nothing alike (though if Shepherd bears an unfortunate resemblance to Margaret Thatcher when shot from certain angles, well... that can't be helped). Lady Rowena fares far better in the screenplay than in Poe's original: here she is a strong-willed young woman in her own right, stifling under the gentle tyranny of her country-squire father, and all but engaged to one of those typical blocks of wood that serve as heroes in British horror films. Her eventual attraction to the somber and moody Fell is surprisingly convincing: he represents something deeper and more mysterious than anything Rowena has ever encountered. There is a real chemistry and sense of erotic tension between the two, which may come as a shock to viewers used to Price's more cartoony later roles. There's a particularly good scene in which Fell tries to send Rowena away — but as his words get more and more vehement, he draws her closer and closer to him, until... well, for now, let's just say they're interrupted. The nature of the interruption is something I'll bring up later.
Best of all, the screenplay gives Price a chance to play a genuine character, rather than a caricature. Price' s Verdon Fell is divided into two parts: one, the gloomy misanthrope, hiding behind darkened spectacles; the other, the passionately lonely man struggling to overcome the baleful influence of Ligeia; but unlike the dual roles he played in Pit and the Pendulum or The Haunted Palace, Fell comes off as a genuine tragic hero. It's Fell's struggle with himself, and Rowena's part in trying to free him from the influence of the dead woman, that makes up the conflict in Tomb of Ligeia — not the one-sided struggle of Poe's narrator to bring back Ligeia at the expense of Rowena. When Rowena manages to pry him out of his shadowy abbey to go out into the wider world, Fell momentarily regains his own identity... only to lose it immediately on his return. The poignancy of his situation brings us back to the tormented anti-hero Roderick Usher of Corman's first Poe film; but although House of Usher had retained Poe's original, bleak ending, the Hammer-like "happy ending" of Tomb of Ligeia seems even bleaker in hindsight — Usher welcomes death, even if in his passive, neurasthenic way he is incapable of hastening it; while Fell, who engages the audience's sympathies more than any of Price's other Poe characters, suffers a fate he hardly deserves.
Some critics contend that Tomb of Ligeia is Corman's best film — and yes, I've said that about two of his other Poe films so far; but each of the Poe films is very different from the others, just as all of them taken together are wildly different from the bulk of Corman's other films as director. Certainly Ligeia is aimed far more at adults, even more than Masque of the Red Death (gorgeous imagery and Bergman references notwithstanding). Corman had favored a Freudian approach to Poe throughout the series; but in this case, rather than put modern words in the mouths of pseudo-historical characters (as was the case with the tongue-in-cheek Pit and the Pendulum), Towne and Corman try to explain the story's psychology in terms that more-or-less fit the early nineteenth century (the screenplay even fits in a little of Poe's "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" to introduce the subject of hypnotism, and the possibility that either Rowena has been possessed by Ligeia's spirit, or that Fell has unconsciously forced Rowena to imitate Ligeia through the power of suggestion). The humor of "The Black Cat" and The Raven is totally absent from Ligeia. As the film speeds towards its conclusion, we're given vivid suggestions of necrophilia that make the "orgies" of Masque... look tame by comparison. Towne even caps Ligeia's apparent return from the tomb with a very satisfying twist, although this turns sour a moment later in an even more diabolical twist. All in all, Ligeia is far more serious in tone than any other of the Poe series since House of Usher.
Another readily-apparent difference between Ligeia and the other entries in the cycle is the use of exteriors. Corman's view was that the real world had no place in a Poe adaptation: in order to match Poe's brooding interior landscapes, Corman kept his productions set-bound as much as possible (the fact that this made the productions cheaper is mere coincidence). By contrast, Ligeia is divided into two principal locations: the verdant English countryside surrounding a half-ruined priory; and the priory's dark, craggy interior. The priory itself, with its shadowy blue décor, is meant to suggest the corrupting presence of Ligeia, in sharp contrast with the vivid greens and reds of the "real world". The exterior of the ruined priory is itself such a bizarre location — with its orphaned facade, and the surviving columns of the nave sticking up like teeth in a half-buried jawbone — that it serves as the perfect gateway between reality and the shadowy netherworld of Poe. But the very inclusion of the real world gives Ligeia a much different tone than any of the other Corman Poe films — not to lighten the tone, by any means, but rather to underscore its grimness by giving it a grounding in reality.
All right: so much for the strengths of Tomb of Ligeia. Unfortunately, like Verdon Fell, the movie is divided against itself. For all the canny decisions on the part of Towne and Corman, there are other decisions that are far less defensible.
For example, I've mentioned the incredibly effective scene in which Fell and Rowena realize their attraction for each other. That scene is interrupted. The interruption is summarized later by Fell, in what is possibly the worst line ever uttered in the Poe films:
"Not ten minutes ago, I tried to kill a stray cat with a cabbage... if only I could lay open my own brain as easily as that vegetable, what rot would be freed from its grey leaves?"
The contrast between the scene that led to this line, and the banality of the line itself, makes my head hurt. You can hear Towne striving for a Poe-like cadence in the words, and Price speaks them with his usual passionate sincerity (giving full weight to each syllable of "vegetable"); but... Poe and cabbages? Really?
There's also a dead fox that keeps popping up at odd times, for no particularly good reason. We're never certain if it's supposed to be some sort of visual metaphor for Ligeia, or for Rowena, or even for Verdon Fell. Considering the length of time that's supposed to have passed between its first appearance and its last, I can say pretty confidently that the metaphor stinks.
But the true catastrophe in Towne's adaptation is... the cat.
I have kept the cat out of the discussion so far, because it makes me angry. Black cats in horror movies are (pardon the expression) my bête noire. They are usually used as symbols of evil — agents of the Devil, witches' familiars — a stereotype dating back to the massacres of cats (and their owners) by the agents of the Church from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century. The stereotype is much harder to kill than the cats themselves: our local county shelter recently had an adoption event at which they gave away their surplus of black cats for free... simply because people, even in today's supposedly-rational world, still do not trust black cats, and adopt them less frequently. That said, though, many shelters I know of refuse to adopt black cats around Halloween — not only because pets make lousy holiday impulse gifts, but because bored suburban kids have been known to play Satanist and do horrible things to them on Halloween night. This may be as much nonsense as the stereotype against black cats themselves, but the stories persist.
So what is a black cat doing in Ligeia? Well, in part it's a rather lazy shorthand for the presence of evil, and in part it's because Poe himself wrote a story about black cats called (surprise!) "The Black Cat". Corman had adapted it loosely in Tales of Terror. But in Poe's original, the black cat is a loving companion, killed in cold blood by a man whose real intended target (could he but admit it to himself) is his wife. The killer is then tormented by the apparent metempsychosis of the dead cat into another black cat, who turns out to be the killer's nemesis when he finally acts on his repressed desire to murder his spouse. In other words, Poe's cat was on the side of the angels — and this fits much better with my experience of black cats.
I have two black cats now who are my constant companions. One is never happier than when I carry her around on my shoulders, and she will actually launch herself from half a room away to land around my neck with a soft cry of delight. The other loves to drape herself over me at night in an attitude of total trust, and purr herself to sleep. So when I see a black cat scapegoated in a horror movie, I think of centuries of animal abuse that continue to this day. I think of my own cats, and why I have most of them. I think of everything I've seen in my own animal rescue work. And I get mad.
So yes: there's a black cat in Ligeia, and for most of the movie it behaves as a sort of avatar of Ligeia herself. We may be unclear if it's following the desires of its mistress from beyond the grave, or if it's picking up on Fell's obsession with Ligeia... but it certainly seems to be symbolic of the dead woman, in a painfully obvious sort of way. As a result, we're expected at one point to be horrified by the sight of... a saucer of milk. And I suppose that would be just fine — provided the cat had stayed symbolic.
But here's where all Towne's and Corman's good intentions come falling apart, Price's fine performance is undermined, and what should have been hands-down the best of the Poe movies is reduced to absurdity. All along I've been praising the way the movie gives us believable characters saying things they all might reasonably be expected to say. I've pointed out how Poe's definition of the supernatural is far removed from the usual bag of bogeys. I've mentioned with approval how Towne managed to add a couple of cruel fillips to the conclusion of the story — or rather, what should have been the conclusion of the story.
But then, there's this epilogue, see?
There's this typical fiery Roger Corman epilogue, in which Verdon Fell fights a duel with the vengeful cat. He manages to strangle the kitty just as the walls come falling down on him — there's no actual animal violence here; the thought of Vincent Price actually harming a cat is absurd — and the camera pulls back from the wreckage, we see the cat has transmogrified into the body of Ligeia.
No, it isn't Fell's hallucination any more. It can't be, because the kitty has clawed his eyes out. The cat was Ligeia all the time! Ligeia is a were-moggy! A kittanthrope! A LOL-ghost! A cheezbogey! To hell with the perfectly satisfying rational explanation we've already been given, and to hell with Poe's steadfast refusal to explain anything in his original story: Ligeia is the cat! The cat is Ligeia! And Stupid holds illimitable dominion over all. The End.
It's hard to blame either Corman or Towne for the cat-related shenanigans. I can imagine Arkoff standing behind the scenes, bellowing "Where's the monster? I need a monster!"; and Towne and Corman sighing, then adding the final confrontation between Price and Puss. Still, I suppose it's appropriate that the film which is otherwise Corman's most mature work should end in trite silliness. It points the way ahead. When Corman was next associated with Poe, it was two decades later, as he produced a low-budget version of Masque of the Red Death (which deserves its obscurity) and Jim Wynorski's The Haunting of Morella... two films that seem to thumb their noses at Corman's own two last Poe films. And now Corman is producing movies like Dinocroc vs. Supergator.
Oh, well. To paraphrase Poe: the boundaries which divide Art from Commerce are at best shadowy and vague. Who can say where the one ends and where the other begins? Roger Corman can, naturally; but after Tomb of Ligeia, he left the making of Art to other people, and went back to Commerce with a vengeance. Who knows? Perhaps he saw the specter of respectability rising from The Tomb of Ligeia, and — like Poe's narrator — found what he saw too much to bear.