We can’t call The Tomb of Ligeia Roger Corman’s greatest achievement, because his greatest achievement was being Roger Corman: getting those dozens of pictures made, into theaters, and into the culture, launching nightmares and careers. What does it matter if the Mystery Science Theater robots spent the Nineties jeering his name in the credits of cheapies he probably doesn’t quite remember shooting?
As Anthology Archives’ month-long celebration reminds us, American International Pictures — the company for which Corman produced or directed at least 40 films — didn’t just spend the 1950s and ’60s chumming drive-ins with indifferent monster-fare for teens. Two top AIP flicks showing this Saturday, Corman’s Ligeia (1964) and Sidney Hayers’s Burn, Witch, Burn (1962), dare expressive, hallucinatory, psychological approaches to film horror. Writing Queen of Earth, his new drama about a woman (Elisabeth Moss) going mad, Alex Ross Perry might have been thinking of Polanski and Bergman — but study the close-ups of Janet Blair’s eyeball as her comatose witch-wife is carried through a weed-choked boneyard set. Marvel at the point-of-view shots — the gravestones upside-down, tilted and chipped, the set a maw of rotting teeth. These no-budget screamers set the paces our best directors still effectively run through.
So: Tomb of Ligeia. This isn’t Corman’s greatest achievement, but it might be his finest film, and not because it’s self-consciously classy by comparison to the likes of X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. (That one, still disturbing today, screens at Anthology again on August 26 and 30.) Ligeia, starring Vincent Price and Elizabeth Shepherd, is the last of Corman’s stabs at adapting Poe, and (for me) the best. It just edges out his red-robe triumph The Masque of the Red Death, which was shot by Nicolas Roeg and climaxes with the attendees of a grand costume bacchanal all sprawled out dead like Jonestown. Ligeia also was a collaboration with a young master: Robert Towne handled the script, crafting tasty gobfuls of rococo Poe-like verbiage for Price to relish. Price, unusually restrained, treats each word like it’s a grape he’s peeling for some pasha: They’re all plump and juicily perfect, especially hypnotism — he pops the P and lays into the last syllable, lending this hokiest of plot devices an alien freshness.
The hypnotism itself is also still potent. Corman regards the tensed, unblinking eyes of his Shepherd as her Rowena agrees, as a game, to be mesmerized by Price’s Verden Fell, the widower she has remarried. A scrim of flame licks the air in front of her, commanding the frame as she stares through it — a trick so potent that, just this year, the Royal Shakespeare Company trotted it out in a stage variation a half-dozen times for its production of Wolf Hall. Rowena, a naïf, sings a nursery rhyme at Verden’s command, and just when we’re glazed over at her pleasant bubbling, Shepherd surprises us: Her voice drops, her eyes harden, and she’s speaking as Ligeia, the dead first wife of Verden’s who pledged that the grave would not hold her. “The will herein lieth which dieth not,” she declares, not in that Priceian way, where it seems as if the words are being recited, but as if they’re each coming to her anew, special delivery from hell.
The sumptuousness of script and production in Corman’s Poe movies runs contrary to the AIP approach. The language is first-rate, but it’s not the plush velours of the costumes that make Ligeia so commanding. (Price’s bizarre nineteenth-century BluBlockers are a highlight, though.) It’s the more subtle expenditures: the five-week production schedule, lavish by Corman’s standards, which ensured the cast and director found the heart of more moments than usual. And it’s the ambitious location shooting. A day-trip to Stonehenge is a welcome relief from AIP’s setbound norm. More haunting still is the decision to shoot many scenes in the grassy ruins of a medieval English abbey, the location of Ligeia’s tomb — and later, curiously, the site of a picnic between Verden and Rowena. The first scene, a pre-credits stinger, finds Verden and some holy men laying Ligeia (also played by Shepherd) to rest there. Her coffin has been built with a window for her impossibly beautiful face, an idea so mad that it’s wonderful. Within seconds of the film starting, a black cat has leapt onto the casket, and the corpse’s eyes have popped open.
Towne and Corman take great pains to make eyes — their power, fragility, and manipulability — the center of the horror. Verden hides behind those chunky sunglasses; Ligeia stares from beyond death; Rowena fails to protect hers, and winds up haunted. You probably won’t cover yours as the climax approaches and Corman springs his best going-mad terror-tricks. But you will get great pleased eyefuls: a secret chamber full of wicked, pseudo-Egyptian paintings and sculptures; a cat stalking from someplace between this world and the next; and Shepherd’s Rowena, spectacularly begowned yet always vulnerably human, screaming at her discoveries — and at what seems to be inside her. Shepherd will be in attendance for Q&As at Anthology on Tuesday the 25th and Sunday the 30th; her performance here stands as one of the greats in all horror.
Burn, Witch, Burn can’t quite live up to that, but it’s still highly recommended. Based on the great Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, and shot by AIP’s indifferently named British subsidiary Anglo-Amalgamated, Hayers’s effective domestic shocker updates coven horror for the age of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? An unhappy professor’s wife (Blair) has a go at witchcraft to aid her husband’s career — and there is, of course, hell to pay. Peter Wyngarde, as the prof, takes his shirt off a lot, and barks brusque, Rod Serling–esque epigrams in class: “Aladdin rubbed a lamp and a genie appeared. Today we can press a button and the whole of mankind is obliterated.” (The screenwriters, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, knew their way around The Twilight Zone.)
As in Ligeia, atmospheric statuary is key to the horror here — there’s also a cat and an animal attack. The conflagration promised by the title isn’t as grand as the corpse-melting, brain-on-fire finale of Ligeia, but it’s still more persuasively harrowing than whatever it was parents thought their kids were getting from afternoon creature-features. Souls get scoured in these films, and there’s no sense that God or man might set things right.
Roger Corman will be on-hand for Q&A’s after these showings:
Friday, August 21, after the 8 p.m. showing of The Man with X-Ray Eyes
Saturday, August 22, after the 7 p.m. showing of A Bucket of Blood
Saturday, August 22, after the 9 p.m. showing of The Tomb of Ligeia
Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue
American International Pictures
Through September 3, Anthology Archives