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Since the early days of theater and the dawn of cinema, renowned American poet and author Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) has had significant influence on pop culture, especially film. Countless movies have adapted Poe’s trailblazing work (the most famous being the Roger Corman/American International cycle from the 1960s), others merely reference it (i.e. the recent TELL TALE). This Friday, August 6, FANGORIA FrightFest will introduce THE TOMB, a new modern-day take on the Poe short story “Ligeia,” helmed by directorial newcomer Michael Staininger.
THE TOMB—as well as PIG HUNT, ROAD KILL, THE HAUNTING, FRAGILE, HUNGER, GRIMM LOVE and DARK HOUSE (currently in theaters; see more info here)—will be available exclusively through Blockbuster stores and Blockbuster By Mail, as well as digitally via Blockbuster On Demand.
The short story “Ligeia” tells the tale of a mysterious and beautiful woman who will go to any length to prevent her own death—even at the risk of those who love her most. THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, Corman’s celebrated 1964 period version, starred genre icon Vincent Price. Produced by Jeff Most and scripted by John Shirley (both veterans of THE CROW), the new feature toplines Wes Bentley (AMERICAN BEAUTY, GHOST RIDER, DOLAN’S CADILLAC) as Jonathan, a celebrated English professor who falls under the spell of the enchanting yet dangerously beautiful Ligeia (model Sofya Skya). Besides slowly ruining Jonathan’s life, the strange woman dabbles in reincarnation and soul-stealing experiments. THE TOMB also stars Kaitlin Doubleday and 7TH HEAVEN’s Mackenzie Rosman, and features supporting turns by THE DARK KNIGHT’s Eric Roberts, KILL BILL’s Michael Madsen and 2001 MANIACS’ Christa Campbell.
“I arrived in LA very early in the game and was introduced to George Furla and Randall Emmett, who are executive producers on the project,” explains the Austrian-born Staininger of the networking that landed him in THE TOMB. “They tested me and I went through a few scripts. I’ve always wanted to do something that I could make a mark with and was original, but you can’t always choose that when you’re a first-time director. After a year or more, a script came to George’s office, and he called me and said he had an Edgar Allan Poe project from the writer of THE CROW, and did I want to read it. I said, ‘I’d love to’ and that was that.”
Staininger looked forward to the opportunity to tackle the Poe classic from a different perspective. “It was not the script that attracted me at first,” he admits. “It was the challenge of adapting the work of a literary master. It was a chance for me to make an impact. I like to take risks, and that’s basically why I went for it.”
Poe’s “Ligeia” is a dark and Gothic story, yet Staininger is not your typical fright fan. He enjoys a good thriller mixed with a little bit of blood and humor. “I was not a huge horror buff,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love watching horror movies, I love to be scared—but I am more a thriller-type director. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like the SAW movies. I have respect for them, but they don’t please me personally. What pleases me is when you can’t see the evil coming or where you feel a presence constantly there, as in WHAT LIES BENEATH, where there’s a good storyline and strong actors.
“I wouldn’t say Edgar Allan Poe is the founding father of modern horror,” Staininger continues. “He is more of the romantic movement, so his horror is intertwined with romance. It is dark material, but I wouldn’t say it’s horror. That’s the key difference. You have to differentiate between where horror movies are going nowadays, and they are going back to the more mysterious as people become tired of too much gore.”
Poe is still famous today after 150-plus years, and that popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. Staininger feels the author was underrated in his time. “Poe was way ahead of all the other writers in terms of intellect, in terms of what he wanted to say. His story ‘Ligeia’ has a number of different interpretations, and people are still not sure what he meant by it. Was it reality? Did she really exist in the storyteller’s life? Nobody is really sure, which is nice because there are a lot of conflicting opinions about the story which gave us the opportunity to take liberties with the interpretation. It’s difficult when you have a piece with only one interpretation, because you can go only one route. Then you have to stick to it, because otherwise you might offend all the fans and the writer.
”And we made the character of Ligeia herself timeless,” Staininger adds. “She floats in space, and we really don’t know where she belongs: Does she belong in the past? Does she belong in the present? We really don’t know. The way she dresses, the way she is, the aura around her—timeless is the right word. Even where she comes from; we needed to make her believable, as well as her mission, her objective, her research and what she does. There is a lot of symbolism in the movie that points at a long family history and tradition, so in order to make that convincing, we had to go back to a grand location and environment, which is how it is described in the short story.”
Staininger relished the opportunity to explore THE TOMB’s love triangle and theme of living forever. “When I watched HIGHLANDER as a kid, I was always fascinated by the subject of immortality,” he says. “I don’t consider it the main subject matter of the story; it’s principally about a man who can’t let go of love. But in our interpretation, immortality plays a huge role. All in all, it was the female villain, the love triangle and immortality—those three things together drew me to the script.”
For a novice filmmaker, Staininger feels blessed to have directed such impressive talent on THE TOMB. “I got to work with Wes Bentley, Michael Madsen and Eric Roberts,” he says. “That is really something. And to work with a fabulous crew and an experienced producer like Jeff Most…to take all that in after one movie, for most people it takes four or five movies to gain those types of skills. Some people say you’ll be cursed when you do an Edgar Allan Poe movie, but so far so good. During production [which lensed in the Ukraine and St. Louis, MO], everything went my way. For my directorial debut, I am very happy about it. It is my baby, so it is very exciting to see THE TOMB going where it is going now.”
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