lørdag 5. mars 2011

Ligeia forever

Italy, 1979

Directed by Daniele D’Anza

Umberto Orsini, Silvia Dionisio, Dagmar Lassander, Philippe Leroy, Victoria Zinny, Giuseppe Pertile

While Italian cinema from the 1960s, 70s and 80s continues to grow in popularity among movie lovers, far fewer seem eager to rediscover Italian television productions from the same period. Which is probably because a lot of the stuff made for television is of a much lower standard but here and there you can find a couple of gems hidden. One such gem is the four-part mini series Racconti fantastici, which freely adapts a series of Edgar Allan Poe stories into a contemporary setting. Each of the four episodes is self-contained but they are linked together by the character of Roderick Usher, who is present in all four episodes. While the series as a whole is highly interesting, the best of episode is arguably the second one, Ligeia forever, an intriguing amalgamation of the Poe stories "Ligeia" and "Morella".

The story begins in the house of Usher in the present time of 1979, where a dusty old photo and a gramophone record causes the ageing Roderick Usher (Philippe Leroy) to recount the story of one of his ancestors – thereby allowing the narrative to flash back to the late 1920s. Here we meet the handsome Robert Usher (Umberto Orsini), who is married to the stunning Ligeia (Dagmar Lassander), a renowned silent movie actress who has just starred in her first talkie.

Robert and Ligeia

While they await word from Hollywood about the audience response to the talkie, Robert and Ligeia throw a party to celebrate what will no doubt be another huge success for Ligeia. Unfortunately, their celebration turns out to be more than a bit premature. Once the phone call from Hollywood arrives it is actually bad news: the audience has reacted with laughter and derision to hearing Ligeia speak. Utterly humiliated and fraught with despair, Ligeia is unable to deal with this crushing defeat, and the disastrous party ends with her committing suicide in front of the shocked guests.

Cut to five years later. Robert has not set foot in the house of Usher since the devastating death of his beloved wife. In an attempt to forget and move on he has taken a new wife, the sweet and loving Morella (Silvia Dionisio), and decides that the time has come to return to the family estate. Together with his young bride, Robert moves back into the house he had shared with Ligeia but the section of the house where Ligeia’s rooms are located is kept securely locked and off limits.

The newlyweds arrive at the house of Usher

Morella has a hard time getting adjusted to her new home as Ligeia’s personal maid, Miss Crown (Victoria Zinny), is hostile towards her, and Robert starts being haunted by memories of the past. He finds himself compelled to enter the section of the house where all of Ligeia’s rooms are located. All the rooms are completely untouched since Ligeia’s death and the walls adorned with pictures and movie posters of her.

The forbidden house...

...and the memories it holds

Robert starts to get overcome by memories of Ligeia and he senses her presence as if she was still alive. Poor Morella knows nothing about Robert’s first marriage but she feels him gradually slipping away from her and starts snooping around. Upon entering the forbidden parts of the house, Morella uncovers the truth about her husband’s past but soon afterwards she falls victim to a strange accident. Robert is convinced that Ligeia’s ghost is trying to kill his new wife...

Morella angers her husband by desecrating his shrine for Ligeia

Morella in fear of her life

Writers Daniele D’Anza and Biagio Proietti have done a good job of piecing together story elements from the two thematically similar Poe stories "Ligeia" and "Morella" while adding new touches and retaining an appropriate bit of ambiguity. The late 1920s/early 1930s setting and the prominent use of brightness and sunshine is highly atypical of a Poe adaptation but it gives a fresh and inspired spin on the material. Furthermore, the period setting imbues the piece with an atmosphere of nostalgia that poignantly mirrors the emotions experienced by Robert upon his return to the home he had shared with his dead wife. D’Anza and Proietti (who penned numerous television scripts together) are both good writers but Proietti, in particular, has a real talent for coming up with interesting ideas. He had previously written the underrated giallo The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974), and would later go on to explore Poe material again when he wrote Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981).

In spite of the subject matter, Ligeia forever is not really a horror story. If anything, it is a melancholy tale – one in which love, death and being haunted by the past just happen to be the main ingredients. Instead of striving for suspense or chills, Proietti and D’Anza favor mood and atmosphere, and they are aided in their quest by an eerie and dreamily evocative musical score by the popular pop/rock band Pooh. The atmosphere is further enriched by Blasco Giurato’s beautiful cinematography, which together with high production values, lush period costumes and effective locations, gives Ligeia forever a polished and classy look that greatly surpasses other Italian television products from this era.

Bright and sunny...

...but also dark and gloomy where appropriate

The small but well-chosen cast is uniformly good. The renowned Umberto Orsini delivers a strong and dedicated portrayal of the tormented protagonist, but the best performance comes from the beautiful Silvia Dionisio, who is extremely sweet and sympathetic as the tragic Morella. It is hard not to feel sad for the character when witnessing Dionisio skillfully portray her gradual transformation from happy and carefree to despaired and tormented. Also of note is the part of Ligeia’s maid Miss Crown, a sinister figure that seems to be modelled after the Mrs. Danvers character from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), and played with an appropriate sense of mystique by the gifted Argentinean actress Victoria Zinny. Finally, there is of course Dagmar Lassander, who looks absolutely gorgeous as Ligeia but she is not really given much to do here. She appears relatively briefly but Ligeia’s presence is still felt throughout the entire running time – making a strong impression on the viewer. Not so much because of Lassander’s acting but actually more because of her hauntingly deep blue eyes and enchanting beauty, which is effectively captured in the numerous photos and movie posters that adorn the walls of Ligeia’s old rooms. These gorgeous images are instrumental in manifesting the character’s never fading presence in the house, and the way these dusty and shrine-like relics from a glorious past has been preserved creates a a very strong feeling of sadness and melancholy.

Clever and effective use of Dagmar Lassander’s photogenic looks

Elegant and atmospheric, moody and compelling – Ligeia forever is an inspired Poe adaptation that is worthy of a larger audience. Highly recommended!

© 2011 Johan Melle

The cast:

Umberto Orsini as Robert Usher

Silvia Dionisio as Morella

Dagmar Lassander as Ligeia

Philippe Leroy as Roderick Usher

Victoria Zinny as Miss Crown

Giuseppe Pertile as Dr. Brooks

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