Movies: The Haunted Palace (1963)

I’m probably not alone when I say that in my opinion, Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle of movies was absolutely the director’s finest work. I had seen almost all of them at one time or another (my favorite is Masque of the Red Death, in case you were interested), but for whatever reason, this one sort of passed me by. Of course I had to rectify this situation as soon as possible, and that’s how I ended up watching 1963’s The Haunted Palace, and also considering that maybe I now have two favorites in the Corman Poe movie universe.

Lumping The Haunted Palace in with the Poe movies isn’t really fair, though, because despite its name and a couple lines of dialogue—and the fact that the title card reads Edgar Allen [sic] Poe’s The Haunted Palace—this is actually a loose adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. As a matter of fact, as far as I’m aware, this was the first major film to introduce the Necronomicon, Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth to a mainstream audience. Roger Corman initially intended it as a straightforward Lovecraft film, but to his irritation, American International Pictures wanted to tie it in with the Poe adaptations, so they made him throw in a few lines from Poe’s 1839 poem “The Haunted Palace,” which don’t actually have much to do with the story. I get why they did it, but it probably wasn’t necessary. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, though, because this is an excellent film whatever story it’s based on.

The always-amazing Vincent Price plays dual roles here, and there’s also a supporting turn by Lon Chaney Jr., as well as appearances by Corman regulars Elisha Cook, Jr. and Bruno VeSota. In addition, this was actress Debra Paget’s final film role; she retired from acting after this and became a born-again Christian, hosting her own show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

I have to give a special mention here of the sets and the matte paintings, which are all lush and gorgeous. The inside of the titular palace, in fact, is even more impressive when you learn that it was actually much smaller than it appeared on screen; Roger Corman shot it in forced perspective to make it look gigantic, and the effect is flawless.

The story begins in 1765, in the small village of Arkham. The townsfolk are suspicious of the man who lives in the palace on the hill, Joseph Curwen (played by Vincent Price), as they suspect him of being in league with the Devil. One night, they follow a seemingly bewitched young woman as she walks dazedly through the streets and toward the palace. When she gets there, Curwen and his mistress Hester Tillinghast (played by Cathie Merchant) chain her up in the basement and look as though they’re getting ready to sacrifice her, but the villagers eventually bust in and drag Curwen out, setting his evil ass on fire. Before he dies, though, he curses the whole town as well as the future generations of its residents.

One-hundred-and-ten years later, a man named Charles Dexter Ward (also Vincent Price) and his wife Anne show up in Arkham to have a look at the property they’ve inherited from Ward’s great-great-grandfather, who of course was Joseph Curwen. Seeking directions in a tavern called The Burning Man, Mr. and Mrs. Ward get a whole room full of stink-eye from the denizens of the town, who believe that Ward is Joseph Curwen returned, due to his uncanny resemblance to the vile old warlock as pictured in an ominous portrait that still hangs at the palace.

Although the Arkhamites do their best to discourage the Wards, the town physician, Dr. Marinus Willet (played by Frank Maxwell), isn’t superstitious, and kindly helps the couple find the palace (which is kind of impossible to miss, looming over the town and all). Ward says he doesn’t think they’ll be staying in Arkham, but he and his wife at least want to take a gander at the house they inherited before they decide what they’re going to do with it. Before they get up there, though, they catch a glimpse of a little girl without any eyes being herded along the main street by her mother.

The whole town is pretty weird, to be honest; not only is one of the town elders, Edgar Weeden (played by Leo Gordon) seen feeding some raw meat to something locked behind a door in his house, but when the Wards go into the village, a whole bevy of mutated people skulk out from various places and surround them, though none of these unfortunates says a single word.

When they get to the house, the Wards cross paths with the seemingly friendly Simon (Lon Chaney Jr.), the caretaker, but it doesn’t take long before Anne is creeped out by the old place and wants to leave. Charles agrees that the house is spooky, calling it a mausoleum, but he points out that it’s too late to go anywhere else to spend the night, so they might as well spend it in the palace then sort everything out in the morning.

The problem is, the malevolent-looking painting of Joseph Curwen over the mantel has other ideas; it seems to be imbued with the spirit of the old warlock, and as Charles stares at it, his ancestor is able to take over more and more of his personality, though Charles is able to fight back against the invasion and acts normal sometimes. Slowly, though, Curwen begins to take possession of his great-great grandson, and vows to finish the task he started more than a century ago, which involved using the Necronomicon to summon the Elder Gods, and mating them with human women, in order to create a race of super-beings.

In this endeavor, Curwen is aided by his faithful servants Simon and Jabez (both of whom are either immortal or have also possessed their own ancestors), and he even manages to resurrect his mistress Hester by digging up her corpse and doing some Lovecraftian magic on it. The villain squad then kills a few of the townspeople in revenge for the whole “burning alive” thing before Anne and Dr. Willet apparently save the day, though the ending makes it fairly clear that Curwen hasn’t been defeated.

As I said, this is a fun flick, and absolutely one of the best Corman films of this era. Vincent Price was incredible as always, both as the wicked Joseph Curwen and the tormented Charles Ward. The story moved along at a good pace, and had some awesome set design and a wonderfully gothic feel. The special effects on the Elder Gods were obviously hampered a bit by the miniscule budget, but Corman was smart enough to keep the shots of the monsters brief, and focused mainly on the lavish interiors and the chilling atmosphere. It’s not a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s novella, but it has enough elements from the original story to please purists, and I think it captures the spirit of Lovecraft’s work very well. If you’ve seen Corman’s Poe pictures and want to see something as good as that, but with Lovecraft, then definitely check it out; it’s one that doesn’t seem to get as much attention, but it’s absolutely worth your time.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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