Roger Corman, 1963
Starring: Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr, Frank Maxwell, Leo Gordon
While The Haunted Palace is technically part of the Roger Corman and Vincent Price series of Edgar Allen Poe-themed horror films for American International Pictures, it is actually based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. This represents some increasingly dazzling attempts by AIP to shoe horn any horror film starring Vincent Price into the Poe cycle. Based on “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” this is one of the finest collaborations between Corman and Price and remains one of the best Lovecraft adaptations ever made. (“The Haunted Palace” refers to a poem by Poe.)
Price is great, as always, in a double role here as Charles Dexter Ward and his sinister ancestor, Joseph Curwen. In the opening of the film, we are introduced to Curwen, who has been sacrificing local girls and doing strange things to them in the middle of the night. He is burned at the stake for witchcraft by the angry townsfolk. Over a hundred years later, his ancestor Charles Dexter Ward and Ward’s wife Anne inherit a crumbling mansion in the town of Arkham. They are met with open hostility from much of the townsfolk and come across other that are disturbingly deformed. The locals blame their genetic problems on the curse laid on them by Curwen, Ward's ancestor. They are unfriendly to Ward because of his direct physical resemblance to Curwen and they assume the worst.
With the help of a sinister groundskeeper, Ward quickly becomes possessed by Curwen for increasingly longer amounts of time in order to exact his final plan: awakening the creature in the pit. Because they are shut up in the titular haunted mansion, his wife is the only one to witness this dramatic change. In her despair, she contacts the town doctor for help, assuming Ward is ill. She is unaware that his sickness could change Arkham - and the world - permanently.
The Haunted Palace is actually one of Vincent Price's most sinister and mean-spirited films. Like the British witch-hunting film Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm, another desperate attempt from AIP to make it seem like a Poe film), Price's character is diabolically evil and devoid of the charm and humor that usually graces his horror efforts from this period.
Surprisingly Lovecraftian and terrifying for an early '60s film, it comes highly recommended. There are some great performances and even Lon Chaney, Jr. manages to look foreboding while chewing the scenery as Curwen's servant. Debra Paget (Love Me Tender) is great as Ward’s wife. The make up and monsters look good and the score is wonderful. Scriptwriter Charles Beaumont (The Mask of the Red Death) has crafted some particularly great dialogue and there are some highly quotable lines that have to be heard to be believed. Even though I'm a seasoned Lovecraft fan, some fittingly insane things come out of Vincent Price's mouth.
Granted Beaumont’s script is not totally faithful to Lovecraft’s story and will disappoint some die hard fans, but keep in mind that this is the first official Lovecraft film adaptation. There are still a number of over the top references. There is necrophilia, other kinds of sexual aggression and perversion, namely breeding women with inhuman creatures, references to said beasties, as well as the Necronomicon, and much more. The ending is bleak and hopeless and in many ways, this represents some very fine early body horror.
The set is certainly the co-star of the film, creating the threatening New England town right out of Lovecraft's story with a healthy dose of Gothic horror for good measure. Thunder, mist, skeletal trees, the decrepit mansion, and the crumbling town of Arkham help make this film worth watching and the cinematography from Corman’s regular collaborate Floyd Crosby looks wonderful. The art director, Daniel Haller, actually went on to direct two more early Lovecraft adaptations for AIP: Die, Monster, Die and The Dunwich Horror.
The Haunted Palace is available on a split DVD with Corman’s 1962 adaptation of The Tower of London, which makes no sense, as that is a mildly horror flavored historical drama. Regardless, the split is part of MGM's great Midnite Movies series. Certainly one of Corman's best films and is a treat for any horror fan.