The Haunted Palace (1963)
The Haunted Palace combines four – FOUR! – of my favorite things: Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Roger Corman, and Vincent Price. As such, there’s almost no place that this film can go wrong.
With a title and epigraph lifted from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Haunted Palace is actually based on the Lovecraft story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, about a man possessed by the evil spirit of his long-dead relative (a gross oversimplification of the story, but bear with me). Roger Corman’s adaptation takes a remarkably faithful approach to that story; which, given the serious problems with adapting Lovecraft, is quite impressive for a 1963 film. Vincent Price opens the film as Joseph Curwen, a suspected warlock living in a massive palace above the village of Arkham. Young girls begin vanishing during the night, only to reappear again the next day with no memory of where they’d been. The latest abduction results in the town rising up against Curwen and his unnatural necromantic tendencies. They burn him in his own front yard, but not before he’s placed a curse upon their children and their children’s children, promising to return to wreak terrible vengeance.
Moving forward about a hundred years and Charles Dexter Ward, Curwen’s great-great-grandson, reappears in Arkham to take over the lease on his relative’s estate. Along with his wife Anne (Debra Paget, Ward is met with violent hostility from the townsfolk, all of whom bear remarkable resemblances to their great-great-grandfathers. As explained by the kindly Dr. Willet (Frank Maxwell), Curwen’s curse and Ward’s uncanny resemblance to his forebear is just the tip of the eldritch iceberg. Curwen was apparently trying to summon the Elder Gods, his activity taking the form of drawing creatures out of the abyss and mating them with the local girls, resulting in children with bizarre deformities (whose descendants at one point menace Ward and Anne). Now the town fear that Curwen has returned in the form of Ward to take vengeance and begin his work again – a fear eventually realized when Ward moves into the palace and Curwen begins taking over the body of his relative.
The Haunted Palace follows at least some of the plot of Lovecraft’s novella fairly closely, albeit with some notable changes. The action centers on Curwen’s slow possession of Ward, with the help of his partner-in-necromancy Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.). The film introduces the very Lovecraftian themes of violation, degeneracy, family curses and, of course, the Elder Gods, all mixed together in a hodge-podge of lurid detail. The only truly sympathetic characters in the film are Ward, Anne, and Dr. Willet; the townspeople are venal and cruel, though they might not deserve the fate that Curwen eventually dishes out to them. Under Corman’s direction, The Haunted Palace draws out the sexual underpinnings of the story without veering into exploitation. In a movie that includes roasting people alive and offering women up to creatures from the abyss, the most disturbing scene is Curwen’s attempted rape of Anne while in the body of Ward.
Supported by a uniformly excellent cast, Vincent Price is of course the star of the show – and how he seems to enjoy it! His transformation between Ward and Curwen is effected with minimal make-up, instead relying on Price’s remarkable expressiveness of face and voice. Though Price has often been maligned as a ham actor, his ability to summon sympathy for villains and horror for heroes is a talent that Corman honed in the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Here it is on full display, to excellent and chilling effect.
The other actors are almost as enjoyable as Price, although they have considerably less to do. Paget deserves her share of the accolades, playing Anne as a damsel in distress still able to operate on some of her own initiative. There’s a wonderful and heart-breaking pathos to Ward and Anne’s relationship, as Anne is forced to deal with a husband who looks like himself and demonstrably is not. Then there’s Lon Chaney Jr. (here billed just as Lon Chaney), whose sad-eyes and sympathetic face conceal a true monster this time around.
The Haunted Palace does exactly what it sets out to do, and is successful as far it goes. While some of the opening sequences drag a little, particularly Ward and Anne’s arrival in the village, the narrative bounces along at a good pace, with little additional flourishes to distract from the central thrust of the story. It’s an early Lovecraft adaptation, but a remarkably successful one. Besides, how often do you get to see Vincent Price psychologically torturing Vincent Price?