Thursday, 5 November 2015

Gothic Originals / Lovecraft on Film:
The Haunted Palace
(Roger Corman, 1963)

“Opening his eyes before staggering out of that room of horror, Dr. Willett saw that what he had kept in memory had not been kept amiss. There had, as he had predicted, been no need for acid. For like his accursed picture a year before, Joseph Curwen now lay scattered on the floor as a thin coating of fine bluish-grey dust.”


Ever since I started this weblog, one of my objectives has been to undertake a survey of films based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft – more or less a rite of passage for any writer focusing on quote-unquote ‘weird horror’ - but somehow I just never quite got around to it. Until now.

As is widely acknowledged by just about anyone who shares a joint interest in Lovecraft and off-the-beaten-track horror films, ‘Lovecraft Cinema’ is a bit of a two-edged sword. Speak to any dedicated fan of Lovecraft’s writing, and they will no doubt tell you, correctly, that not a single motion picture adaptation has ever adequately captured the themes, ideas, images or atmosphere of the man’s work. Indeed, it is ironic that the few films that do to some extent trespass into Lovecraftian territory (Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ for instance, or Zulawski’s ‘Possession’) are those that exist entirely outside of his authorship or direct influence.

From a high-minded literary/artistic point of view in fact, the history of ‘official’ Lovecraft Cinema is a chronicle of travesty, failure, compromise and misunderstanding that it is best to draw a veil over, focusing instead on the vain hope that some long-promised ‘serious’ adaptation (Del Toro’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’? Richard Stanley’s ‘The Color Out of Space’?) may one day emerge to right the wrongs of the past and send punters screaming from multiplexes with a reassuringly soul-crushing vision of existential cosmic terror.

At the same time though, from our POV as b-movie / cult film fans, is it not within the darkness of travesty, failure, compromise and misunderstanding that some of our most cherished stretches of misbegotten celluloid can bloom? If none of the Lovecraft adaptations that have made it to the screen thus far can really be said to be ‘successful’ adaptations of their subject matter, they have nonetheless tended to be strange, fevered and twisted movies, borne of a collision between unwieldy literary subject matter and brutish commercial necessity, and I have found at least something to enjoy in just about all of them.

In fact I have a great fondness for many of them, even as they busy themselves with mashing the vision of one of my favourite authors into a confused and often unrecognizable mush. Time and time again in fact, the trace elements of Lovecraft in a film’s DNA seem to act as a trip-wire, sending potentially bland horror vehicles staggering off into the realm of something wholly other - and it is those moments, more than anything else, that I would like to think this blog exists to celebrate.


This of course brings us to the film that American International Pictures insist we refer to as ‘Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace’, better known to most of us of course as Roger Corman’s attempt to infuse new blood into his “Poe cycle” by ditching Poe altogether and mounting a loose adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’.

As in so many things, Corman was ahead of the curve in choosing to adapt Lovecraft. Whilst HPL’s name may be ubiquitous in horror fiction today, he did not actually attract a widespread readership until mass market paperback editions of his work began to proliferate in the mid/late 1960s. At the time Corman was planning this film, Lovecraft’s following was still a closely-guarded cult within the wider cult of Weird Tales/fantastic fiction devotees, his reputation kept alive largely via the expensive, small-press editions produced by August Derleth’s Arkham House. (In fact, insofar as I can tell, one of the earliest Lovecraft paperbacks put out by a mainstream publisher was a 1963 UK Panther edition of ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’, presumably intended to coincide with ‘The Haunted Palace’!)

If juggling the names of Poe and Lovecraft seems a cinch in the 21st century, it was a considerably more daring proposition in the early ‘60s, when the former was a celebrated pioneer of American letters whilst the latter remained an obscure purveyor of pulp magazine schlock. It is hardly surprising therefore that AIP wanted to hedge their bets by making sure Poe’s name remained front and center in the film’s marketing, even if one suspects that the initials of the film’s release title are less than accidental. (The name ‘The Haunted Palace’, by the way, is taken from the poem recited by Roderick Usher in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, which Vincent Price’s post-dubbed voiceover dutifully gives us a few stanzas of here.)

In spite of its faux-Poe makeover though, ‘The Haunted Palace’ has still always seemed like a bit of an outsider within the early AIP gothic cycle. True, there had been other entries that diverged from the central axis of Price / Corman / Poe, but for one reason or another, these are generally considered disappointments, and kept at arm’s length by fans and critics from the rest of the series. (‘The Premature Burial’ lacked Price, and emerged as forgettable and dreary; ‘The Comedy of Terrors’ dropped both Corman and Poe, but the combination of Jacques Tourneur’s heavy-handed direction and Peter Lorre’s ill-health render it one of the most grimly dispiriting ‘comedies’ ever put before an audience; as for ‘The Terror’… well, what can you say about ‘The Terror’ that hasn’t been said before?)

As the remaining key/successful entries in the series easily pair up into critic-friendly couples (The Fall of the House of Usher and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ are the genre-defining classics, ‘Tales of Terror’ and ‘The Raven’ are the ensemble comedies, ‘Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Tomb of Ligeia’ are the weird, quasi-psychedelic British ones), ‘The Haunted Palace’ eventually stands alone as the one overlooked outlier in the series that is actually *really good* (assuming of course that you like this kind of movie in the first place).


I’m unversed on the whys and wherefores of how Roger Corman was introduced to Lovecraft’s writing, but I think there’s a fair chance that the connection might have been established via scriptwriter Charles Beaumont, who took the reins of the “Poe” series here from his fellow Twilight Zone alumnus Richard Matheson, having previously subbed for Matheson on ‘The Premature Burial’. Whilst not really a ‘horror guy’ as such, Beaumont’s background as a short story / pulp magazine writer may well have given him an awareness of Lovecraft, if not, apparently, a great deal of sympathy for what the Old Man of Providence was trying to achieve, if his work here is anything to go by.

Mindful above all of commercial expectations, Beaumont’s script for ‘The Haunted Palace’ carefully sifts Lovecraft’s long and complex story for elements that correspond most easily with the tried & tested gothic horror formula, then builds around what remains with a dedication to genre convention that, despite the comparatively weird subject matter, results in a film that often feels more like an exultant celebration of the established gothic tradition than the beginning of an exciting new ‘Lovecraftian’ style of filmmaking.

Predictably, Lovecraft’s beloved Arkham is here recast from the bustling Edwardian market town envisaged by its creator to an especially huddled and backward village community that doesn’t seem to have made any concessions to modernity since the days of the pilgrim fathers, dominated by the shadow of the titular ‘palace’ that looms vast and decrepit from the cliffs above the village. (The beautiful matte paintings and sprawling interior sets look more like a ‘castle’ to me, but who am I to quibble?)

Naturally, Arkham’s villagers are a cowed, suspicious bunch, ready to form a torch-wielding mob at the drop of a hat, as they promptly demonstrate during the ‘flashback’ opening sequence, which sees them stomping across the blasted heathland to the castle to put a stop to the godless depredations of warlock Joseph Curwen (Price, obvs) and his mistress Hester Tillinghast (actress Cathie Merchant, exuding a great blue-skinned gothic temptress vibe), who are midway through ‘offering’ a hypnotised local virgin to the unspeakable whatever-it-is that dwells in a well beneath their basement.

You can probably guess more or less what transpires when Curwen answers the door to the pitch-fork-happy mob, so let’s just say that, if the idea of a witches or warlocks cursing the descendants of their persecutors as flames lick around their ankles is more or less as old as the hills in horror films and literature, for our purposes here we might assume that it was repurposed from AIP’s successful Italian pick-up of a few years earlier, Mario Bava’s ‘Black Sunday’.(1)

Likewise, the notion of a hapless aristocrat becoming possessed by the spirit of his malevolent ancestor had already been thoroughly explored by Corman in ‘The Pit & The Pendulum’, and those familiar either with Lovecraft’s story or gothic horror movies in general won’t be surprised to learn that that is exactly what recurs here, when, “one hundred and ten years later”, one Charles Dexter Ward (guess who) rocks up in Arkham to reclaim his ancestral home. (By necessity, Lovecraft’s eager young scholar has been remolded into a middle-aged gentleman of genteel manners, and naturally enough he is accompanied on the journey from distant Boston by his devoted wife Ann (Debra Paget).)

Completing the roll-call of gothic cliché, the notion that everyone in the village looks identical to their ancestors from the preceding century is taken here to what many viewers may find a laughable extreme. Not only does everyone look the same after the film reverts from the ‘past’ to the ‘present’, they still all hang around in the same tavern (which doesn’t seem to have been redecorated), talk about the same stuff, seem to recall exactly what their forefathers got up to with perfect clarity, and might as well even be wearing the same costumes, give or take a few ruffled sleeves and tri-corn hats. It must have been an uneventful nineteenth century in Arkham, to say the least.

Though patently ridiculous, I personally find that this blurring of past and present adds greatly to the film’s overall atmosphere of disjointed, fairy tale-like unreality, implying a kind of entropic ‘timelessness’ that recalls that conjured rather more deliberately by such films as Bava’s masterful ‘Lisa & The Devil’ (1972).

One shot is particular, in which two actors (professional western heavy & b-movie scripter Leo Gordon and everyone’s favourite perpetual loser Elisha Cook Jr, no less) can briefly be seen together staring through the exact same window that their ‘ancestors’ stared through a century earlier, their faces carrying looks of forlorn hopelessness, conveys a crushing sense of a meaningless cycle of cruelties being repeated through time immemorial as the Dark Gods look on impassive that certainly beats what little the script itself has to offer on such topics.


Another thing that inadvertently lends a European flavor to ‘The Haunted Palace’ is the fact that, whereas Richard Matheson’s plotting tended to be tight as a drum (always your solid, all-American logic from that cat), Beaumont here seems happy to leave a few loose ends flapping in breeze, accidentally evoking the spirit of some of our favourite irrational/non-linear/lazy [delete as applicable] euro-horrors.

For a start, there’s a whole deformed village offspring/mutant-child-in-the-attic angle that is tacked onto the story but never really developed or concluded in any meaningful fashion, then there’s Curwen’s ‘crossing names off the list’ campaign of vengeance against the villagers, which kind of fizzles out half-way through, and we’ve also got random oddities like the third resurrected sorcerer (played by Milton Parsons) who turns up to assist Price and Lon Chaney Jr in their rites. After being briefly introduced, he basically spends the remainder of the movie standing around doing absolutely nothing, the rationale for his existence perhaps having been excised from an earlier draft, or somesuch. (2)

Actually, Beaumont’s writing is a tad, shall we say, unpolished, all round here, and the stretches of delectable dialogue that Matheson enjoyed crafting for Price in the earlier Poe movies are also notable by their absence. Given the slightly different tone adopted by ‘The Haunted Palace’, that’s perhaps not necessarily such a bad thing, and Beaumont does at least manage to throw in a few slightly more clipped (almost ‘hard-boiled’?) horror movie zingers amid the reheated cliché. (I’m particularly fond of one villager’s declaration that “It isn’t a house, it’s a madman’s palace, as old as sin!”, and the moment when the steadfast Dr. Willet (Frank Maxwell) advises Ward and his wife to flee Arkham, “..just as you would a madman with a knife..”, right as the scene cuts to a particularly baleful exterior of the lightning-illuminated palace.)


Also missing from ‘The Haunted Palace’ is the psychoanalytical take on the material that Corman made a point of exploring in his previous gothic films – a surprising omission, given the director’s oft-stated dedication to this approach. Admittedly, ‘..Palace’ does at least follow the pattern set by Corman’s ruthlessly Freudian riff on ‘The Pit & The Pendulum’ - in both films, our ancestor-possessed protagonist exhibits a somewhat conflicted attitude toward family and gender, and meets his comeuppance whilst fiddling with large mechanisms in the basement. But here, these elements feel more like mere accidental hangovers from the earlier film than an attempt to grapple with anything more profound.

If pushed, you could perhaps make the case that ‘The Haunted Palace’ simply widens the scope of the ‘building-as-mind-map’ concept utilised in the earlier films, effectively extending the metaphor to embrace the entire village and its history-haunted occupants - but to my mind, this would just seem like over-stretching a reading that the film itself never really makes much effort to encourage.

In fact, in spite of the myriad gifts Lovecraft’s fiction offers to armchair psychologists, it is difficult to really read any valid sub-text into ‘The Haunted Palace’, beyond the bits and pieces that remain as residue from its literary and cinematic sources. If there is any “return of the repressed” stuff going on here, I would contend, it is transpiring purely on the ambient level common to all horror films, outside of the filmmakers’ conscious intent.

For viewers who like to take a more ‘thematic’ approach to their horror, this lack of ‘depth’ might make ‘The Haunted Palace’ feel a bit flat, but personally, it is actually one of the things I like best about the film, in a strange sort of way. I mean, you can delve deeper if you must, but as far as Beaumont and Corman (and more to the point, AIP) are concerned, this is a straight-up, two-fisted tale of occult evil, resurrected sorcerers and Dark Gods, executed with the utmost seriousness, and caring little for the nods, winks and grand gestures that helped the earlier Poe films win over the critics.


So dour and puritanical in fact is the film’s overriding atmosphere, it’s possible that its relative failure to make an impression on the public might be down to the fact that audiences simply didn’t know what to make of it, given that the three AIP/Price gothics immediately preceding it had all been framed more or less as arch, self-aware comedies.

Maybe I’m just over-thinking here, but my impression when I watch ‘The Haunted Palace’ side by side with Corman’s other gothics is that this one is a sneaky low-ball, bypassing critical favour and aimed straight at the kids in the cheap seats who actually just *like* all this horror shit. Though far from a satisfactory adaptation of Lovecraft, it nonetheless captures the ghoulish, pulpy atmosphere of pre-war ‘Weird Tales’ fiction better than any other ‘60s American horror film I can think of.

Cementing the film’s sombre tone, director of photography Floyd Crosby employs considerably more muted colour palette than the one he utilised for the earlier Poe films. Bright, heraldic reds and yellows are right out, and a sickly landscape of green, blue and grey instead predominates, interspersed with especially voluminous shadows and featureless New England puritan costmary.

Equally fitting is score by Ronald Stein, which is a corker. More ominous and old-fashioned than Les Baxter’s somewhat kitsch-inclined contributions to the earlier movies, there are certainly no theremins in evidence here; in fact the main theme is a stomping great thing, like a pacier, slightly more nuanced version of James Bernard’s hammer-blow Hammer scores. As is often the case with AIP movies, this single piece is repeated incessantly through the film’s run-time, but, with an indelible central melody that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a big budget adventure movie or historical epic, the repetition rarely grates.


 Clearly conscious of the slightly different direction taken by ‘The Haunted Palace’, Vincent Price here tones down the more excessive aspects of his usual screen persona, and actually does so to great effect, delivering a dual performance as the tormented Ward and the stone-cold Curwen that for me rank amongst his all-time best.

If his comparatively low-key antics may not initially stick in the memory quite as strongly as his extraordinary characterisations in ‘..Usher’ or ‘Pit..’, on repeat viewing I think Price’s work here stands up extremely well, revealing a great deal of subtlety (well, whatever counts as ‘subtlety’ in Vincent Price world, anyway), and providing some great, understated line-readings that go a long way toward elevating the uneven material into something more powerful. In particular, he is chillingly convincing once Curwen is fully in control, projecting a feeling of icy, venomous evil that often seems like a dry run for his celebrated turn in ‘Witchfinder General’ a few years later.

Opposite Price, Debra Paget’s porcelain beauty and forthright composure make her a rather good gothic heroine, even if, as per genre tradition, her character is given very little to do (but hey, at least she doesn’t spend most of the picture consigned to bed on the pre-text of some vaguely defined womanly maladies, so that’s something).

Happily, the dynamic between Paget and Price actually works quite well too. They are believable in the film’s first act as a married couple who actually respect and care for each other, and, once Ward’s possession by Curwen begins to put a spanner in the works, the scene in which he visits Ann’s bed chamber in full-on evil mode to “exercise his husbandly prerogatives” is cringey and menacing in precisely the way it should be, with Price doing his ‘thing’ beautifully as Paget delivering a surprisingly affecting portrayal of a woman who has witnessed her life partner transformed into an unrecognisible villain of some dreadful, inhuman variety.

Whilst talking actors, we should also throw in a word for ‘The Haunted Palace’s second Jr-affixed hard-luck case, Lon Chaney Jr, who is third-billed here as Curwen’s oatmeal-faced servant Simon Orne. Though not exactly blazing with thespian fire, Lon does a dignified and professional job, staying in the background and not making a fuss, as he had learned to on innumerable Westerns and ‘40s b-horrors. If he never shows a hint of the depth of feeling he brought to Jack Hill’s Spider Baby at around the same time, well, neither is he the lumbering, drunken embarrassment he personified in 1964’s ‘Witchcraft’, so again, that’s something. A Likeable, comforting presence, the only thing that undermines Chaney’s performance here is that he just seems too *nice* to be an evil, undead warlock.


Forgot about all that though. As I’m sure most fans of this film will readily acknowledge, the real star of ‘The Haunted Palace’ is Daniel Haller’s extraordinary production design.

If you’ve read anything about the AIP Poe pictures, you’ll probably be familiar with the way in which the crew maintained the ‘flats’ used for the sets of the films, slightly expanding and redressing them as the budget of each installment allowed, thus creating the impression that production values and interior sets were gradually becoming grander as the series progressed. As the last of the cycle made on U.S. soil, ‘The Haunted Palace’ presumably represents the apex of this approach, and, however hackneyed you may find the film’s constituent parts, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that the results are pretty damn magnificent. Expertly rebuilding and redressing the materials they’d assembled over the past few years, Haller and his collaborators here set a new benchmark for visual splendor in ‘60s gothic horror cinema; a benchmark that, to be honest, few ever stepped up to challenge as the appeal of these studio-bound fantasias declined sharply in the second half of the decade.

By the standards of low/mid budget 1960s filmmaking, the scale and detail of Curwen’s subterranean altar chamber is astonishing. From the vast wooden gantries leading down to the main hall, walls atmospherically lit by dozens of flaming torches (which, surprisingly, do not end up contributing to the obligatory closing inferno) to the towering, apparently ceiling-less cavern that houses the altar itself - its sheer size implying that it was designed to house the manifestation of some Cthulhu-like monstrosity - the gradual reveal of this centerpiece during the opening flashback is one of those wonderful “good grief, they actually BUILT this?” moments that horror films all too rarely manage to deliver; a jaw-dropper on par with the vertiginous grandeur of the iconic lab set in ‘Bride of Frankenstein’.

The eight foot high gouts of flame that Price ignites in the braziers surrounding the altar, the grotesquely elaborate wooden winding mechanism, reminiscent of medieval torture devices (and probably repurposed from the ones used in ‘Pit..’, more than likely) that opens to grated door to the glowing pit below, the angular, S&M-tinged frame to which sacrificial virgins are bound… what can you say? It’s certainly one of my favourite cinematic representations of this perennially blood-curdling pulp fiction spectacle.


Happily, this attention to detail is carried across to most other aspects of the film’s visual identity too. The matte paintings that introduce us to the geography of the village and the exterior of the palace – always one of my favourite aspects of these ‘60s gothics – are particularly lovely examples of the form, each looking as if it could have been pulled straight from the pages of some much-loved Victorian storybook, and the fog-shrouded village sets remain equally evocative, even as their theatrical painted backdrops and wobbly fence-posts are rather unflatteringly revealed via the miracle of blu-ray.(3)

Meanwhile, the extensive graveyard set that forms the conduit between village and castle is also wonderfully realised; the slow pan across the blasted heathland carelessly dotted with headstones, harking back of course to the opening of ‘..Usher’, must have had Tim Burton shuddering with envy every time he revisited ‘The Haunted Palace’ (which, I would humbly suggest, may have been frequently).

And thankfully, it’s not just the sets in ‘The Haunted Palace’ that are right on the money either. Intelligent casting ensures that even the film’s minor characters are vividly and memorably portrayed, from the gurning villagers (old pros Cook and Gordon are joined by several other agreeably gnarled faces) to the aforementioned Cathie Merchant as Curwen’s mistress; even the young blonde girl shanghaied by Curwen and co in the opening flashback makes a strong impression with her unnerving look of dead-eyed, sinister acceptance.(4)

The only major misstep with the film’s production design in fact is the extremely questionable realisation of the creature in the pit during the finale. I’m not sure at what stage of the film’s production the decision was taken to feature a visible ‘monster’, but apparently the old “the house is the monster” line that Corman used to sell ‘..House of Usher’ to his paymasters just wasn’t going to cut it this time around, and, from all appearances, I’m guessing the filmmakers weren’t given much time in which to ponder the problem of how to film the indescribable before the curtain fell and the finished effects shots were needed.

As such, there’s no way to sugar-coat the fact that what they came up with can best be described as a mutilated ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ Aurora model kit shot through a fish-tank, accompanied by ‘roars’ that sound like they just put some reverb on the MGM lion. As far as on-screen representations of cthulhoid monstrosities go, it’s not a good start.

That ‘The Haunted Palace’ manages to stumble through such a disaster without completely annihilating the audience’s good feeling is, in a sense, the best possible testament to the atmosphere and dramatic exuberance the film manages to accumulate prior to its final reel. Even whilst I sometimes wish there was a special edition of the film in which those ‘special effects’ shots were prefaced by footage of an apologetic Roger Corman saying “well, the word was, we had to have a monster, and we only had about fifty bucks to split between this and the catering, so… y’know..”, it’s still remarkable that, when I re-watch ‘The Haunted Palace’ in the right frame of mind, I’m just about able to suspend disbelief and go with it.


Whilst ‘The Haunted Palace’ is undoubtedly a travesty of Lovecraft’s work in many ways, I can’t deny that I still get a huge kick out of the elements of his mythology that do remain within it. As diluted and ill-served as the source text may be, the film is still full weird and incongruous notions, creeping around the corners of the film’s rigidly formulaic structure in a manner that, for me at least, is hugely entertaining.

Having sat through what feels like a thousand exposition-heavy dinner table conversations in gothic horror movies, it’s difficult to express how much I love the equivalent scene here, in which, rather than directing us toward family curses, tainted bloodlines or some other over-familiar hokum, nominal voice-of-scientific-reason Dr Willet instead starts banging on about the “..the Elder Gods, the dark ones from beyond who had once ruled the world, and will one day rule again..”, name-checking Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth before directing Ward and his wife toward a certain forbidden tome that was once said to reside in the palace (I like the slight New York twang Frank Maxwell gives to the word ‘Necronomicon’) - all of course framed in conventional “ know the kind of thing these primitive people believe..” terms, even though Arkham’s villagers display no knowledge of or interest in such obscure notions.

Whilst the old “doing the Lovecraft bit” speech may seem quaintly familiar to horror fans these days, such ravings must have left yr average 1960s audience slightly taken aback. Simply by throwing this stuff in as background for Curwen’s sorcery, Corman and Beaumont suddenly change the game completely, breaking free from the comparatively cozy Christian cosmology and human-shaped ambassadors from the beyond that had dominated horror movies up to this point, and no doubt planting the seed of all manner of vast and horrifying possibilities within the minds of more imaginative young viewers, just as HPL originally intended.

Though the mellifluous Latin incantations Vincent Price uses to summon his pet whatever-it-is during the film’s finale may be a far cry from the guttural, alien tongues favoured by Lovecraft’s cultists, Curwen nonetheless delivers a particularly chilling line during his obligatory ‘villain diatribe’, wherein, after chiding his opponents for their failure to ‘understand’ his work, he says of himself and his fellow warlocks, “ a matter of fact, we don’t really understand ourselves… we just obey..”.

Beautifully delivered by Price with a cracked half-chuckle, this gets about as close as this or any other movie adaptation has to a genuinely Lovecraftian moment of cosmic horror – the vain-glorious sorcerer sheepishly admitting that it is not his own will he is realising; that he is in fact just as much of a ‘victim’ as the hypnotised women he strings up on his altar, blindly propagating the unknowable, inhuman agenda of the ancient entity he has blundered his way into serving, and just a likely to be gobbled up alongside them when the time comes.


It is also interesting that, mirroring the ‘pick & mix’ approach taken by the Poe films, Corman and Beaumont actually manage to incorporate a few elements into ‘The Haunted Palace’ that were taken from Lovecraft stories other than ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ – further suggesting that this project arose from a wider appreciation of the author’s work, rather than a “hey, this is a cool story, let's do it” one-off.

For one thing, mythos nerds will have been yelling at me since this review’s opening paragraphs for failing to clarify that the events of ‘..Charles Dexter Ward’ actually take place in Lovecraft’s real life home of Providence, Rhode Island, rather his fictitious Arkham, as featured here. For another, the “village cursed by half-breed/mutant off-spring” sub-plot appended to ‘The Haunted Palace’ is one that plays a prominent role in several other Lovecraft stories (most famously of course in ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’), but is entirely absent from ‘..Charles Dexter Ward’, whilst the dread Necronomicon – allotted much importance in Beaumont’s screenplay – is only mentioned in passing in the story, slotted in amid references to numerous other forbidden tomes, both real and invented.(5)

Curious too is the way that ‘The Haunted Palace’ seems to some extent to have ‘set the blue-print’ for Lovecraftian cinema, as can be seen from the way that several ideas and images from the film frequently reoccur in subsequent adaptations, despite the fact that they have only the most tenuous connection to Lovecraft’s fiction.

In particular, the image of a screaming heroine trussed up for sacrifice on an altar above a pit from which some unspeakable creature clamour is one that I don’t think ever actually occurs in Lovecraft, but, given its self-explanatory appeal as a cool scene for a movie, such scenarios have popped up again in both AIP’s version of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ (1970) and Stuart Gordon’s ‘Dagon’ (2001), amongst others.

Similarly difficult to account for is the longevity of the old “deformed, cannibalistic relative locked in the attic” meme, which appears for what I think may be the first time in ‘The Haunted Palace’. This went on to recur in both David Greene’s ‘The Shuttered Room’ (1967) and Gordon’s ‘Castle Freak’ (1995), in addition to dozens of other, unconnected horror films, in which it is often identified as a ‘Lovecraftian’ element, despite the fact that, as far as I recall, this idea never features at all in any of Lovecraft’s core stories.(6)


One last item I’d like to discuss before we (FINALLY) get to the end of this review is something that occurred to me whilst rewatching ‘The Haunted Palace’ for the first time in a few years – namely, the possibility of it having exerted an influence on another much-loved key text in the “Lovecraftian-but-not-Lovecraft” canon mentioned earlier, Lucio Fulci’s ‘The Beyond’ (1981).

Now, I’m not saying I have anything concrete to go on here, but the casual similarities between the two films are such that I can’t help but speculate that ‘The Haunted Palace’ may have been lurking in the background when Fulci and his collaborators knocked out their initial outline for ‘The Beyond’. I’m not sure whether any of the numerous writers who have lavished attention on Fulci’s film over the years have picked up on this before, but think about it. Opening flashback in which a grimoire-toting necromancer is violently punished by torch-wielding villagers? His clueless descendants inheriting the deserted property and umming and ahhing over whether to sell or renovate it? Sinister encounters with blind/eyeless people? The implication of a ‘gate to other dimensions’ or somesuch lurking in the basement?

As I say, none of this would stand up in court, and none of these were exactly novel elements for a horror film in 1981, but the similarities are sufficiently numerous to make it worth mulling over I think, especially in view of ‘The Beyond’s oft-remarked Lovecraftian overtones.

Ok, now that we’ve got that over with – concluding paragraph!

It is an odd paradox that, despite its novel subject matter, ‘The Haunted Palace’ is actually the AIP gothic horror film that adheres most strictly and straight-facedly to the conventions of the genre. There are no innovations, sub-texts or big ideas to upset the apple cart here, and to my mind the film is all the better for it. Taken on its own terms, it is a nigh-on transcendent testament to the power of ‘60s gothic, a towering heap of fan service to those of us who love the peculiar architecture of this particular misbegotten corner of filmmaking. And of course, this formal context only serves to make it all the more enjoyable when weird incursions of pulpy, Lovecraftian strangeness begin to make themselves felt, like a glowing green icing on the cake.

To more, shall we say.. rational?.. viewers, ‘The Haunted Palace’ will seem a superfluous and unremarkable addition to the Corman/Poe cycle – a “more of the same” hotch-potch of undercooked ideas and clichés. But for those of us with the right temperament, we who revel in the texture, the atmosphere and the mad, misfiring notions of horror films that seem to have been left to warp for too long in some mildewed basement, it is a pure joy - one of the most immersive and richly satisfying experiences that early ‘60s horror has to offer.


(1) Opening-witch-curse-flashback also popped up in 1960’s ‘City of the Dead’ (aka ‘Horror Hotel’), and reoccurred a year after ‘The Haunted Place’ in The Long Hair of Death, if anyone’s keeping score. As Mondo 70 recently reminded me, it also pops up in Chano Urueta’s great ‘El Baron del Terror’ (aka ‘The Brainiac’, 1962), which gives us examples from three continents. Anyone want to point me in the direction of an Asian witch-burning/curse movie circa 1959-63, for a full house..?

(2) Seriously, this guy walks in, apparently out of nowhere, says “hi, how you doing?” (I paraphrase), then quietly hangs out in the background until the conclusion, at which point he inexplicably disappears! Scripting issues aside, I’m frankly amazed that Corman didn’t see the opportunity to save an actor’s fee here.

(3) To clarify, I should point out that the screen-shots used in this review are definitely NOT taken from any of the recent blu-ray presentations of this film. They are actually from the Studio Canal DVD included in a UK Corman box set from a few years back, if you must know, and I’ve artificially brightened a few shots because it looked pretty goddamned dark.

(4)The oracle of IMDB reveals to me that the sacrificial victim was portrayed by one Darlene Lucht, whose other notable screen credits included ‘Muscle Beach Party’ (1965) and ‘Five Bloody Graves’ (1969). You go girl, etc.

(5) Purely based on the text of ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’, one would probably have sidelined the Necronomicon (mentioned twice) in favour of the works of one ‘Borellus’ (most likely 17th century French scholar and alleged alchemist Pierre Borel), whose speculations about resurrecting the dead using “..essential Saltes of humane Dust” seem to have provided Lovecraft with the inspiration for the story, and whose name is mentioned over a dozen times in the text.

(6)Ok, so I’ll cop that “deformed, cannibalistic relative locked in the attic” is admittedly the basis of the August Derleth “collaboration” upon which ‘The Shuttered Room’ is based, and the idea is at least vaguely implied in both ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ and ‘The Lurking Fear’… but I still find it interesting that this has come to be seen as a “Lovecraftian” reference point in horror cinema, despite the fact that Lovecraft never actually set pen to paper to fully describe it in the first place.


Roger said...

Great discussion of this under-appreciated film. I think it was one of my favorites of the Poe cycle, specifically for the weird Lovecraft elements that kept slipping in through the floorboards (as it were).

Best, Roger

Ben said...

Thanks Roger, much appreciated!

Yes, it's one of my favourites too, as you may have gathered from the fact I spent so long rambling on about it. (Having said that though, it's very difficult to pick favourites amongst the key Price/Corman collaborations - they're all pretty wonderful, to be honest.)

Anonymous said...

I always thought City of the Dead/Horror Hotel (1960) was the best Lovecraftian film, even though, or perhaps because, it wasn't based on any specific Cthulhu story. The ghostly New England atmosphere is just right. Also, witches and Christopher Lee, hey.

Gregor said...

Interesting review Ben and I'll look forward to reading more posts in this series (and hopefully righting the wrongs of all the bad reviews that have plagued The Unnamable Returns ;-)

Are you planning to just review films where the makers have directly claimed Lovecraft as a basis, or those with unmistakable Lovecraftian elements (as you point out the latter are often more interesting and successful).

Whilst I have the DVD of The Haunted Palace, I have never been able to finish it. I do think that for all Corman's 'Poe' films, there is a difference between enjoying watching them and enjoying remembering them. Maybe I had very high expectations because my favourite Corman film is The Masque of the Red Death which also featured a script by Beaumont and starred Price. I personally think this film is even under-rated by some of its own fans. The Fall of the House of Usher was visually fascinating, the palette dominated by contrasting slate grey and crimson, some excellent artwork in the gallery and Price outstanding in the main role. But much of the rest has dated badly, especially the soundtrack and the unlikable smug lead actor. The Pit and the Pendulum had an enjoyably complex story and a better ensemble cast, but still suffered from an unlikable 'good guy' and some cliched theatrical components. One other plus for me anyway was that I love the Californian seaside (which I've never visited, but...) and the waves and volcanic rock helped fix a place I found entrancing. However, The Masque of the Red Death seemed to me on a different level. It is a Corman/ Price gothic melodrama, verging on camp. But I thought Beaumont's script actually had some rather poignant scenes between Prospero and Francesca where Price is in superb form, his hypnotic voice and more understated charisma demonstrating a flip side to the cackling grandstanding ham in the dining hall.

From that perspective I found what I saw of The Haunted Palace rather disappointing. As your review says, Beaumont might not have found his feet at that time- or else struggled to synthesise the source text. Also I personally thought (maybe I'm wrong) that Corman himself might not really have believed in his own efforts at atmosphere in this one. Compared to the visual inventiveness of previous Poe films, I thought that the fake mists and the stage taverns just did not convince me, and perhaps more to the point might not have convinced Corman either. The production designer might well have been a talented guy, but I just didn't feel a synthesis between his vision and Corman's.

I coud be totally wrong about this, but I guess that's why atmospheric films like Corman's can be a double edged sword, if the viewer does not feel a subjective hypnosis into the world then gothic melodrama can be a bit tiresome.

Perhaps lastly, I also have a soft spot for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward which a lot of Lovecraft fans don't seem too keen on. Perhaps it fails in some ways in its surface narrative, but that it does itself have an overall oneiric quality which makes it memorably atmospheric.

Still, I'll give The haunted Palace another go sometime.

Elliot James said...

A Corman film from his great Gothic cycle that I never could sit through from start to finish unlike his other films from that time. Now I want to re-watch it and try not to fidget after reading your thorough analysis. I did love the entire cast.

Ben said...

Thanks for your insightful comments Gregor - as ever, they're much appreciated.

I think our views probably differ somewhat, simply due to the fact that I basically just really like the artificiality of the 'gothic melodrama' (and Vincent Price's performances within it), even if there's nothing of particular thematic interest going on - it's become a kind of cinematic comfort food for me, and it's probably on that level that I can enjoy 'The Haunted Palace' so much.

Anyway, I definitely agree that '..Red Death' is objectively a 'better' film, and still an obvious pick for the best of the series artistically-speaking, but, as stated in my earlier comment, I basically really like all of the Corman/Price/Poe films, so it's difficult to pick a single favourite.

I also definitely agree that 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' is one of Lovecraft's strongest stories; I re-read it last year, and found it was still utterly engrossing - remarkable not just for it's Lovecraftian horror weirdness, but just as a really dense, well-researched, incredibly atmospheric historical novel - really one of the best thing he ever did in conventional 'literary' terms. I think we've probably just got to live with the fact that 'The Haunted Palace' is obviously a terrible adaptation of it, and try to enjoy it on its own merits.

Regarding the series of Lovecraft reviews, I'm afraid it might be more of an 'occasional' thing, just because I'm not sure when I'll get a chance to fit in viewings of all the movies, let alone write about them, but for the moment, I'm planning to stick to movies that at least claim to be adapted directly from Lovecraft (maybe even including some really tenuous ones like 'The Shuttered Room' and 'Curse of the Crimson Altar', just because it might be fun to write about them). I'm quite looking forward to it really: I barely remember anything about 'Di Monster Die' for instance, and I've never seen either of the 'Unnameable' films or Dan O'Bannon's 'The Resurrected'.... should be interesting, even if it takes me a long time to get through them all!