Written by: Charles Beaumont (screenplay), Edgar Allen Poe (poem), H.P. Lovecraft (story)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Debra Paget, and Lon Chaney Jr.
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I'll not have my fill of revenge until this village is a graveyard. Until they have felt, as I did, the kiss of fire on their soft bare flesh. All of them. Have patience my friends. Surely, after all these years, I'm entitled to a few small amusements."
Most long-running franchises or cycles will have departures, and Roger Corman’s oeuvre of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations is no exception. In fact, it may feature one of the starkest digressions on its surface since 1963’s The Haunted Palace isn’t even a Poe adaptation at all. Instead, with five Poe translations under his belt, Corman turned to the works of the then-relatively obscure H.P. Lovecraft, only to have American International Picture go over his head and market the damn thing as the latest Poe movie anyway. Film history is full of such executive shenanigans, and this one seems to be particularly egregious bit of deceptive branding—or is it?
After all, there’s a reason The Haunted Palace still finds itself in the company of the proper Poe cycle despite only borrowing its title and a quoted passage from one of the author’s poems. Almost immediately, this is quite understandable: The Haunted Palace might be inspired by Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but even the most fleeting of glimpses reveals the familiar, easily-distinguishable aesthetic of Corman’s previous efforts, as its fog-drenched landscapes and lush Pathecolor palette stretch across a dreamy Panavision frame destined to be consumed by flames (spoiler for, like, every AIP production from this era).
At its center is a familiar presence in Vincent Price, here playing a dual role: during the film’s prologue, he is Joseph Curwen, an supposed warlock set to be burned at the stake by the spooked locals in Arkham, a New England town living up to the region’s reputation for paranoia whenever alleged sorcery is afoot. Before his flesh is consumed by the flames, he vows to return and haunt the town. 110 years later, Curwen descendant Dexter Ward arrives in town bearing an uncanny resemblance to his ancestor, an event that doesn’t go unnoticed by locals who have lived in terror of Curwen’s resurrection.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Haunted Palace is a loose adaptation of Lovecraft’s original tale, mostly only borrowing the skeletal frame of a man confronting his ancestor’s sorcerous destiny. But where Lovecraft’s Ward finds himself literally replaced by his resurrected ancestor, Corman and Price’s endures a much more metaphysical ordeal, as Curwen’s spirit exerts its will through a painting and assistance from his old cronies (Lon Chaney, Jr. & Milton Parsons). What follows often owes more to Poe than Lovecraft, with the company surrounding Ward—including his poor, confused wife (Debra Paget)—completely unaware that he’s been possessed by his long-dead ancestor, who has returned to complete his various nefarious tasks.
Such a setup allows Price to again assume the position of a tragically conflicted, somewhat forlorn madman, only the personas here literally split in a wonderfully schizophrenic performance that cements Price’s place in the pantheon of icons. As Ward, he’s meek and mild-mannered, with a hint of Price’s trademark sadness—you almost sense that he already feels the burden of the family legacy before Curwen reemerges. Once the long-dead warlock reasserts himself, Price transforms into a sadistic maniac, with both his voice and facial features becoming sharper and more aggressive. In one of his finest turns, Price is absolutely convincing in both modes, and it’s easy to see how he could easily be cast as both a sympathetic victim and a complete psychopath during the course of his career.
In fact, the only detriment to The Haunted Palace is Corman’s reluctance to explore that range; for whatever reason, Curwen’s evil is immediately established even though his ambitions are somewhat murky. It would be perhaps more interesting had the film straddled its ambiguity more deftly served as a critique of puritanical hysteria—instead, it’s mostly about awful people doing awful things to each other. Curwen is indeed just an evil son of a bitch, so much so that he puts his grandiose plans on the back burner as he decides to exact revenge on the descendants of the lynch mob that killed him. Such intimate gruesomeness again feels more like the domain of Poe, and the more explicitly Lovecraftian material feels like an accessory until the climax.
Up until that point, The Haunted Palace has at least introduced the cinematic world to some of Lovecraft’s most infamous lore: the Necronomicon plays a large role in the proceedings, and Curwen whispers about appeasing elder gods. Once the film fully embraces its literary roots, it’s pure Lovecraft, as the image of a woman hanging over an otherworldly pit full of unspeakable horrors looking to crawl into our world is a fine distillation of the author’s style and preoccupations. Much of Lovecraft’s effectiveness owes to the author’s ability to create an immense feeling of dread by capturing sheer madness and a dark sense of grandeur, and The Haunted Palace eventually follows suit.
Ultimately, the film is not much of a departure for Corman’s output during this period; rather, it’s more of a detour that masterfully blends his house style with Lovecraft's themes. As the first adaptation of the author’s work, The Haunted Palace asserted the viability of such translations and effectively opened the portal for later attempts. Perched towards the end of the director’s legendary collaboration with Price, it is arguably peak Corman and a sort of last gasp for American gothic horror. Fittingly joining two generations of classic horror icons in Price and Chaney, it also points towards ominous forces approaching from the horizon, which is about as Lovecraftian as it gets. Buy it!
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