The Haunted Palace is a Creepy Little Treat.
By Kristin Battestella
In all my Vincent Price, Roger Corman, AIP, and Poe celebrations, it’s been quite tough to find The Haunted Palace again. Though this 1963 tale borrows much more from Lovecraft than it does Poe, all the creepy, freaky moods and twists are here in fine form.
In the 18th century, Arkham townsfolk burn the warlock Joseph Curwen (Price) for using the Necronomicon and local women in sadistic experiments- but Curwen vows to return and curses the village descendants. 100 years later, Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) and his wife Anne (Debra Paget) inherit Curwen’s mansion and return to the New England ruin. Dr. Willet (Frank Maxwell) informs the couple of the town’s twisted history, but the rest of the villagers fear Ward as local strange occurrences and bizarre deaths increase. They use their deformed children to frighten Anne, and she begins to suspect the spirit of Curwen is indeed trying to take over her husband. Unfortunately, their caretaker Simon (Lon Chaney, Jr.) knows more than he’s saying…
Writer Charles Beaumont (The Twilight Zone, Premature Burial, The Masque of the Red Death) teams with director Roger Corman (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) for this Lovecraftian adaptation that got unfortunately shoehorned into American International Picture’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle. Yes, it’s based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward more than any reaching at Poe titles or poetry- which might automatically put off the Poe faithful or the Lovecraft purists alike. However, the spooky moods and sinister atmosphere are here from the onset, with great traditional jumpy moments and heck, it’s actually scary in some scenes. Even if you expect the smoke and mirror twists, it’s still dang suspenseful as the sinister past increasingly takes hold. Indeed, the Necronomicon back story and Cthulhu allusions could be better explained, and the revenge plotlines are similar to later films like The Abominable Dr. Phibes. There’s reused fire filmmaking for the finale and the end is somewhat abrupt, too, but overall, this is an entertaining and scary little picture.
Naturally, the resemblance between Curwen and Ward is uncanny! Our Man Vincent differentiates the two men nicely to start, allowing a slow possession to brew. The naughty implications, man handlings, and great outbursts build perfectly as the Victorian gentleman Ward becomes increasing overtaken with the ruthless warlock Curwen. The tender scenes and inner torment as Ward realizes the takeover is happening are well done, too. Again, I don’t see any over the top acting. Price’s subtle inner conflict and physical alterations are quite the opposite in fact. The pacing on the possession is good, but I do wish the film were a bit longer, as Debra Paget (The Ten Commandments with Price) as Ward’s wife Anne does become a bit typical. She’s active, suspects, and doesn’t scream too much, but it just seems like they ran out of time in developing her suspicions on Curwen overtaking her husband. Of course, Paget looks wonderful- and looks good scared, that’s not always an easy thing to master. The Wards also sleep in the same bed, whoa! Anne ends up the good little woman, but their tender relationship and its explosive breakdown are well done, and it adds an extra personal dimension to the twistedness at hand.
Instead of the usual stock company throwaways, the supporting village men in The Haunted Palace lift up the horror here. Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolf Man) is perfection as the creepy and most definitely not so innocent caretaker Simon. Of course, he knows more about Curwen than he lets on to the Wards, and his scary introduction is great. Frank Maxwell (Our Man Higgins) does fine work as the would be voice of reason among the otherwise superstitious townsfolk, but again, I wish there were more of his Dr. Willet and town scaredy cat Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, House on Haunted Hill). Leo Gordon (McLintock!) is also a lot of fun, as are the weird, deformed, and disturbed village descendants. Oh, girls with no eyes or freaky eyeless men and worse shouldn’t be so scary, but when used in full force here, it’s downright frightening.
Although the Cthulhu- like tentacles and dungeon scenery leave something to be desired, the other period styles and designs establish The Haunted Palace wonderfully. The spider web motifs over the credits will be dang freaky for arachnophobes, and the opening colonial mayhem looks on form. The fog and lightning create all the atmosphere needed, and eerie music tops off the titular mansion’s décor, red candles, and sweet candelabras. Those dungeons, however, are a little too dark to see- even when its daylight. Of course, the video is due some restoration, and the matte paintings supposedly providing scope are fairly poor, but that is to be expected. Thankfully, the Victorian standards, ornate frocks, and wispy nightgowns more than make up the difference.
Unfortunately, The Haunted Palace is dang tough to find. Netflix is mum and its double bill DVD release with Tower of London is downright elusive. For Price Fans, Corman completists, and old school horror fans, however, The Haunted Palace is well worth the hunt. Catch it whenever you can or delight again on a spooky late night whenever you need that hint of Lovecraft. Or Poe for that matter, hehe.