Friday, 5 March 2010

The Haunted Palace (1963)

Country: USA

Edgar Allan Poe's The Haunted Palace

In the 1960’s Roger Corman in conjunction with American International Pictures was creating his own brand of gothic horror. These films which were largely based on the short stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe offered more psychological depth than the rival productions of England’s Hammer. Corman opted for a more delicate and finely balanced visual palette which mirrored the dreamy and hallucinatory nature of his films. Hammer’s merits lay in the externalised opulence of their production design and art direction. An evocative visual landscape which ultimately distanced the viewer from the horror on screen. Corman however was just as interested in interior landscapes and in the interaction between emotional depth and visual style. For this reason Corman’s Poe films seem to have an intellectual dimension which was rarely reached by any of his contemporaries.

By the time Corman decided to divert his attentions to an adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft short story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward he already had House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963) behind him. It’s more than conceivable that Corman was a bit bored of Poe. But AIP were not bored of Poe and inspired by box office receipts the production company decided to market Corman’s latest horror picture as another Poe film. With a few scant lines from the obscure poem The Haunted Palace appearing on screen, Lovecraft suddenly became Poe. AIP would go on to do this a number of times during the 1960’s - Witchfinder General (1968) became The Conqueror Worm and The Oblong Box has no relation to the short story after which it was named. Lovecraft was very much the heir to Poe’s throne in literary terms and it would have been a fitting tribute if AIP could have segued from Poe into the cosmic terrors of Lovecraft. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and Lovecraft wasn’t utilised at all in the marketing of The Haunted Palace.

Vincent Price gets the opportunity to play two characters here - the soppy and pathetic Charles Dexter Ward and the infinitely more interesting Joseph Curwen - a man who is burnt at the stake by the villagers of Arkham for his love of the black arts. Over a century after this vigilante deed Ward arrives in Arkham to claim his inheritance - a suitably gothic and eerie palace handed down to him by his warlock ancestor. After enduring the indifference of a superstitious populace Ward finds himself in conflict with the spirit of Curwen whose force of will enables him to inhabit the body of the feckless Ward and continue the plans that were interrupted a century before by the torch wielding locals. Curwen is aided and abetted in his task by Simon (a bloated Lon Chaney Jr.) in their bid to harness the cryptic powers of the Necronomicon and open a passageway for the old gods to return to our world and once again hold dominion. Chaney Jr is badly underused and apart from a few eerily lit moments adds little to the film apart from his obvious marquee value. Price on the other hand gets to ham it up and dominates proceedings, delivering his wicked lines of dialogue with the sadistic relish for which he became popular. Corman makes use of an evocative portrait of Curwen, a work of art which glares down at all who enter the palace, the burning eyes fixing Ward in their glare, communicating both control and bodily possession.

The village of Arkham is well rendered, with a number of enjoyably hysterical scenes taking place in the ironically named Burning Man Tavern. Here we get to see the mob mentality develop amid an increasing tempo of supernatural events, the least of which are two excellent revenge murders and a surreal moment in which mutated descendants of the original mob surround Ward in a bid to make him leave. Curwen’s thirst for vengeance is soon forgotten however as he successfully revives his long dead mistress (the film wastes a lot of time with this) and when Curwen finally gets around to the true purpose of his quest the film is virtually over. Curwen fails to fully carry out his revenge and Chaney Jr’s character simply vanishes from the film. We don’t see enough of the old gods, who appear almost as an afterthought as the film forgets earlier developments and rushes headlong into the typical Corman ending - a building on fire. The film benefits from first rate art direction courtesy of Corman regular Daniel Haller and an outstanding musical score from Ronald Stein. Apart from one or two major plot weaknesses The Haunted Palace is easily one of the most stylish and enjoyable of Corman’s 1960’s gothic horrors.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. The AIP pictures directed by Roger Corman himself where always the best ones for me. He really understood how to make a story creepy and atmospheric. My favorite of his is House of Usher.

    Ive yet to see The Haunted Palace, but Ive made my way through a couple of these AIP pictures.

    The one you mention today sounds a lot like another film Corman produced called The Dunwhich Horror, which was based on Lovecraft as well, and was also about old gods wanting to cross over to our world.

    The reasons why we probably never get a good glimpse of the old ones were probably budgetary.Same thing happened in Dunwhich Horror, were the old gods are never really shown clearly.

    This reminds me of another Lovecraft adapted AIP picture called Die Monster Die! Ever seen that one, its was another one of the few Lovecraft inspired AIP pictures.

  2. Yes all of Lovecraft's stories were concerned with the ancient gods of Cthulu and their attempts to penetrate our dimension - The Dunwhich Horror builds on the themes in The Haunted Palace in this respect.

    I have picked up quite a few of these Corman/AIP films through MGM/20th Century Fox's series Midnite Movies. I believe Die Monster Die! was paired with Duniwich Horror. The Haunted Palace is paired with Tower of London. I havent watched Die Mopnster Die! yet, but its on the shelf waiting.

  3. I love those old Price/Corman/Poe films. I always get a little nostalgic when watching the likes of Fall of the House of Usher or Pit and the Pendulum. I haven't seen this one yet - though I enjoyed your review, Shaun. Would be interested in seeing Corman's take on HP Lovecraft! Hope you are enjoying your weekend.

  4. Thanks James - Yes I really them too, but not quite as much as Hammer. I think Premature Burial is my favourite - one of the few not to feature Vincent Price, but instead a tremendous turn from Ray Milland as the man morbidly fascinated by his premature death.


Related Posts with Thumbnails