Haunted Palace

In 1960, Roger Corman, AIP’s go-to director for cheap, quickly produced science fiction and horror double bills, convinced the powers that be to gamble on letting him make a stand-alone film, in color, with double the production time and more money. Granted that, compared to other studios, this still meant an incredibly lean budget and an incredibly short production schedule. The result was Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, a landmark film in the history of American horror. With the runaway success of House of Usher, Corman found himself free to direct a rapid succession of follow-up films that all relied on the same basic formula. In 1963, however, flush with success and probably more than entitled to do so, Corman asked if he could do something just a little bit different. Most of the key elements would be in place. Corman would direct. The film would be widescreen and in vivid color. And, naturally, it would star Vincent Price. But this time, rather than relying on Poe yet again, which was becoming increasingly challenging as the studio quickly gobbled up and used his longer stories, Corman wanted to adapt something by another American horror author, H.P. Lovecraft.

Writing a full history of Lovecraft and the effect he had and continues to have on fantastic and horrific literature, cinema, and even music, is somewhat beyond the scope of what we have time for here, though I will do my best to summarize. Lovecraft was a pulp writer in the early 20th century, a contemporary and frequent penpal of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, and a host of other memorable pulp fiction characters. Lovecraft’s stock in trade was a somewhat bizarre mix of horror and science fiction, and the majority of Lovecraft’s story take place more or less int he same universe and revolve around the same pantheon of fictional creatures, the poster child for which was Cthulhu.

Many of you are probably already familiar with Lovecract and far more acquainted with his body of work than I am. In fact, when preparing to reviewing a number of films based upon the works of Lovecraft, I realized that I was not so much experienced with Lovecraft as I was in the general vicinity of people vaguely knowledgeable about the fact that the guy existed and created his own bizarre mythology revolving around an elder race from the very beginning of time and the various ways in which they cause trouble for the people of New England and other locations. When I was in fourth grade, I got a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories through those Troll book order things that were so awesome back then. Man, nothing was better than the day those Troll book orders show up. You’d be sitting in class, and all of a sudden a guy would show up and drop off a big ol’ box, and you knew it was full of the books you ordered a month ago. You’d have to sit through the rest of the lesson, usually, but it was worth it.

In fact, other than my mom encouraging me to watch old horror movies when I was little, those elementary school book order things are probably the single biggest influence that steered my down the cinematic path that finds me, today, fervently defending the likes of Jess Franco and Alfonso Brescia. My friends and I used to order all sorts of monster books from that thing. They had this one series of paperbacks with black covers, featuring a photo of a famous monster of filmland. Each book, of course, was focused on a particular type of monster, so there was a book for vampires, one for werewolves, one for Frankenstein monsters, one for mummies, and one for space aliens. The things I remember most vividly about them was that the vampire one had a scary picture of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee on the cover, the Frankenstein one had a picture inside of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee as Frankenstein which really scared and enthralled me, and that in the space alien one there was a promotional still from The Mysterians that showed a massive and largely out of perspective battle between the Mysterians, the Japanese military, and a huge army of Mogeras. Needless to say, when I finally saw The Mysterians, I was disappointed to find out that there was no army of Mogeras anywhere in it, and no battle like the one in the book. I have since made my peace with The Mysterians, though, and like it despite the absence of such a conflict.

Anyway, I wonder if they even let kids order books like that anymore. Or are they too threatening and controversial for today’s sensitive children? I mean, I was in second grade and marveling at gory photos (in black and white, admittedly) of vampires with stakes in their hearts and that famous wood cutting of Vlad the Impaler (oh, you know the one). I wonder sometimes if mine is the last generation to have such an affection for the classic monsters. I currently work in a university, and not one of the students with whom I interact knows who Frankenstein is. Some of them know Dracula, and no one knows the Mummy other than through the more recent mummy movies — which they aren’t aware grew from a series of old black and white films. My friends and I were obsessed with the famous monsters. We loved them. They scared us the first time around but then quickly became like old friends. One of my favorite comedy bits of all time was listening to Bill Cosby talk about walking home at night after trying to watch an old monster movie, or how some kids stole a life-size statue of Frankenstein and used it to scare Fat Albert.

But I think we were a transitional generation. Every kid knew the classic monsters, but not everyone had seen the movies. The population of classic horror film fans dwindled. Now that my generation has had their children and many of us are old enough to have kids that would be near the end of their high school careers, the number of kids who know the old monsters is even lower. Not only have they not seen the movies; they don’t even know the monsters. Even the kid in my office who liked giallo and modern horror only vaguely recognized the iconic Karloff monster. Of course, I accept that this sort of thing happens. Outside of a core group of fans, the classics and near-classics of the past tend to be forgotten. So it goes, and we who appreciate the old things become curators of a sort. Still, it’s weird for me to think that there’s a whole crop of kids who go to Wal-Mart during the Halloween season, see all those Frankenstein cut-outs, and just see some random, generic monster with no connection to anything from the past.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I bought a book of H.P. Lovecraft stories from Troll Book Club in the fourth grade. And I’m pretty sure I read some of them. At least The Dunwich Horror. But if I read much more, I don’t really remember it, and the only thing I remembered about The Dunwich Horror was some professors climbing a hill and reading a book during a windstorm or something. In the ensuing years, though, I was around so many references to Lovecraft that I fooled myself into thinking that I was knowledgeable on the subject just because I knew there was a big squid monster thing called Cthulhu and the stories were full of horrors described as being so horrifying that to merely glimpse them was enough to warp a man’s mind beyond all repair.

In the mid-eighties, there was a revival in Lovecraft’s popularity among horror fans when Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna released The Re-Animator, based very loosely on what is considered by most to be one of Lovecraft’s lesser stories. I think I’ll table the discussion of Yuzna and Gordon until a later review. Suffice it to say that, even though I got more interested in Lovecraft than ever, I still didn’t get interested enough to actually read any of the stories, and continued to cruise along on nothing more than Lovecraft hearsay. And so things remained for a good, long while, until a few months ago, actually. When I decided that I wanted to spent at least half of October, 2008 reviewing the oft-problematic film adaptations of Lovecraft stories, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know a thing about the man’s writing other than what I had picked up second-hand. It was time to dust off the accursed tomes and acquaint myself with the stories personally.

And while I haven’t gotten through everything yet, I’ve gotten through a lot, including The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the story upon which this movie is based. Now here’s the thing, at least for me, about reading Lovecraft. You have to willingly give yourself over to the idea. His stories are full of academics and gaunt men who are struck dumb with fear beyond the capacity for human comprehension after reading a book of occult secrets. Everyone is always scared of everything, and rarely does a guy show up who isn’t terrified beyond belief and, instead, just grabs a shotgun and a six pack and says to people, “Well, if you assholes are so scared of those goddamned crab monsters from outer space, I’ll go take care of ’em myself. Buncha Miskatonic University eggheads. Go University of Alabama!” You have to willingly surrender yourself to the world he creates and the people who inhabit it. A healthy fear of gambrel rooftops doesn’t hurt.

Now for those of us who buy into Lovecraft’s style, the rewards are considerable and often chilling. Although far from his best-known work, I found The Case of Charles Dexter Ward — a tale about a colonial era necromancer and the descendant who becomes obsessed with or possibly possessed by the man — thoroughly engrossing. Like most of Lovecraft’s longer tales, it is stuffed to the gills with detailed descriptions of the surroundings and creates a wonderful sense of an aged place in which long forgotten horrors are once again being stirred to life. When Roger Corman and screenwriter Charles Beaumont (who did the screenplay for Premature Burial and would go on to script one of the absolute best of Corman’s Poe adaptations, The Masque of the Red Death) set about the task of adapting Lovecraft for the screen, they did basically what they did with Poe: graft the fundamentals of the story onto something of their own creation, designed to look as much as possible like something Lovecraft would have come up with.

Much is made about the inherent unfilmable nature of most of Lovecraft’s stories, though I think to some degree this is overstated. The number one stumbling block is always the question of how you depict nightmares so foul that they become incomprehensible, or how you create a color that does not exist in our universe, or a structure with geometry that does not adhere to the laws of physics as define our space. I think a deft filmmaker can work around those things, more or less, though how much the end result would appeal to a modern, mainstream audience is probably a more questionable gamble. Can you get away with not showing a monster? Can you design a monster scary enough to capture the basic idea of a creature too terrifying to behold? Tackling these obstacles has always made Lovecraft, for most filmmakers, not worth the effort. But still, several have tried, with varying degrees of success. I think Haunted Palace is one of the successes, largely because it uses Lovecraft as a springboard and does its best to work around the aforementioned issues.

What we end up with, in essence, is one of Corman’s Poe films with considerably more menace. The basic plot structure is similar to both The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. Vincent Price is a nice guy who moves with his lovely wife to the inherited home of an accursed distant relative. Almost immediately, the house begins to exert an eerie hold over him, as the long dead necromancer Joseph Curwen vies for control of noble Charles Dexter Ward’s mind. There’s about a 99.9% chance that Vincent Price will be the spitting image of his infamous ancestor, and an equal chance that the whole thing will end with the home catching on fire and people darting about the flames as it all burns to the ground. But while it follows the Corman Poe formula to a T, something is still just a little bit different.

For starters, in the previous Poe films, it is never made fully clear whether the malevolence assaulting our protagonists truly exists, or whether it is simply the symptom of an unhinged mind. In the case of Haunted Palace, there’s very little doubt that Curwen is indeed returned from the grave and attempting to possess his ancestor’s mind. And the secrets he possesses are far more sinister than anything that may have haunted Price’s other characters. Although the Cthulhu mythos isn’t invoked as often as it is in the stories, there is plenty of talk about creatures born of nightmares from before the dawn of man (the movie throws in bits and pieces from various other Lovecraft stories to fill in various gaps). There is plenty of talk about The Necronomicon, the Elder Gods, and Yog-Sothoth. Steeping the film in the arcana of the occult rather than in mere psychological madness and possible haunting makes Haunted Palace less the peer of Fall of the House of Usher and something more along the lines of later occult films like The Devil Rides Out. In the end, the true danger doesn’t end up being within the mind of a tortured protagonist; it ends up being a big-ass monster in a pit in the basement.

Obviously, there is much in the original story that does not make it into the running time of a low-budget 90 minute movie. Much of the narrative of Lovecraft’s tale revolves around the ghoulish life of Joseph Curwen in the 1700s and the bizarre experiments he seemed to conduct. Although this in and of itself would make a fine movie, there simply isn’t enough space in a movie of this nature for it, and so Curwen’s life is summarized in a brief prologue that sees his home stormed by angry, fearful villagers and Curwen himself burned alive while yelling out a curse in classic witchy/warlock fashion. After that, however, the film switches to the present day, or however present day the early 20th century may be. Although the history of Curwen is recounted via the exposition of which these films are so fond, it’s considerably less detailed than what you get in the story.

But such things are necessary when one is making a commercial film, especially one for AIP. What is present, while still not a strict recreation of the Lovecraft tale, is powerfully good stuff. Vincent Price is at the top of his game here, convincing both as the loving and kind Charles Ward and as the evil Curwen. The changes are subtle at first, and Price needn’t overplay the transformation. He already had practice with it in The Pit and the Pendulum, where he plays another good man grappling with an evil ancestor for control of his own mind, but that movie lent itself a little more to playing the transformation over the top. In that case, he was supposed to be insane. In The Haunted Palace, Curwen is merely phenomenally evil. For my money, it’s one of Price’s best performances. He really gets you to root for Ward to prevail in this supernatural battle of wills.

Assisting the diabolical old necromancer is Lon Chaney, Jr., in the middle of a rather small but welcome career renaissance that saw him star in a few exceptional horror films (which, in addition to this, include the wonderful Witchcraft). Chaney, Jr., is a guy I’ve always rooted for, struggling as he did for most of his career to either emerge from the shadow of his famous and respected father or ride the coattails of the family name (something he actively tried to avoid for a long time, even fighting to use something other than the Chaney family name). After a strong start with The Wolfman, however, Chaney’s career faltered, and he soon found himself working in films that were cheap and shoddy even when compared to cheap, shoddy films. He rarely hurt for work — cheap b-movies and television appearances were more than enough to keep him employed in between the occasional appearance in a higher profile project — but it wasn’t exactly the career he had hoped for. In addition, drinking problems had dogged him for quite some time, culminating most infamously in a 1952 live television series in which Chaney, as Frankenstein’s monster, was noticeably drunk and screwed everything up. When you’re too far gone to play a monster who stumbled and grunts, that’s a bad sign.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say The Haunted Palace was a chance for redemption, but it was certainly a chance for him to prove that he still had it, and I think he succeeded. As the keeper of the Curwen/Ward manor, he exudes considerable creepiness and, for one of the first times, seems like a genuinely threatening presence. Chaney was a big guy, but one rarely got a sense of just how big he was. His imposing presence would be put to even better use the following year in Witchcraft, a film that truly made me believe that at any moment I might open a door and find Chaney standing there like a raging bear, ready to beat me into a gory mess. It’s great to see him energetic and in action alongside Price in such a classy affair. Well, as classy as a movie can be when it contains a gang of shambling, deformed mutants menacing people on mist-shrouded streets, or a scene in which poor Debra Paget gets strung up over a pit to another dimension that contains a beast presumably intending to rape her.

Which brings us to the lovely Ms. Paget. This movie must have been quite a trip for her. She already logged some time in one of AIP’s Poe films, the previous year’s Tales of Terror, but other than that, she was not well acquainted with appearing in horror films. I don’t think anything in that film could have quite prepared her for the bizarre nature of The Haunted Palace, especially the gruesome finale. Tying John Kerr to the pit and pendulum device pales in comparison to stringing up a beautiful, innocent young woman in hopes that she will be raped by a demon beyond the limits of human comprehension in order to create some wretched new race of abominations that will devour the world. The heroines in these AIP films are surprisingly engrossing most of the time, and I say “surprising” because the Hammer films upon which these films were modeled rarely featured female characters of any real note beyond the size of their heaving bosoms. Many of the Hammer actresses were accomplished, but they were better actresses than they were characters, if you understand. In each of Corman’s Poe films, on the other hand, the women were far more involved with the action of the film. Debra Paget is no exception, and while she can’t quite stand up to Myrna Fahey getting to run around absolutely batshit insane as Madeline Usher, Paget still makes you feel for Ann Ward.

Corman’s direction here is much the same as it was on the Poe movies. Lovecraft’s writing lends itself to a grim, subdued color palate, so full is it of crumbling houses and sinister old cobblestone streets and windswept New England farmland. But color was still a luxury at AIP, so there was no way Corman was going to wash out his entire picture. Instead, he strikes a keen balance between darkness and color. Much of the film is far more somber in its color palette than previous Poe films, and it’s certainly more subdued than the vividly candy-colored The Masque of the Red Death. Not everything is dark and shadowy, though, and when the color does show up, it’s a welcome splash in an oppressively menacing atmosphere.

Corman also opens up the film a bit with several scenes taking place on village streets crawling with mutants (remnants, some say, of Curwen’s mad experiments or of his dying curse), in addition to his typically deft widescreen handling of lavishly appointed interiors. The dungeon beneath the Curwen estate rivals the similar chamber in The Pit and the Pendulum, and while it always looks like a set more than an actual underground cavern, it’s still stylish and spooky. Stylistically, this film is a comfortable addition to Corman’s Poe cycle, even if it’s not based on a Poe story or poem.

Or isn’t it?

Here’s where things get silly. After agreeing to let Corman direct a Lovecraft film — possibly the first one explicitly based on the writings of Lovecraft — AIP apparently had second thoughts about the marketability of such a film. Did anyone other than a few pulp fiction freaks even remember who H.P. Lovecraft was? Such was their thinking, and so without input from Corman, AIP decided that H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was going to become Edgar Allen Poe’s The Haunted Palace. Poe’s short poem was a dubious work to which to connect the film, but AIP was certain that making the connection to Corman’s previous Poe films completely clear was the way to go in order to secure distribution. So at the last second, and in the final frame of the film, they had Price read a couple lines from the poem, which have very little to do with anything we’d just watched. And that was that. So was born, amid protests from Roger Corman, another Poe film. Years later, once Corman had moved on and AIP had started a second cycle of Poe films, they would do the same thing, changing The Witchfinder General into The Conqueror Worm, and having Price read a few lines from the poem that had nothing at all to do with the movie.

But final minute queasiness over lashing themselves to Lovecraft’s name doesn’t change the fact that The Haunted Palace is an exceptionally good horror film. Price is magnificent, backed by a strong supporting cast and a script that knows when to adhere to Lovecraft and when to make a few things up on its own. It’s easy to say that the reveal of the monster in the pit is a bit of a letdown, but it’s hardly enough of a letdown to spoil the film. In fact, I don’t even think it is a letdown. I think it looks pretty good, all things considered, and if it doesn’t at first glance seem horrifying to the point of driving you mad, Debra Paget certainly sells you on it and makes you believe. But this is, as is so often the case, Price’s film, and his performance is without a doubt one of his very best. He makes Charles Ward a believably nice and sympathetic guy in one scene, and then with a few tweaks and without going hammy, can turn into Joseph Curwen, oozing spite, menace, genius, and darkness.

The film also shows marked progression in terms of scale. The Fall of the House of Usher had only four characters and a single location (albeit a rather sprawling one). The Pit and the Pendulum added a couple characters, but still stuck to one location. With The Haunted Palace, Corman follows the path he began with Premature Burial. There is an entire town here, a few different locations, and much more variety. This progression would continue until, by the time we reach The Tomb Of Ligeia, Corman has left the studio set and is shooting in actual locations. Of all Corman’s “Poe” films, I like this one the best (though I don’t dislike any of them). Its unique air of menace, its slight tweaking of the Poe world to turn it into Lovecraft, and a genuine sense of spookiness all come together perfectly.

And it’s not as if forcing Poe into the mix was entirely out of the realm of acceptability. Obviously, both authors share a common sense of the macabre, although Lovecraft seems much more terrified of his own creations than Poe ever was. And heck, Lovecraft’s At the Mountain of Madness draws directly from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. There are, naturally, sundry stylistic and thematic differences (Poe, for example, seemed terrified of nothing so much as he was being buried alive). I think Corman creates a satisfying hybrid. Though one can sit and nitpick the divergence from the source material with relative ease, this movie still remains one of the most faithful adaptations of a Lovecraft story and one of the most successful applications of that overpowering sense of dread upon which Lovecraft so relied.

AIP must not have stayed entirely terrified of Lovecraft. Hot on the heels of the success of this film, they adapted The Color out of Space into Die, Monster, Die (in which star Nick Adams undermines the lurking fear of Lovecraft’s style by being more like one of those guys I talked about earlier, less likely to be terrified by the unknown ancient evil and more likely to just haul off and punch it in the face). Not too long after that, they tackled one of Lovecraft’s best-known stories, The Dunwich Horror. This time, they didn’t change the name, try to make you think it was a Poe film, or anything else. And while I like Die, Monster, Die and absolutely adore The Dunwich Horror, I don’t think either of them are as successful as The Haunted Palace. Corman really outdid himself, and the extra layer of the macabre he achieved in this film would carry over into subsequent films in the Poe cycle, including The Masque of the Red Death, which is very nearly as brilliant as The Haunted Palace.

Once AIP flung open the doors and let lose those ancient, lurking atrocities, there were plenty of other filmmakers ready to produce their own Lovecraft adaptations. Most of them stink. A few of them are good. Many have nothing to do with Lovecraft as the source material but depend on a similar “cosmic terror” to achieve their mood (for example, Event Horizon). Lovecraft may have been too obscure a name for AIP to bank on in 1963, but since then his name has only become better and better known. While he’s not exactly mainstream (everyone knows Poe, but you still get plenty of puzzled looks when you name drop Lovecraft), within the realm of pop culture and horror fans, he’s probably as well known today — perhaps even better — as he has been at any point in history. “Lovecraftian” is a common adjective among people discussing flavors of fear, and so pervasive is his influence that I spent most of my life thinking I’d read everything he’d ever written when, in fact, I hadn’t read anything. Were it not for The Haunted Palace, I probably never would have gotten around to reading it, either.

Of course, now that I have, I can do nothing but curl up in the corner of a padded cell, yelling obscene revelations about the darkest subjects as some trembling academic listens with a growing sense of uncontrollable terror to the facts I have uncovered. And yet, as we shall soon see, there was so much more yet to learn.

Yog Sothoth, y’all!