Lovecraft's first official feature adaptation was a match
that could only be made in Horror Writer's Heaven. Even though
The Haunted Palace's opening credits barely acknowledge HPL's
contribution, it teamed him with the author he most revered,
his boyhood idol Edgar Allan Poe. Howard wrote that Poe was
a "God of Fiction" and "the apex of fantastic art." Lovecraft
considered himself Poe's disciple and devoted an entire chapter
to the author in his landmark 1927 essay, Supernatural Horror
in Literature, declaring that "to (Poe) we owe the modern
horror-story in its final and perfected state . . . his macabre
work (was stamped) with the ineffaceable mark of supreme genius."
In 1963, American International Pictures (AIP) had just
about exhausted their lucrative Poe cycle, a group of now-classic
films that included The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum,
and The Masque of the Red Death. Wanting to mine the untapped
vein of Lovecraft stories, director Roger Corman decided to
adapt The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but for box-office
reasons the studio insisted it be titled after Poe's poem,
"The Haunted Palace," and marketed as another Poe film.
Industry veteran Charles Beaumont was given the job of adapting
HPL's 50,000-word novel to the big screen. At thirty-four,
the talented fantasist had already penned eighteen episodes
for The Twilight Zone (including the classics "Living Doll"
and "The Howling Man"). And he was also no stranger to film,
having written the screen versions of Poe's The Premature
Burial and The Masque of the Red Death for AIP.
Beaumont, however, had a daunting task in adapting Lovecraft's
longest work: a novel written in 1927 but never published
during HPL's lifetime. By all reports Lovecraft didn't care
much for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and could never
bring himself to type the handwritten manuscripteven
when an editor from Simon & Schuster wrote him in 1930 looking
for a novel. How different HPL's career might have been if
A pre-Revolutionary prologue opens The Haunted Palace during
a typical dark and stormy night in the witch-infested town
of Arkham, Lovecraft's famous blending of Salem, Massachusetts,
and Providence, Rhode Island.
We see a pensive colonist named Ezra Weeden trail a mysterious
woman over Arkham's fog-covered cobblestones. She leads him
to "the home of Satan himself," the haunted palace of Joseph
Curwen, played by a dapper and goatee-wearing Vincent Price.
Curwen takes the mystery woman into a large underground chamber
and ties her between two pillars in front of what appears
to be a sinister manhole as an army of angry Arkhamites, led
by Weeden, storm the Palace.
In the great tradition of torch-carrying peasants everywhere,
they rescue the woman and light a bonfire beneath Curwen's
satin britches. As flames engulf the evil sorcerer he vows
to come back from the dead and put some serious supernatural
hurt on his tormentor's descendants. A "curssssse," as Price
The movie then transports us to Arkham one hundred and ten
years later, thereby starting the inviolate tradition of never
placing Lovecraft's stories in their proper time period. Why
they chose the 1870s over the novel's 1920s is a question
for philosophers (or set designers) to debate. But it is here
where the film most deviates from the novel as Mr. and Mrs.
(!) Charles Dexter Ward come to Arkham to claim their inheritance
of the old Curwen estate. (Vincent Price assays the dual role
of Curwen/Ward, now sporting a full beard, and Debra Paget
plays the de riguer cinematic love interest.) In one fell
swoop the movie eliminates some of the best parts of the novel.
Lost are the scenes where young Ward slowly discovers Curwen
to be his ancestor, finding the single portrait of the warlock
hidden in a slum house behind centuries of peeling wallpaper.
In The Haunted Palace the portrait hangs in full view and
Mrs. Ward is quick to notice that the old magician looks just
like her hubby. And Charles Ward is by no means alone in the
look-a-like department; Arkham seems to have repealed the
usual laws of genetics. Not only does the modern Ward look
exactly like his great-great-grandfather Joseph Curwen, the
modern day Weeden looks exactly like his great-great-grandfather,
the modern day Willett looks exactly like his, the modern
day Smith exactly like his, etc. If nothing else, it's a neat
way to save money in the casting department.
After he sees great-great-granddaddy's picture, some thing
gets into Charles and he suddenly (gasp!) knows the way to
the kitchen (but he doesn't know about the scary boa constrictor
lurking in the cupboard). In fact, the entire layout of the
palace is etched inside Ward's head and he leads his young
bride up to the master bedroom where the wizened caretaker
(played by a hulking Lon Chaney, Jr.) startles them.
Mrs. Ward immediately wants to leave the dust-filled, snake-infested
palace but Lon gets them to stay. "After all," he ominously
grunts to Ward, "this is your home." (Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.)
Ward should have listened to his wife because after squinting
at the necromancer's oil painting, he's possessed by the resurrected
spirit of Joseph Curwen. In Lovecraft's story the raising
of Curwen from the dead is a bit more graphic, having to do
with grave robberies, essential salts, cattle mutilations,
blasphemous incantations, and buckets and buckets of blood.
Price's Ward makes the transformation into Curwen by using
a deeper voice and heavier eye-lining, as Lon Jr. gives the
dreaded Necronomicon its first feature-film close-up. Ward/Curwen
vows to dust off the basement manhole and pick up where he
left off, using the forbidden book to open the dimensional
gates and mate "Elder Gods" with human women.
A revenge sub-plot takes over as Ward/Curwen goes on a killing
spree, dispatching the eerily clone-like progeny of the men
who torched him. Past becomes prologue as the murders make
the villagers restless. In the fashion of their forefathers
they decide to torch not only Ward/Curwen but the palace as
well, just as Curwen is about to mate Ward's comely young
wife Ann with a very horny Elder God!
In the film's only "special effects" sequence, we see the
monster through a psychedelic light show as it "struggles"
to get out of the interdimensional manhole. The thing is frozen
solid, however, looking a lot like a leftover prop from The
Creature from the Black Lagoon, and it really couldn't shock
anyone without a jumper cable.
Unfortunately, not even the terrible Joseph Curwen can fight
men with torches and in a rousing finale aroused villagers
burst into the palace and burn his evil portrait, thereby
burning evilness out of his great-great-grandson's mind. Freed
at last, he finally comes back to his Wardian senses, ripping
his wife away from the Elder thing's groping claws.
And as often happens in AIP films of this genre, the palace
gets razed by a storm of nicely staged cinematic fire. (Privately,
we suspect someone at the studio of being a closet pyro.)
Everyone in Arkham can sleep well tonight, for the good
Charles Dexter Ward has returned. Or has he? We're not quite
sure, because when "Ward" looks back at Doctor Willett, his
voice is deep and his eyes are heavy with mascara!
The Haunted Palace is a seminal film for Lovecraft lovers.
It's the first motion picture to introduce HPL's creations
to a general audience, including the ever-popular Necronomicon,
as well as references to those cosmic abominations Cthulhu
and Yog-Sothoth. HPL's obsession with the past is clearly
presented and in a heartfelt passage at the end of the film,
so is his belief that humanity is a minor species adrift in
a malevolent universe. For Ward/Curwen tells Willett that
even he cannot fully understand what they are about, all he
can do is "obey."
The film strikes a good balance between narrative and action
and Vincent Price is, well, priceless as Ward/Curwen. There
is a solid supporting cast and the art direction by Daniel
Haller is really quite good for such a low-budget film. And
let us not forget director Roger Corman, who did an admirable
job as the first feature-film director to stake out some cinematic
high ground for the cosmos-crushing adaptations of HPL to