Year 1963
Studio American International Pictures (AIP)
Producer Roger Corman
Director Roger Corman
Writer Charles Beaumont
Music Rondald Stein
Cast

Vincent Price

Lon Chaney

Length 85 mins

 
The Haunted Palace

‘‘ To Him Who Shal Come After, And How He May Gett Beyonde Time and Ye Spheres ’’

H.P. 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 manuscript—even when an editor from Simon & Schuster wrote him in 1930 looking for a novel. How different HPL's career might have been if he had!

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 puts it.

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 follow.