The Haunted Palace (1963)
directed by Roger Corman, starring Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr.
(Note: This is my entry for The Roger Corman Blogathon, hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.)
Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price) and his wife Ann (Debra Paget) have arrived at the isolated New England town of Arkham. Ward has come to claim his inheritance, the "haunted palace" that belonged to his ancestor Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price). The townsfolk are surly and mistrustful of these newcomers and it isn't until the Wards meet the helpful Doctor Willet (Frank Maxwell) that they understand why.
Over a century ago, Joseph Curwen was known as an evil warlock that lured young girls over to his castle to fulfill his twisted scheme: to bring back the power of the old gods by mating them to human women. Because of Curwen's actions, the town is now haunted by the presence of misshapen "mutations," creatures not entirely human. Finally, the townsfolk had enough of Curwen and burned him to death outside his castle, but his evil influence is still felt in the village, especially when they look at those mutations. And now his descendant has come to take possession of the castle, his descendant who looks so exactly like Curwen...
Ward and his wife Ann are naturally spooked by these tales but well, they have to find somewhere to spend the night, so why not spend it in Curwen's castle? There's even a helpful caretaker named Simon (Lon Chaney Jr.), who's there to settle them in. But once inside, Ward begins to fall under the spell of the place and of his dead ancestor, who takes over Ward's body in order to carry out his two missions. First, to resurrect his beloved dead mistress Hester (Cathie Merchant). Next, to take vengeance on the descendants of all those who betrayed him. Fiery vengeance.
The Haunted Palace takes a title from Edgar Allan Poe, a story from H.P. Lovecraft, and a screenplay by Charles Beaumont, so it's surprising that the finished product doesn't, in the end, feel like it really belongs to any of these three men. In spite of the borrowed title, Poe has nothing to do with this story. The plotline comes from Lovecraft's novella "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," but the film's Gothic, grandly clanking atmosphere doesn't feel particularly Lovecraftian. It belongs far more to Roger Corman and Vincent Price than it does to its literary origins. In interviews, Corman was frank about his displeasure with the Poe references that were forced on him by the studio (in an attempt to make this movie seem like another entry in the Price/Poe series of horror films) since he was very excited about adapting Lovecraft.
In its opening stretches, the film takes pretty near every horror trope you can possibly think of and sets them to an operatic high C. Haunted castle? Check. Vaguely Satanic character who endangers women? Check. Angry village mob? All-encompassing mist? Ominous crashes of lightning? You'd better believe that's a check. For someone like me, who isn't a horror connoisseur, the flood of cinematic cliches in the opening was a little daunting and I started to wonder if maybe I'd made a mistake in choosing The Haunted Palace for my blogathon entry.
Fortunately, as the movie wore on, I gradually became transfixed by its artistry. For one thing, it's quite beautiful to look at, combining the hypnotic blues and grays of Floyd Crosby's cinematography with the leering angles of Roger Corman's camera. According to the TCM database, Corman deliberately chose a "somewhat starker lighting pattern" than for his Poe pictures, wanting to stress the difference between the two artists. The sets were small, but Corman used forced perspective and sweeping camera movements to create the illusion of size. The ultimate effect manages to be both grand and claustrophobic, as characters race down staircases and in and out of blue mists, always seeming to end up right back where they started.
The crux of the story is Joseph Curwen's return and his possession of his innocent descendant Charles Dexter Ward. In spite of the borrowed Poe title, Corman's film is far more interested in the destructive rampage of the Curwen character than of his haunted house. And Curwen is plenty dark, drawing women to the house in order to chain them up and let some unknown monster rape them. We don't get a good look at the creature but Corman shows us how the women are raised up in chains, legs and arms splayed. Then they suddenly look down to see something coming up from the depths below, right between their legs. The film's advertising would capitalize on the psychosexual horror: "What was the terrifying thing in the pit that wanted women?"
This is Vincent Price's movie and he carries it off proudly, in a performance that combines courtliness and evil. Price has to play the dual role of the demonic Joseph Curwen and the innocent Charles Dexter Ward and it's to his credit that you're never in any doubt which persona is in control of Ward's body. The actor gets some help from Corman's makeup and lighting, but he mostly communicates the switches with his eyes, his voice, and the small shifts of his face. Except for a few big moments, Price avoids chewing the scenery and opts for a quiet malevolence. Appropriate, since for most of the movie, Curwen is trying to pretend that he is Ward.
Unfortunately, the character of Charles Dexter Ward (the screenplay has a lot of fun with that name, having characters chant the whole thing all the time) doesn't feel fully fleshed out so that when his personality is finally submerged under Curwen, there's no sense of loss. Compare it to something like The Shining in which we get to know Jack Torrance intimately before his soul is drained away by the Overlook Hotel, and you get a sense of what The Haunted Palace is missing. The tragedy underneath the surface frights.
Vincent Price is backed up by a great supporting cast in this film, including screen heavy Leo Gordon, everyone's favorite gunsel Elisha Cook Jr., and of course, Lon Chaney Jr., as Joseph Curwen's evil servant Simon. Corman uses every crag and crevice of Chaney's face for maximum spookiness, slathering him in gray-green make-up and letting him pop out of shadows without warning. Chaney's character Simon never makes much sense since we don't know what he is, why he's at the castle waiting for Curwen, or why he serves him. Even Simon doesn't seem to know. At one point, in one of the film's unintentionally funny moments, he asks Curwen to give up this mad idea of resurrecting his dead mistress Hester. 'Cause you know, possessing people, burning them alive, playing with the Necronomicon, and mating unwilling women to monsters, that's all in a day's work, but getting hung up on a girl? That's just not on.
Sadly, this would be the final film for the regal, slightly feline Debra Paget, who was only thirty years old when she stopped making movies. She gives an intelligent and sympathetic performance here, as the frightened, unhappy Ann Ward, determined to stick by her husband no matter how horrible things become. She's also completely gorgeous, so it isn't too much of a surprise when Joseph Curwen takes a momentary pause from his necromantic doings to look lustfully in her direction. In a clever little touch, Corman casts another dark-haired beauty, Cathie Merchant, as Curwen's long-dead mistress, Hester Tillinghast. The two women look enough alike that I was briefly convinced it was the same actress until I checked the billing. Merchant has some nice memories of filming this movie, posted here.
The doubling of Ward's wife and Curwen's mistress doesn't stop with their physical similarities. Corman also links them symbolically in several different shots. In the film's opening, we see the mistress Hester struggling to get to her lover as he is tied and burned at the tree and in the finale, we see Ann throwing herself on her husband at the very same tree, as the flames rise up behind them. There are other, subtler touches. A scene where Hester's gray, decaying corpse rises slowly from her deathbed, Curwen's arms around her, cuts to Ann bolting upright in bed; her wifely instinct is aroused by her husband's touching another woman. Even if it's not really her husband.
One of the film's creepier and more brilliantly suggestive themes is the gradual switching of roles between the two women. As the film begins, Ann is the happy, lawful wife of Charles Dexter Ward; they discuss things with each other, they're affectionate. Gradually, as Ward becomes submerged by Curwen, Ann finds herself confronted by someone who looks like her husband but isn't, who shouts at her, dismisses her, and frightens her. Curwen initially is disgusted with Ann, longing only to get back to his dead love, but as his efforts to revive Hester continue to fail, he starts to eye her with a little interest. The more Ann shrinks from him, the more he delights in asking for his "rights" as a husband. One scene of Curwen gloatingly demanding a kiss from Ann is more frightening than all of the film's cobwebs and creaky doors put together. It's clear that for Curwen, it's the dead Hester who deserves the rights of the wife and Ann that should be treated like a mistress. While he's using Ward's body, why not use Ann's? All of this climaxes in a you-could-see-it-coming-but-it's-still-brilliant finale with Curwen, whom Ann still believes is her husband, dragging her down to be chained and raped.
The product of these rapes of woman by monster, the aforementioned "mutations" are one of the film's more confusing and fascinating subplots. There's a brief mention of Curwen wanting to use them to bring back the power of the old gods, but we don't get any insight into just how the mutations are supposed to do that and although we see them in the village, sometimes walking around, sometimes being chained in basements, we don't know if they're demented, evil, or even sentient. Even with the lack of explanation and the rather cheap makeup job on them, I found the mutations extremely creepy. I think it's the facelessness of some of them, I always get creeped out by faceless monsters no matter how cheesy the makeup or CGI work. I'll have to go back and read the original Lovecraft story to find out whether these creatures come from Beaumont or Lovecraft.
Charles Beaumont and H.P. Lovecraft are an unlikely marriage of scriptwriter and source material. In his fiction, Lovecraft was obsessed with the undefinable, with horror on the mythic and cosmic scale. His stories frequently harped on the dread of the unnatural and for Lovecraft, the unnatural included any hint of miscegenation, of hereditary taint. The Haunted Palace echoes that theme with its voiceless, mindless mutations, the zombie-like beings that Curwen brought to life through his unholy mating of Arkham's women to demonic entities.
Beaumont on the other hand, known as one of the great Twilight Zone scribes as well as a prolific short-story writer, often had a fascinated sympathy for the misfits and outsiders. His Twilight scripts are peppered with lonely protagonists caught in a world they don't belong in, from the timid bachelor in "Miniature," who finds love with a museum doll, to the ranting prisoner of "Shadow Play," trying hopelessly to convince people that they are stuck in his recurring nightmare. One of Beaumont's more famous short stories, "The Crooked Man," portrayed a dystopian future where heterosexuality is forbidden and a straight couple try furtively to hide their love in a gay bar. Lovecraft hated and feared the deviant; Beaumont reached out to it. Perhaps that is why The Haunted Palace feels a little uncertain of where the greatest horror lies, in Curwen or in his creations.
The film unfortunately loses steam by the climax and even its final "gotcha" moment is dissatisfying, since it implies that any answers we got about Curwen's powers and the extent of his power over the village weren't really answers at all. Even though Corman does give us a grand set piece of the castle going up in flames, it wasn't enough to dispel my feeling that I had been waltzed right into a Plot Hole Pile-Up. Let's consider a few of these plot holes:
1. We never find out the truth about the mutations and whether or not they are evil or why they keep popping up in the village even during the years when no maidens were being mated to devil gods.
2. We never find out what Curwen's henchmen are and what ties them to Curwen (in fact they disappear at the end of the film).
3. We never get much understanding of what the curse on the village really means.
4. And finally, why are all the villagers just standing there at the end? Why don't they just skewer Curwen? C'mon, the mob from Beauty and the Beast had more moxie than these clowns.
All of these plot holes unfortunately put some dents in an otherwise stylish film. We expect some unanswered questions in horror films, but when they pile up in this fashion, it starts to look like laziness, not mystery. It's a pity, because Corman shoots a grand, fiery climax, perfectly book-ending the beginning, and Price is so good in the ending, flipping between the horrified Charles Dexter Ward and the diabolical Joseph Curwen right up until the very last moment.
The Haunted Palace is a strange meeting of minds, a movie that pays homage to Lovecraft but ultimately feels entirely like a Corman and Price creation. It's frequently stunning, in spite of its clumsy moments, like a good dancing partner that every so often feels the need to just stamp on your toes. The confidence of Corman's camera work, the thundering Ronald Stein score, the beauty of Debra Paget and the wily charm of Vincent Price will probably stay with me far longer than my plot complaints so overall, I have to say, the film works. It's a worthy entry in Roger Corman's long, creative career.
"I advise you, Mr. Ward, to leave this village. I advise you to flee it as you would from a madman with a knife, who feels compelled to destroy you before you can destroy him."
Hands down, the film's creepiest, most flesh-crawling scene is the moment where the mutations converge on Charles Dexter Ward and Ann. It starts slowly, with Ward and Ann walking through the streets of Arkham, shrouded in that ever-present mist, when suddenly they come upon one of the faceless mutations, shuffling silently towards them . They whirl away as suddenly another starts coming towards them. The camera whirls with the hapless Wards as more and more mutations arrive until suddenly the couple find themselves trapped, as these beings corral them for...who knows what purpose? Then suddenly, in the distance, the church bells start to ring. Church bells, even in Arkham. And then, with no explanation, the mutations turn and limp away. Driven away by God, fear, we don't know. We never find out. But in this case, explanations didn't matter to me. It was still chilling.
Final Six Words:
Conventional yet compelling, stylish Corman horror