Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Haunted Palace (1963)

The third and last of our 'Haunted House' themed movie trailers to mark this year's Halloween is Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace.  Don't be fooled by the Edgar Allan Poe title: despite being marketed by AIP as part of Corman's ongoing series of Poe adaptations, The Haunted Palace is actually based upon an H P Lovecraft story - The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  (AIP would continue to try to mislead US audiences into believing they were watching Poe movies when they retitled Witchfinder General as The Conqueror Worm for its US release in 1968 and slapped the title The Oblong Box on Gordon Hessler's 1969 horror film, despite it having no real connection to the Poe story of that title).  Indeed Corman's film was the first movie adaptation of a Lovecraft story. Strictly speaking, of course, it isn't a conventional 'Haunted House' movie, but it does concern the possession of Price's Charles Dexter Ward by his burned at the stake ancestor, the warlock Joseph Curwen (also Price), when he inherits the latter's house.

Corman expoits the studio bound nature of the production and the limited sets used to represent Arkham to advantage in summoning up claustrophobic atmosphere for the film.  There is an all pervading sense that the characters are trapped in this tiny, self contained world, doomed to repeat past events.  Indeed, the past hangs heavily over the action of The Haunted Palace, with the villagers still forced to suffer the consequences of their ancestors' actions and Dexter/Curwen and his associates literally trying to resurrect the past.  Price gives a typically flamboyant performance in what amounts to a dual role, managing the transitions between Ward and Curwen with aplomb, and is ably assisted by a supporting cast that includes Debra Paget (in her last film performance) and Lon Chaney Jr (replacing Boris Karloff).  Despite a clearly limited budget, both production values and effects are above average, (the four armed thing lurking in the dungeon is particularly well realised on limited resources).

But the big question, obviously, is how does The Haunted Palace stand up as a Lovecraft adaptation?  Well, to be sure, it is only a loose adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  Significant differences including shifting the setting back from the present of the original story - the late 1920s - to the late nineteenth century, and changing the motivation of Ward which, in turn, alters the complexion of the subsequent story.  In the original, Ward is well aware of his ancestor's unsavoury activities and actively seeks to resurrect him by alchemical means, whereas in the film he comes to Arkham a relative innocent is possessed by Curwen against his will.  Which is another key difference: in the Lovecraft original Ward is murdered and physically replaced by Curwen (who uses their remarkable resemblance to try and pass as Ward), but the film substitutes a spiritual possession of Ward by his ancestor.  Curwen's ambitions in the film are somewhat more modest than those of his literary counterpart - he is mainly concerned with revenge on the descendants of those who originally burned him as a witch and in resurrecting his dead mistress.  In the original story he is hellbent upon gaining the knowledge he needs to allow himself and his warlock associates to exercise world domination.

In spite of this simplification of the source material, there is still plenty of genuine Lovecraft in evidence in The Haunted Palace. The Necronomicon and the Elder Gods, Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth are all present and correct, as are Curwen's fellow resurrected warlock associates from the story.  There is also mention of Curwen's original scheme (before he was burned by the villagers) to create a race of hybrid creatures by mating humans with the Elder Gods, a recurring theme in Lovecraft's 'Cthulu Mythos'.  Moreover, Corman succeeds in conjuring up some of the fetid atmosphere of a Lovecraft story, conveying the mustiness and claustrophobia which characterises much of his work.  So, all in all, The Haunted Palace represents a fair first attempt to film Lovecraft, retaining much of the themes and mythology of the original stories, despite AIP's attempts (against Corman's wishes) to filter them through the very different world of Edgar Allan Poe.



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