Sunday 2 November 2008

The Haunted Palace (1963)

Titled by American International 'Edgar Allan Poe's The Haunted Palace', this was really based on an H P Lovecraft story, with the ony connection to Poe being the use of one of his poems for ten seconds as a conclusion. Corman wanted a break from his Poe films, so made a Lovecraft film instead, but Arkoff and Nicholson were more than happy with Poe and kept his name up there anyway. At least the cast are a little more understandable in this adaptation than in The Dunwich Horror. No Sandra Dee here and no Dean Stockwell. Instead we have more expected names like Vincent Price and Lon Chaney.

There's more entertainment here in the introductory ten minutes than in the entirety of The Dunwich Horror. We begin in the Arkham of 110 years ago where on a night riddled through with lightning, Vincent Price and his buxom assistant are about to sacrifice an entranced young lady on a huge and flamboyant set. The villagers rise up and rescue her, burning Price alive after only enough delay for him to curse them and their descendants: all the Weedons, Smiths, Wests, Willetts and Leaches. While this all bears little resemblance to its Lovecraftian origins, it is at least certainly the stuff of classic horror movies.

You could hardly expect Price to only have a few minutes screen time, unless this were a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello picture, such as Beach Party, in which he had a brief cameo to publicise this film, and sure enough he arrives back in Arkham quick enough. However he was burned as Joseph Curwen, warlock, and comes back 110 years later as Charles Dexter Ward, his great great grandson to claim his inheritance. Naturally, the townsfolk want nothing to do with him or his wife, even denying him directions to his property.

Only Dr Willetts is willing to point the way to the haunted palace of the title, where they meet Simon Orne, the corpselike caretaker, played by Lon Chaney Jr, credited under his father's name, of course. In case you wonder why Orne would go against his fellows and why the palace is in such good repair when Arkham townsfolk would obviously love to have burned it to the ground, Orne and his colleague Jabez Hutchinson are fellow warlocks, merely awaiting Curwen's return. Now is the time and Ward the means as Curwen gradually takes ownership of his mind and body through the influence of the portrait hanging over the fireplace.

Price could do no wrong at this point in his career, well established as a horror icon and comfortable in a series of pictures for Roger Corman. Not all his films were great ones, but he shone even in lesser pictures like the 1962 Tower of London. Here he gets the opportunity to switch frequently between the Price screen persona of deliciously menacing villainy and something much closer to the real life Price that was cultured, polite and mild mannered. Chaney was always best as a sinister henchman with just a touch of sympathy and the part he has here was perfect for him. Milton Parsons get next to nothing to do as warlock number three.

The townsfolk are solid, though the key speaking roles only get cursory screen time and the mutated offspring are used sparingly. Leo Gordon is one of those names that mean nothing while his imposing figure and voice are easily recognisable. He's solid as Edgar Weeden and his ancestor Ezra. Elisha Cook Jr gets to use his full repertoire of shocked faces as Gideon and Micah Smith, and of course he has plenty of them. As for the ladies, there isn't enough of the delectable Cathie Merchant as the object of Curwen's affections, Hester Tillinghast. Luckily we get plenty of Debra Paget instead, as Ward's wife. She does an excellent job here, getting to be far more than just a screaming victim.

The difference between this one and The Dunwich Terror, which followed it seven years later, is vast and runs far beyond the difference in talent between Roger Corman and Daniel Haller as directors. I wonder if Dean Stockwell ever saw this film: if he did he ought to be ashamed of himself for what he did as Wilbur Whateley. Only Les Baxter comes off unscathed when comparisons are drawn: his score for The Dunwich Terror wasn't bad at all. Everything else pales in comparison to this film, which is a solid first screen adaptation of Lovecraft's work, even if it took serious liberties with the source material.

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