Film Review: The Haunted Palace

Directed by Roger Corman; Starring Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr.

The Haunted Palace caught me off-guard.

I’d borrowed the film from my local library. It came on the same disc as another Vincent Price-Roger Corman film, Tower of London. I expected a schlocky, low-budget affair from Roger Corman—a workingman’s effort, sure, but I was prepared to sit through a film limited in quality.

Boy, was I wrong.

Advertised as an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe poem, the film is more accurately an adaptation of several H.P. Lovecraft stories, including The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Seeing the Old Man’s name pop up in the opening credits surprised me—was this the first film adaptation of Lovecraft’s work? And how had I never heard of it before?

The film opens on a scene of classic gothic horror. A warlock, Joseph Curwen (one of Vincent Price’s two roles in the film) is burned alive by the townsfolk after allegations of rape and witchcraft. This is heady stuff, and really surprised me that a mainstream horror film of this era would tackle the subject of rape… especially if the rapist proved to be something beyond a sadistic old man.

Just before Price’s character is put to the torch, he curses the town. Who wouldn’t?

One hundred and ten years later, the warlock’s descendant (also played by Price) returns to claim his ancestral home. It’s not long before the spirit of his dead great-grandfather makes moves on his psyche, hoping to possess poor Charles Dexter Ward and continue the wizard’s dark work.

That work is nothing less than cross-breeding humans and monsters, coupled with a little bit of necromancy. The goal—although it’s never stated how exactly he’ll reach it—is to open the gateway between worlds so that the Elder Gods—great Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth specifically—can reclaim earth as their own. Ward—err, Ward possessed by the warlock Cerwin—doesn’t really understand his own motivation. And that makes it all the more disturbing.

haunted palace 1

“We obey,” he says ominously. Indeed. Sometimes, the less about a horror that is explained, the better. Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand this anymore.

The cinematography in The Haunted Palace is excellent, with great use of color, fog, and beautiful composition. The sets are great—even if much of the film is set in a stock spooky castle replete with secret passages and a haunted painting. Although the setting isn’t exactly original, it  looks good. It’s never over lit—which was a common pitfall of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (Hammer) gothic films. Supposedly, this is a low-budget film, but it never shows.

The make up effects are great. There’s a monster in a green pit that looks cool (although it’s clear it doesn’t actually move; camera trickery gives it a look of extradimensional waviness), and the villagers suffering from genetic corruption are suitably creepy. One of the film’s best scenes involves the villagers descending on Charles Dexter Ward and his wife in the middle of town, only to be called back at the last moment by the ringing of a bell.

What church do those mutants attend, I wonder? Mayhap the Esoteric Order of Dagon?

Despite its marketing as an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, Lovecraftian themes abound: we have dark lineages, the corruption of blood lines, the Necronomicon, Elder Gods… And there’s even a reference to the Tillinghast family. This is a labor of love for the work of old H.P. Lovecraft, and was well ahead of its time in that respect.

For fans of Roger Corman, H.P. Lovecraft, gothic horror, or the master Vincent Price, you can’t do much better than The Haunted Palace. I’ll be adding this one to my personal collection.

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