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.

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“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.

Film Review: Good ( and Dead) Burger

Ghost Burger directed by Lee Hardcastle

Available at Vimeo ($.99 rental; $1.99 purchase)

Lee Hardcastle says he makes “claymations… not for children.” Indeed. His claymation films have gained a cult following on YouTube, where a search of his name will reveal a variety of handcrafted, still-shot, detail-heavy videos that range from spoofs of violent movies (Evil Dead II – with cats!), never-to-be film trailers (Ghostbusters 3 as directed by Quentin Tarantino), and original shorts.

If you’re not familiar with his work, Hardcastle brings a disarming and purposefully childish claymation aesthetic to action and horror presentations. The result is equal parts hilarious and grotesque. His creations kill, dismember, eat, and attempt to microwave one another with the madcap energy of a Monty Python sketch written by Clive Barker and directed by Stuart Gordon. His videos are instantly mesmerizing: so unlike anything you’ve seen since childhood Christmases watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and wondering what the Abominable Snowman would do if those little elves caught him on a really bad day.

The best part? His claymation is not just a gimmick. Watching the horror play out goes beyond the novelty of the form; it’s frenetic, funny, and creative. Hardcastle employs lighting, sets, pacing, music, sound effects, and creative camera work that is the equal (proportionally) to the films he seeks to emulate and pay tribute. His shorts seem familiar somehow—even the original works. That’s because, like all great directors, he pulls techniques and call backs from those who came before him. He’s a talented visionary, and an obvious horror fan and student of the greats. Claymation as a concept may pull you in, but you’ll stay for the substance.

Ghost Burger comes on the heels of Hardcastle’s unfulfilled crowd-funded effort Spook Train, which was to be a full-length, semi-episodic exploration of a haunted carnival ride gone wrong. The trailer itself is a work of demented art, and I can only hope he one day gets the funding to complete his vision. Ghost Burger, meanwhile, is a hearty replacement. Available for free (in episodes) on YouTube, or for less than two bucks to download and keep, you can watch 22 minutes of genre filmmaking at its best.

Set after “T is for Toilet” in the ABCs of Death anthology film, John, a young boy disfigured by his encounter with a possessed toilet, discovers that he can fight back against the ghosts that haunt him. Not only that, but they make tasty hamburgers. It just so happens that his uncle runs a struggling burger stand, and, when John and his cousin Ritchie hide the ghost’s ground-up remains at his stand, the ghost burger is born. No surprise—it’s a big hit, and all the townspeople want a taste. His uncle directs him to go get more—and doesn’t care where the meat comes from.

Thus ensues an action-adventure-horror romp that’s equal parts Ghostbusters, Monster Squad, and Evil Dead. John and Ritchie become more and more desperate to track down and kill ghosts for their “meat,” the townsfolk gobble up their efforts… and a mysterious old man warns them of impending doom.

To get into much more would spoil the surprise—and the chaos—to follow. At 22 minutes it’s rather short, but well worth the $1.99 you can pay to own the film. Think of it less as a price of admission, and more of an investment in the talents of a growing and promising filmmaker. Hardcastle’s style and form call back to the glory days of 80’s horror and genre film while doing something new in an old medium.

Here’s hoping that Spook Train gets to leave the station someday.

5/5 Piles of Premium Ghost Meat