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The Haunted Palace

“Only this... As surely as the village of Arkham has risen up against me, so shall I rise from the dead... against the village of Arkham. Each one of you!”

Another of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle, although this one is more Lovecraft than Poe. It features the sublime Vincent Price in a dual role, as both the protagonist and antagonist of this blend of Gothic and cosmic horror from 1963.

One quick trigger warning before getting to the review proper. There is a scene where Curwen possesses Charles and forces himself on Anne while she was avoiding him, which could be a problem for some. It’s not explicit, as Anne fights him off enough to get him to angrily leave, but please be aware of this section of the film before viewing.

Corman made several movies for his Poe cycle. Most of these starred Vincent Price. This movie is a bit different than the rest as while none of them are truly faithful to Poe’s works, this one is actually much more closely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. In fact, the two characters Price plays are directly from that book: Charles Dexter Ward and Joeseph Curwen. Lovecraft was mostly unknown at the time, so Corman used the Poe title to both keep the cycle going and to keep that name recognition. Other aspects of this film are clearly Lovecraft as well, as I will outline in this review, but the film also has a gothic feel to it as well, making it an enjoyable hybrid of the two horror subgenres.

The film opens with a dark and stormy night in the town of Arkham, and the locals aren’t happy. We soon learn why as a cloaked woman strides by the tavern in a kind of daze, which spurs two of the men there, Ezra Weeden (Leo Gordon) and Micah Smith (Elisha Cook Jr.), who mention this has happened to other women before, to rouse the others and follow her to her destination, the Curwen castle near their small new England town. As is tradition in such films of the time, a large group of angry villagers armed with torches and pitchforks make their way to the Curwen estate to deal with this problem. They are greeted by Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price) and Hester Tillinghast (Cathie Merchant) flanking the woman we had seen earlier, and they are not happy with her condition. The townsfolk then condemn him to be burned as a witch, which is where the epithet that leads into this review is directly from.

"Everything is fine. I'm not under any kind of mental domination at all."

We then are brought forward 110 years from the prior events, but the town doesn’t look all that different, and the townsfolk look much as they did before as well. This is mostly from Corman using the same sets as he often did, but also the same actors are playing their own descendants as well. This trend continues as Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price) and Anne Ward (Debra Paget) arrive via coach. The townsfolk are not pleased to see them, although the local doctor, Marinus Willet (Frank Maxwell), is more helpful and admonishes the others for being irrational about the new couple. During this discussion, we are informed that Ward is the great-great grandson of Curwen.

We also notice that Micah Smith’s descendant, Peter Smith, has a deformed hand. That deformed hand is just one of the indicators that something is amiss in Arkham, as we also see a child with no eyes, something that rages in Weedon’s attic, and other such unfortunates in the town. The doctor explains it as simply genetic mutations, but the townsfolk are convinced that Curwen and his accomplices, and the evil things they were up to with their womenfolk, are to blame.

"What is that man doing with that sandwich?"

The Wards do make their way to the castle, which they find out was brought over from somewhere in Europe when Curwen first moved to Arkham 150 years ago. The place is impressive looking but is also not in the best condition. The couple are startled by the sudden arrival of the estate’s caretaker Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.), who is cordial but somewhat menacing all the same. As they tour their new potential home, Charles is particularly stricken by his resemblance to Curwen’s portrait that hangs over the fireplace in the main hall.

The townsfolk are very eager to rid themselves of their new neighbors, with only Doctor Willet being welcoming at all, and he encourages them to leave once they’ve prepared the estate for sale. This encouragement only grows as Ward starts acting differently. It’s subtle at first, although Anne is distressed early on, but he just seems more short-tempered than before, and knows his way around the place so very well for someone that has just arrived. The townsfolk even have some of their deformed kin accost the Wards in town in an attempt to scare them away. An attempt that does frighten them and is genuinely creepy to witness as well.

As the film progresses, we can see Curwen’s influence over Charles growing stronger and for longer durations of time. He gets less subtle about it as well, much to the consternation of Anne, whose eagerness to leave only increases as her once loving husband becomes cold and distant, and even abusive at times, as I mentioned in the trigger warning at the start of the review. When Charles is himself, he is right there with Anne and her desire to go, but as Curwen takes control, he rebukes the idea and instead works with his allied warlocks, the previously mentioned Simon Orne and also Jabez Hutchinson (Milton Parsons) to both bring back his old lover Hester, but also to continue their work in serving the great old ones as outlined in the Necronomicon, which is in their possession as the doctor points out.

(A quick note about that part: the doctor knows of the Necronomicon and even mentioned Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and mentions such to Anne. The actual book in the film looks mundane, unlike the version in the Evil Dead movies, but it is a large and impressive tome for all that, and this is the most obvious callout to Lovecraft in the movie.)

Eventually Hester is brought back to join the warlocks in their work to bring about the will of the old ones, and she still looks fantastic, despite it being 110 years later and having gray paint added to her face. (A gray, ashen facial coloration that other evil characters share but it doesn’t really work at making them appear evil, just makes them look like they need to wash their face.) Curwen’s revenge begins to cause havoc in Arkham, and things reach a crescendo as the townsfolk again march on Curwen castle, the doctor and Anne find out a bit too much about what is going on in the hidden chambers below Curwen manor, and we are led to an ending that leaves the audience to ponder what is to follow this hectic climax.

I have included photos of Price in both roles with this review, but the subtle changes he effects to let us know he has changed from Ward to Curwen and back again must be seen in motion to get the full effect. Some like to claim that Price hammed it up or overacted in his many films, but he is so good here with just a few subtle cues in how he moves and especially the change to his facial expressions that must be experienced to truly appreciate it. He’s simply that good here. He is genuinely sympathetic as the beleaguered Charles and malevolent and repellant as Curwen. Debra Paget as Anne deserves similar praise as she grows to understand that Charles isn’t just tired or worried, but that he’s not always Charles at all. Her torment between wishing to stay with the husband she loves and her desire to flee the monster he becomes when Curwen possesses him is very well done, and she performs the character brilliantly. Charles’ possession and the interaction between the couple is a crucial part of the film and had either of them been unable to live up to the promise of the situation, it would not have worked as well as it did.

"I assure you that I'm not Curwen at all. Ignore the evil grin!"

After watching this one a second time recently, and reading the thoughts of others on this film, it seems to be a lesser-known Price movie but is largely considered to be a solid film for Price and Corman. It’s not quite top tier, as it has a few issues with congruity and it doesn’t lean into its more horrific elements quite enough, but it’s still a great film. The acting is largely excellent, with none of the lackluster performances that can mar a lot of films of the horror genre; the sets are quite good, especially considering Corman’s penchant to always try to save money; and the story is compelling. It’s a very good film that I highly recommend to fans of Vincent Price, Roger Corman, H.P. Lovecraft, and classic horror.

— Roger Corman has just died at the age of 98. There are books written about the man and how he was not only a prolific producer and director, but of how many careers he has launched. I can’t think of any human that has entertained as many people as he has. This review is my tribute to the man, and especially his 50s-60s movies that I have the most appreciation for.

— I’m a big fan of many of Lovecraft’s works and the Cthulhu mythos cycle especially, but even for his time he was a reprehensible racist. His racism extended not only to people of darker skin tone, but to other white people that weren’t Anglo-Saxon. I enjoy much of his writing, but strongly dislike him as a person.

— Frank Maxwell starred in a few movies, but he was all over television for much of the 60s and 70s.

— This was Debra Paget’s last film, and her second with Corman and Price. Her other film with them was the previous Tales of Terror that also starred Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre.

— Milton Parsons is one of those actors that never seemed to get significant recognition, but he was in a lot of films and TV. He is very easy to spot once you are familiar with his look and he is known for playing strange and creepy characters.

— Lon Chaney Jr. is a classic horror actor that played in many films over the years but is best known for his portrayal of the wolfman from the Universal series of that character. This is one of his better later roles.

— Leo Gordon is better known for playing bad guys in westerns. It’s easy to see why watching him here.

— Elisha Cook Jr. is another actor that performed in a lot of films and had several appearances on TV. He co-starred with Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill as well.

— Cathie Merchant doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry for some reason. She wasn’t in a lot of films, but she has been in a few and was also on TV. This combined with how gorgeous she is in this film strikes me as very odd. Her character’s surname (Tillinghast) was the surname of the villain (Crawford Tillinghast) in Lovecraft’s short story "From Beyond." There was a movie made for that story in 1986, but it isn’t a particularly faithful adaptation.

— Besides the aforementioned Tillinghast, many of the other surnames are prominent in other works of Lovecraft; Orne, Willet, and Weedon in particular.

Three and a half Necronomicons out of four.

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