|Cast:||Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr., Frank Maxwell, Leo Gordon, Elisha Cook Jr.|
|Screenplay:||Charles Beaumont from H.P. Lovecraft's novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward|
Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace may not be the most Poe-esque of his Edgar Allen Poe series, but it’s certainly one of his most poetic. Corman intended to make something of a break from his Poe films, bringing Charles Beaumont’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s posthumous novella “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” to the screen. AIP’s shortsighted insistence on pidgeonholing Corman into Poe adaptations, playing up the fact the film takes its title from a Poe poem rather than recognizing the first big screen work of the deceased then cult horror writer whose theme of guilt built around the black magic of the Necromicon was in full display merely led to a contested authorship that tainted the reputation of an otherwise fine film. Though obviously far more toward Lovecraft, in the end the gothic macabre is a successful amalgamation of the two author’s that actually fits well into the Poe cycle both visually and thematically.
What sets The Haunted Palace apart is Corman eschews most of the shocks and exploitive tricks he’s associated with, largely keeping the film on a subdued psychological level. By far the most restrained film of the Poe cycle, Vincent Price gives probably his best performance in a dual role as the sinister, devious, and spiteful satanist Joseph Curwen and his good-hearted innocent great-great grandson Charles Dexter Ward, who inherits the palace over a century later.
Warlock Curwen is burned at the steak in the first reel for experimenting on the local women, but not before he curses the village and vows to return to enact a fiery revenge. The bulk of the film takes place in the late 1800’s, with the superstitious and fearful townsfolk giving Ward and his lovely wife Ann (Debra Paget) the chilliest welcome possible, still blaming Curwen for every child that’s born a halfwit or a mutant.
Bedazzled by the portrait of his near doppleganger ancestor who slowly claims his will, the unsettling mood piece is largely a tale of Charles’ possession. Price never hams it up in this riveting performance that holds our attention for 85 minutes despite few of the usual highspots. Unfortunately, though they are willing to keep it serious and somber, Corman, Beaumont, and a young but no less anti-intellectual Francis Ford Coppola refuse to challenge the audience in even the slightest way. They pretty well rape away the depth of Lovecraft & Poe’s collective work, content to present Price’s character as the usual cliched cautionary tale. Rather than allowing Price to craft some middle ground and surprise us, he simply plays two roles that are as disparate as possible. He’s either crude, demeaning, and vengeful or gentle, kind, and compassionate ala Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To further remove any gray area, Corman allows the makeup morons to load Price with their mucky grease to clearly delineate when he’s the sinister Curwen. This crucial fault prevents Price’s struggle from truly materializing, and as a result the film is serious but not exactly adult. Not that I worry about such things, but since we get far more of Hyde, the only truly likeable characters wind up being stand by your man wife Ann and good even keeled Dr. Willet (Frank Maxwell), who literally try to save Price from himself.
While Price is usually a good one, the main reason to watch Corman’s Poe films is for the visuals. Not only does the Haunted Palace excel, it’s as consistently stunning as anything Corman had done up to that point, and he only bettered it once, in 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death due to Nicolas Roeg’s stellar cinematography. The Haunted Palace is undistilled atmosphere with Corman standby Floyd Crosby illuminating and shading everything for mood. Each lengthy corridor and hidden passageway is a revelation, featuring lush colors shrouded in fog, covered by cobwebs and every sort of decay. Forget about the budget, while there’s a lame effect here and there, this is a truly beautiful film where even the painted backgrounds look superb.