31 Days of Horror: Film 17: The Haunted Palace (1963)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

It was a consistent formula over several films: Roger Corman directing Vincent Price in a film based on an Edgar Allan Poe title. The script was usually by Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont. The film almost always took advantage of a standing castle set. And the supporting cast was stacked with hammy character actors and old horror stars like Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. But by the time of 1963’s The Haunted Palace, the formula was showing its age and falling victim to diminishing returns.

Credit is due to Corman for trying to change up the formula a little bit. Instead of basing the film on a Poe tale or poem, he tapped the deep, mostly untouched (at the time) well of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. Of course, ever the savvy producer, he hedged his bets by titling the film after a Poe poem. Instead of turning to Karloff or Lorre as Price’s sidekick/antagonist, he cast Lon Chaney Jr. The results are a watchable film that does gain some steam in the second act, but overall feels like a rote exercise for all involved.

In a prologue, the villagers of Arkham, Massachusetts drag Joseph Curwen (Price) from his castle, accusing him of witchcraft. Of course, the mob never stops to think about the horrible consequences that are possible if Curwen is actually a warlock. The mob ties Curwen to a tree and burns him in front of his home. Before he dies, Curwen places a curse on the villagers that will carry on through their descendants, generation after generation.

A few hundred years later, Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) arrives with his wife Ann (Debra Paget) to take ownership of Curwen’s castle. It turns out that Ward is a direct descendent of Curwen and his arrival puts the secretive, unfriendly people in the village on guard. As Ward stays in the castle, he has periods where he becomes possessed by the spirit of Curwen, much to the fright of Ann. But what does Curwen want with Ward’s body? What exactly are the people in the village hiding? And why are most of the children in the village extremely deformed? All of these questions are answered, but not always with the most satisfactory of explanations.

That the internal logic of the film doesn’t hold up is far from the film’s largest problem. It’s the threadbare feel of the film that lends to an under-cooked atmosphere. The castle set is the same one used over and over in these films and Corman doesn’t show any interest in trying to alter its appearance. The supporting cast, with the exceptions of reliably wide-eyed Elisha Cook and the sad menace of Chaney Jr., is bland to the point of disappearing. Even the minimal special effects are cheaper and shoddier than expected.

Price does what he can to provide some menace and humor, but he’s held back by Beaumont’s dour screenplay. While sacrificing the usual streak of dark humor allows the story to go to darker than expected places (at one point, the possessed Ward tries to rape Ann) and stay somewhat true to the spirit of Lovecraft, it also means the film is missing the sense of mischievous fun that the best of the Corman/Price collaborations had.

Despite my misgivings, the plot finally does kick into gear midway through the film and provides some opportunities for Price to chew the scenery. Working from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by the notoriously repressed Lovecraft, Corman taps into a slightly more perverse sexuality that makes The Haunted Palace actually feel dangerous in places. And Corman actually ends the film on a downer note, allowing evil to seemingly triumph.

Price and Corman made far worse films in their respective careers, but they also made much better ones. The Haunted Palace is far from required viewing. It has its moments, but the obvious cheapness of the production makes it feel less like a movie and more like a stage play. Corman was never the most cinematic of directors, but he was capable of better work than this.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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