The Haunted Palace/The Haunted Village (1963) ***
In the many years I’ve spent as a connoisseur of celluloid crap, I’ve seen Lovecraft movies (Re-Animator and The Unnamable, to mention just a couple), Poe movies (Tales of Terror, The Oblong Box-- we can argue about War-Gods of the Deep), and even a Lovecraft movie that desperately wished it was a Poe movie (Die, Monster, Die!). Now, with The Haunted Palace/The Haunted Village, I’ve seen a Lovecraft movie that genuinely believed itself to be a Poe movie! Have a look at the opening credits: “Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace... based on a story by H. P. Lovecraft and a poem by Edgar Allan Poe”! The poem in question is, of course, “The Haunted Palace,” and I openly defy anybody to make a movie legitimately based on it. What we really have here is The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which, despite the retention here of several key scenes and ideas, differs very significantly from the present film. Whereas the novel framed its conflict mostly in terms of things that happened very long ago and concerned itself primarily with what might best be thought of as a form of mad science, The Haunted Palace fits somewhat loosely into the famous Cthulhu mythos, and revolves around the usual Necronomicon-wielding warlock working to bring the Elder Gods back to Earth.
Our warlock is Joseph Curwen, who was burned to death by the villagers of Arkham, Massachusetts, sometime in the mid-18th century, and who also did what most such people do before they die (see Black Sunday, for example)-- vow to return from the dead for vengeance, and lay a curse on the descendants of his killers. 110 years later, his great-grandson, Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price), comes to take possession of Curwen’s long-abandoned house, which he has just inherited from whomever last owned the place. To that end, he and his wife Ann (Debra Paget, whom you may remember as Mrs. Valdemar in the final segment of Tales of Terror) ride the coach into Arkham, where they receive the standard-issue “you’re not wanted here, so get the fuck out” reception from the suspicious, superstitious townspeople. Ward gets an especially cold shoulder from his new neighbors because of an unfortunate hereditary coincidence-- he’s the spitting image of Joseph Curwen.
The only person in town with any decency is Dr. Willet (TV actor Frank Maxwell, who, among other things, had a role in an old episode of “The Outer Limits”), who befriends the Wards and shows them how to get to the old Curwen place. And what a place it is... The Curwen house is literally a palace, which old Joseph had shipped over from Europe (Spain, we will later learn) when he first came to Arkham 40 years before his death. It’s kind of a mess now, and it is perhaps a bit too creepy for anyone other than an evil warlock to be comfortable living in, but I for one would love to have a place like that as, say, a vacation home. And to Charles’s great surprise, it comes equipped with a ghoulish old lackey, a man named Simon Orne (Lon Chaney, Jr., looking like he just came down with the throat cancer that would kill him right after he finished Dracula vs. Frankenstein). At Orne’s urging, the Wards set themselves up in the palace, at least so that they’ll have somewhere to stay until they figure out what they’re going to do with the old place. They should have rented a hotel room. Over the weeks that follow, strange things begin happening to Charles with increasing frequency. First, he hears voices calling to him in the night that cannot possibly have come from a real person-- there just isn’t anyone around when he hears them. Then, he starts hearing his own voice talking to him, seemingly from the antique portrait of his ancestor that hangs on the wall in his living room, saying all sorts of worrisome things like “My will is stronger than yours... Your blood is my blood, your body my body, your mind my mind!” Finally, he begins having blackouts, and his personality starts to change. The changes are fleeting at first, but as the days go by, Charles spends more and more time acting like a different person altogether, a bitter, angry, probably even evil person.
But it isn’t just inside the palace that weird things are happening. One night, as Charles and Ann take a walk through the town, they find themselves surrounded by shambling freaks, most of whom are missing certain important facial features. Probably the most unnerving of these mutants is the otherwise pretty little blonde girl with neither eyes nor even indentations in her face where eyes could have once been. The freaks close in on Charles and Ann, clearly meaning them harm, but they break off at the last second when the town church-bell sounds the hour. Unnerved, the Wards ask Willet to explain to them what could have happened when they have him over for dinner the next day. Willet tells them that Arkham has for decades been afflicted by a higher than average rate of birth defects, and that all the town’s most prominent families have at least a few members without enough eyes or with webbed digits, or with even worse things wrong with them. Indeed, we know (even if the other characters do not) that Arkham’s foremost citizen, Ezra Weeden (Leo Gordon, who spent most of his career playing thugs in cheap Western, war, and crime films, but who also wrote the occasional screenplay-- he scripted The Giant Leeches), whose great-grandfather led the mob that burned Ward’s great-grandfather, has a severely mutated son who lives in a locked room in the attic and eats raw meat. The deformities first started appearing about 110 years ago, not long (come to think of it) after Joseph Curwen was put to death. And because Curwen’s last words were a curse upon the descendants of the men who burned him, it is only natural that the ignorant villagers of Arkham blame the curse for their genetic misfortune. Willet then goes on to explain just what it was that got everybody in town so mad at Curwen in the first place. It was said that he and two of his buddies were worshipers of the Elder Gods, supernatural evil beings whose story is supposed to be told in a legendary book called the Necronomicon, a copy of which Curwen was naturally said to possess. The Elder Gods, according to the story, were the rulers of all the universe until they were somehow banished from the material realm and imprisoned Somewhere Else. The people of Arkham believed that Curwen and his associates were attempting to breed a race of freaks by getting the village girls Satanically knocked up, because the Elder Gods would somehow be able to use the bodies of these freaks to escape from their extra-dimensional prison. Willet, as you might imagine, gives the tale no credence whatsoever, but this is a horror movie, and in horror movies it pays great dividends to listen closely to the words of the ignorant and bigoted. They very often know what they’re talking about.
So, yeah-- that voice that’s been talking to Charles from the painting really does belong to his long-dead ancestor, and that other personality that he has been exhibiting with ever-greater frequency is Curwen’s too. And Simon Orne, inevitably, is one of those associates with whom Curwen had worked all those years ago. How is he still alive after all this time? Let’s just say a wizard did it... About this time, Curwen’s other partner, Jabez Hutchinson (Milton Parsons, from The Monster that Challenged the World) puts in an appearance, and he, Orne, and the now-usually-possessed Ward/Curwen get back down to their old business. It turns out they’ve got more going on than just the breeding of a race of hybrid monsters. Curwen also wants to resurrect his old lover, Hester Tillinghast (Cathie Merchant), whom he seduced away from Ezra Weeden’s great-grandfather all those years ago, and to that end, he and his sidekicks sneak out to the boneyard one night and dig up her coffin. Then, of course, there’s revenge. This is a movie in which Vincent Price plays a megalomaniac-- how could we possibly not have some revenge in here somewhere? As The Haunted Palace gears up for the home stretch, Ann and Willet prepare to pit themselves not only against what they think is the madness that has taken hold of Ward due to his immersion in the brooding, sepulchral atmosphere of the palace, but against the enraged townspeople too, who’d like nothing more than to burn Ward alive like their ancestors did to his. The villagers take the exhumation of Hester Tillinghast’s body and the rash of deaths by fire among the most prominent citizens of Arkham (starting with Ezra Weeden, who is pulled into the fireplace of his home by his cannibalistic mutant son after Ward/Curwen releases the monster boy from his confinement) about as well as you might expect them to. The ending itself is a bit less than fully unpredictable, but pay close attention to Charles Ward’s final line of dialogue-- it’s a nice touch.
The main question regarding The Haunted Palace is: how’s your attention span these days? If it’s a short little stubby thing, you’d be well advised to stay away-- this movie takes its sweet time getting to anything that could be described as the action. On the other hand, if you don’t mind a slow pace and are really hung up on atmosphere instead, you definitely want to check this one out. It’s a Roger Corman film, so you can see where the corners were cut to keep the budget under control, but one thing he didn’t skimp on was the interior sets for the palace. The living room set alone must have cost half again as much as The Day the World Ended, and every penny sunk into the set designs here was very well spent. (Although, as with all the later AIP neo-gothics, that sumptuous look is deceptive, stemming at least as much from the judicious re-use of props and sets paid for out of the budgets of earlier films as from new stuff bought specifically for this one). Another thing that adds tremendously to the impact of the film is the mutant makeup, especially that of the eyeless girl. And since both Poe and Lovecraft were authors whose works stood or fell on the basis of atmosphere, the approach Corman took here was definitely a smart move, even if he thereby ran the risk of driving off the people who love him for his trashier, faster-paced work.