Sunday, April 12, 2015

#1,700. The Haunted Palace (1963)

Directed By: Roger Corman

Starring: Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr.

Tag line: "A warlock's home is his castle...Forever!"

Trivia: Other than Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, this was the only film to team Vincent Price and Lon Chaney, Jr.

Technically, The Haunted Palace doesn’t belong with Roger Corman’s other Poe adaptations (while its title was lifted from a Poe work, the story came courtesy of H.P. Lovecraft, specifically his “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”). But with its extraordinary set pieces, lush photography, and excellent cast, The Haunted Palace is every bit as impressive as The Pit and the Pendulum, and relates a tale as wicked as either The Masque of the Red Death or The Tomb of Ligeia.

We begin in 1765, when the residents of Arkham, a small New England town, burned one of their own, the wealthy Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price), because they believed he was a warlock. As his mistress, Hester (Cathie Merchant), looked on, the townsfolk dragged Curwen from his castle, tied him to a tree, and burned him alive. But just before the flames engulfed him, Curwen cursed Arkham and everyone who resides within its borders, promising to rise from the grave and take his revenge on the descendants of those responsible for his death.

When next we visit Arkham, it’s 1875, 110 years later. Having inherited the Curwen estate, Charles Dexter Ward (also Price), the great-great grandson of the man executed over a century ago, travels there with his wife Anne (the lovely Debra Paget) in the hopes of inspecting his new property. What he finds instead is a town full of people who want him to leave immediately. The only one to show the couple any kindness is Doctor Willet (Frank Maxwell), who promptly explains to Ward and his wife the reasons for the townsfolk’s apprehension (it doesn’t help that Ward looks like Curwen, whose portrait still hangs over the fireplace of his decaying estate). Both the Wards and the doctor scoff at the “superstitious” nature of their neighbors, but within a few hours of entering the castle, Ward begins to change, as if the spirit of Joseph Curwen was trying to take control of his body (which is exactly what’s happening). As it turns out, those responsible for killing Curwen knew what they were doing; he was one of three high priests, along with Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Jabez Hutchinson (Milton Parsons), whose goal was to release the ancient dark lords of the earth from their slumber. Now that he’s returned, Curwen can join his two compatriots (who are apparently immortal) and, with the help of a book titled the Necronomicon, continue the mission. But first, he has a few surprises in store for the good people of Arkham…

As with many of Corman’s gothic Poe films, The Haunted Palace looks fantastic. The Curwen castle is an imposing set piece; and by the time Ward and his wife arrive, Arkham is suitably dilapidated (since Curwen’s curse, there have been a number of mutated births, and some of these poor souls, including a girl born with no eyes, appear at regular intervals throughout the movie). Cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who worked the camera for such classic films as High Noon and The Old Man and the Sea, fully explores these tremendous sets, capturing their every nuance, and Vincent Price, already a seasoned Corman pro thanks to The Fall of the House of Usher and The Raven, brilliantly portrays both a madman (Curwen) and his kindhearted descendant (Ward), occasionally switching back and forth between the two in mid-scene (Ward, spurred on by the love he feels for Anne, continually fights Curwen from within).

With a handful of dark scenes (one in particular, where Curwen, having taken over Ward’s body, gets his revenge on an Arkham resident named Leech, is especially cold-blooded) and a production value that rivals his previous Poe adaptations, Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace is yet another fine entry in a series that has produced its share of horror classics.

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