In 1963 movie-goers got their first taste of H.P. Lovecraft in cinema and most of them thought they were dining on Edgar Allan Poe. Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace
is by a large measure the best Roger Corman movie I've seen, filled with wonderful atmosphere and a great cast. Though as an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
it's a disappointment on many levels, failing, like most films based on Lovecraft, to capture the unique overarching dread of the original story and replacing it with broader, formulaic hallmarks of late 50s and early 60s cinema aimed at teenagers.
Corman made a series of films based on Poe stories and poems so it was decided this movie needed to ride on those successes and the title, The Haunted Palace
, was taken from a Poe poem which is quoted twice in the movie without any real apparent relevance. The Curwen house in the Lovecraft novella is changed into a palace which was brought over "brick by brick" from "somewhere" in Europe. This happens in the 1935 British comedy The Ghost Goes West
--I wonder if anyone's actually done this in real life. One really needs to mentally marginalise the hired help to regard a castle as still maintaining mystery after it's been taken apart completely and put back together again.
The events of the movie are moved to 1875 instead of the contemporaneous setting of Lovecraft's novella. Vincent Price plays Charles Dexter Ward and Corman gives him a beautiful young wife named Anne (Debra Paget in her last film role) to help sex up the story as he'd done with Fall of the House of Usher
. In an opening scene, we see Ward's ancestor, Joseph Curwen, being burnt at the stake by the people whose descendants in the village Ward meets. They all look exactly the same as their ancestors. This makes Ward's resemblance to Curwen seem a little less special.
The portrait of Curwen seems a bit of an impressionist anachronism--it's a good thing Vincent Van Gogh didn't visit the palace and see people were way ahead of him in 1765.
Curwen's resurrection, which is divulged somewhat obviously but still eerily and gradually in the novella, also doesn't seem so special when Ward finds his ancestor's servants, played by Lon Chaney Jr. and Milton Parsons, have been resurrected without any apparent assistance or comment.
For a movie that's pretending to be based on Edgar Allan Poe, it goes out of its way to include almost every well known Lovecraftian reference--Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth are mentioned and the Necronomicon
is an important part of the plot.
A fundamental difference between Lovecraft's novella and the film is that, typical for Lovecraft, the original story does not feature ghosts but rather explains Curwen's resurrection as bizarre science. In the film, Curwen's spirit takes possession of Ward's body. But the idea of scientific experimentation is kept in and the monster discovered by Dr. Willett in Curwen's lab is inexplicably moved to the home of one of the townspeople who are descended from Curwen's persecutors.
Willett's in the movie, played by Frank Maxwell, but he seems a bit superfluous with Anne replacing him as the point of view character. He seems to come in only at times when the protagonist is required to take action not deemed suitable to feeble womankind. So Willett comes in to find and open secret passages for her and make decisions.
But the film does have wonderful atmosphere, murky greys and gnarled trees, candles in the castle halls and tarnished green signs and windows in the town. Price has a lot of fun with his duel role, too.