Lovecraft By Any Other Name: Why “The Haunted Palace” is Great

(This post is by Lovecraft eZine contributor Dominique Lamssies.  Buy The Haunted Palace on DVD here.)

“We don’t fully understand ourselves.  We obey.  We obey.” – Charles Dexter Ward, The Haunted Palace

H.P. Lovecraft and filmmaker Roger Corman have more in common than most people think.  Both are dreamers who thought big, played by their own rules, and were (and still are to some extent) dismissed by critics as purveyors of exploitation.  They’re also both all but worshipped by small but very devoted communities.

We can see what happens when the two meet in one of the – possibly the – earliest (I couldn’t find any direct adaptations that were earlier.  If you know of any please tell me below) adaptation of a Lovecraft work: The Haunted Palace.

In 1963, Corman was nearing the end of his Poe cycle for American International Pictures (AIP).  He’d already made five movies based on various Poe works when he saw a script based on Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward written by Twilight Zone great Charles Beaumont.  Corman wanted a change, so he suggested to studio executives that the next film he made be a Lovecraft.  AIP agreed.

The movie alters the novella a bit.  Joseph Curwen (played by Vincent Price) is cornered by an angry mob at his castle outside the small town of Arkham.  He has been performing some sort of foul rituals on local girls.  He denies it, though not very convincingly, and small town justice ensues.  Curwen is tied to a tree and burned alive, but not before placing a curse on the town.  110 years later, Charles Dexter Ward (also played by Price) arrives in Arkham.  In the story, he is a young man living with his parents.  In the film, he’s older and married.  Rather than unwholesome knowledge being Ward’s chief legacy, this Ward and his wife Anne (played by the beautiful Debra Paget) leave Boston because they have just inherited a castle.  Upon arriving, the locals treat the couple with scorn and attempt to scare them off.  Undeterred, the couple goes to their new home with the intention of leaving quickly.  But due to Charles’s sudden fixation with the portrait of his ancestor, Joseph Curwen, and the persuasion of the castle’s caretaker (Lon Chaney Jr.) the couple decide to stay.  Dr. Willet (Frank Maxwell), the only person in town who is friendly with the pair, tries to convince them to leave.  Whatever the Ward’s intentions may be, the situation can only end badly for everyone.  There’s a curse on Arkham, and the villagers suddenly become so intent on stopping it, that they may bring it to pass.

Reaction to the film by the Lovecraftian community has been lukewarm.  The reason can be summed up by the Necronomicon used in the film.  It’s a neat, well-kept book of medium brown leather with “Necronomicon” written in pretty gold letters on the front.  Why should that matter?  Lovecraftians can to be a stubborn bunch that prefer a certain formula in their fiction.  They can get a little prickly when the buildings aren’t geometrically wonky, everything doesn’t stink with some unholy smell, there isn’t a monster of some sort, and, well, just set the story in New England.  The Nerconomicon should be a hoary old tome that oozes evil.  It’s easier that way.  This is not true in every case, of course, but read a good deal of Lovecraftian fiction and the same things tend to pop up again and again.

The Haunted Palace has a much more Poe feel.  It’s luxurious and extravagant and sensual.  It’s beautiful.  Up until recently, predominantly with the writings of W.H. Pugmire, beauty was something that is not to be abided in the Lovecraft universe.

Am I saying Palace is as good as a Pugmire story?  Goodness no.  Corman didn’t make good movies and he never meant to.  Corman made movies that were cheap thrills (like beautiful damsels in distress getting impregnated by an Outer God), which means the movie has its problems.  Vincent Price, brilliant actor that he was, wasn’t the best choice for the dual role of Charles Ward and Joseph Curwen.  As Charles Ward he’s perfect.  As Joseph Curwen, he kicks into dramatic stage villain when the role is better served by a simmering menace.

There is also an unfortunate mashing of Lovecraftian elements.  Corman says he wanted to give the story depth, so he added elements from The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Dunwich Horror.  Looking at it from Corman’s perspective, this had to be a moneymaking move.  The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward needs no depth added to it.  But popular audiences then, and even now, probably wouldn’t have appreciated the slow burn of a man being gradually overcome by the monster he’d created and the doctor who had to stumble blindly through Hell in a futile attempt to save him.  So we get a curse that creates fish people and Yog-Sothoth trying to knock chicks up.  Unfortunately (for this viewer anyway), he took out the best stuff and added the most annoying.  I’m sorry folks, I’m not a Dagon fan.  Your icky fish people go in Innsmouth, and your crazies go in Arkham.  Keep your icky fish people away from my crazies!  And The Dunwich Horror is a fine story, really, but I’ve always been stumped as to why Yog-Sothoth, the right hand man (so to speak) of the most powerful being in the universe who is supposedly barely cognizant of the existence of the human race would bother to impregnate a human being.  Was he really really drunk one night?

But where Palace really succeeds is in an often overlooked part of Lovecraft’s works:  The human center.

The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, at its core, is the story of a man falling in with the wrong crowd and his family watching him slowly slip away into madness and self-harm.  This is the focus of Palace.  Realistically, Corman made it that way because it was cheaper, but he played it to best effect.  The art direction, the truly glorious thing about this film, is designed with that in mind.

Corman’s Poe films continually used bright and bold colors.  But Corman knew he couldn’t do that in a Lovecraft piece.  Instead, he chose black and gray as his base colors and added touches of dark brown and navy blue for accent.  As a result, a deep, isolating darkness, surrounds the characters.  We know there’s more castle there, but it feels like we’ll never get to it.

Isolation is also the name of the game in Arkham.  The town looks bigger than the one sound stage it is, but it still feels cut off, surrounded by a fog that sets is apart from the rest of the world.  Add to this the weird time warp effect Corman achieves by not nailing down a time period, re-using the same actors for both eras, out of place speech patterns and generic old-timey costume designs.  We get a heightened sense of a place cut off from the world that doesn’t subscribe to its rules.

Charles and Anne arrive in town wanting nothing more than to see their new house.  They don’t even get the chance to breath before the fight is on to either destroy or posses them.  Charles starts to slip away, almost like a drug addict.  He turns on his wife, tries to drive her away, even going so far as to convince Dr. Willet that she’s insane.  He starts attacking the people who look like the ones who “killed” him.  Whether or not magic is really involved is irrelevant.  Whether or not the possession of Ward is real is irrelevant.  The current people of Arkham had nothing to do with the burning of Joseph Curwen, just as Ward had done nothing to them to warrant the treatment he got.  Whatever actual monsters may be lurking in Arkham, they’re not as dangerous as the inborn prejudices and outright delusions that grip the place.  At the heart of every Lovecraft story is the cultist.  The Outer and Elder Gods may be powerful, but unless one misguided person opens the door, they don’t even think to enter it.

The seemingly dubious addition of Price’s various girlfriends highlights this.  Hester Tillinghast (Cathie Merchant, equally beautiful but in a different way) is Joseph Curwen’s partner in crime.  She barely has a line in the movie.  She stands at his side, forbidding, her dress such a dark shade of blue that she blends into the shadows of the castle but for the flash of white revealed by her scandalously low cut dress.  Her presence bears down on Ward, forcing him to part with his life for her own unfathomable purposes.

Anne Ward is warm, funny, caring and refuses to leave the man she loves, regardless of how abusive he becomes.  Her presence is stubborn as well, but in attempting to bring her husband back from the brink.  She is literally and figuratively the light of Charles’ life, as evidenced by the fact that her costumes are in consistently bright colors, and she tends to pop out in the scenes she’s in.

Corman has said he believes AIP executives intended to make Palace into a Poe picture from the beginning, but it wasn’t until Corman had finished that executives told him to make the change.  Corman had Price read two excerpts from the poem The Haunted Palace, slapped one at each end of the film and gave Poe credit for the whole thing.  The rest is history.

And it’s history that created a unique piece of Lovecraftiana.  Lovecraft himself believed, like Tolkien, that evil should be harsh, ugly and just distasteful on principle.  The Haunted Palace shows us what would happen when Lovecraftian ideas are applied to a different aesthetic.  And we can clearly see that, even if not in the typical form, these ideas still hold up.  That is the true test of any artist’s genius.

And, whatever you may think about the film’s Lovecraftian elements, the movie is fun to watch.  We all have to admit, deep down, that we really wish we could look as cool as Vincent Price does putting a curse on a town while being burned alive.  And both Roger Corman and I are here to assure you that, literary sensibilities aside, it’s okay to think so.

(This post is by Lovecraft eZine contributor Dominique Lamssies.)

(Buy The Haunted Palace on DVD here.)

16 responses to “Lovecraft By Any Other Name: Why “The Haunted Palace” is Great

  1. The first time I saw this was over the course of a week in junior high school–they showed a little every day at lunch. I always thought it was one of the better Price-Corman team-ups. Thanks for the great write up,

  2. Where did you get all this information from Corman? I have a documentary — maybe it’s just a long interview — somewhere where Corman talks at length about The Haunted Palace, and it’s clear that he doesn’t know Lovecraft and is convinced that The Haunted Palace is one of Poe’s “most underrated” stories. Not sayin’ I don’t believe you, but I’d like to read Corman’s more lucid thoughts on the movie.

    • I’m sorry for the confusion, I actually didn’t mean to put Corman’s feelings into the mix. I used as a reference the below mentioned interview on the DVD release of The Haunted Palace/The Tower Of London, and a write-up in Issue #18 (winter/spring 2011) of Dark Discoveries magazine called “The Haunted Palace: Meditation On A Corman Classic” by J.L. Dopp (if anyone here has not checked out Dark Discoveries magazine, please do. It’s a good one). What I took from those sources was Corman being snippy about the changes the studio made, and nothing about the movie itself. I got that Corman didn’t feel one way or the other about this particular movie, it was just another on the list. So any mix up about Corman’s feelings about the film itself is my fault.

  3. Perhaps Corman misspoke when he said that The Haunted Palace is one of Poe’s “most underrated stories”? He has mentioned Lovecraft’s influence in several of his interviews. I believe there’s an interview on the dual dvd of The Haunted Palace/Tower of London where Corman explains the Lovecraft/Poe connection (as well as mentioning that Francis Ford Coppola worked on the script of ‘Palace):

    “After Chuck [Beaumont]wrote the script, and it was a good script, he went on to work for Twilight Zone, and I wanted a few more changes, so my ace assistant, Francis Ford Coppola, came in and as with all my assistants, he was expected to do everything. He did a dialogue polish on the picture- he was there helping the actors go over the lines and prepare for the shooting.”

    And elaborated with:
    “On the design of the movie, I envisioned, and I think I got, a slightly different look for Lovecraft than I used for Poe… I used a somewhat starker lighting pattern, because I felt that that was intrinsically the difference between Lovecraft and Poe, and we should have a slightly more realistic, starker look – more straightforward than Poe.”

    Also, Corman ends ‘Palace with a verse from Poe’s poem but intentionally misspelled his name as “Edgar Allen Poe” to differentiate this film from what he saw as his “real” Poe films.
    Corman knew Lovecraft’s work and did a decent enough job with his Lovecraftian films Dunwich (later changed to “The Dunwich Horror” with an exceptional Dean Stockwell- who’s a self-described Lovecraft fanatic as well!), ‘Palace, X (loosely Lovecraftian with a character being driven to the brink of madness by gazing upon an entity that resides at the center of existence), and Die, Monster, Die!.

    So yes, Corman was very much aware of Lovecraft.

  4. I love this film and watch it at least once a year. I enjoy the HPL-EAP mash up and even if they did take great liberties with Mr. Lovecraft’s story I still think that they did a fine job even if the monster in the pit (Yog-Sothoth?) at the end is a huge let down. The Blu Ray is out over here in Germany now and it should arrive from amazon by the end of the week! :-)

    take care.
    Doug

    • I was a little disappointed with the monster at the end too (and I think it was supposed to be Yog Sothoth). Blu-Ray, I’m jealous!

  5. I’ve always thought that the film, with its over-wrought musical score, was very effective. But I have to approach it as NEITHER Poe NOR Lovecraft… just a corking good old Corman/Price movie.

  6. I love the film and have owned several copies of it in different formats – but I find it hard to believe Corman knew Lovecraft from a hole in the wall (which leads downward to swarms of rats)…..

    • Well, the problem with Corman was that he was a very smart guy, but he was also a guy interested in making money first and foremost with his movies, so it’s possible he knew Lovecraft really well, and just chose to make Lovecraftian movies that had nothing to do with Lovecraft as a deliberate monetary choice. I think his Poe films are a good example of that. Look at Masque Of The Red Death. Everybody knows that story and knows it rather well, but in Corman’s hands it still got really weird and borderline unrecognizable. But it has blood and sadists and Hazel Court in a low cut dress so it made money. Corman mission accomplished.

  7. One of my favourite films even though it strays wildly from Lovecraft’s story. It does capture the atmosphere very well.
    I find the movie soundtrack to be the best ever, especially the opening.

  8. Always liked this film. One of Corman’s best. I can’t agree that Corman did not make good films. He made several. All film makers set out to make a good film. I rank Haunted Palace higher then The Resurected which is also based on The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward and sadly more well known to many. Though of course either film is far from a perfect verson of the story. All Lovecraft fans should own a copy of The Haunted Palace.

    Thomas

    • I agree. The Haunted Palace is one of his best. I do think Corman made good films, but, like you say, he made several. Out of almost 300 films in his whole career. I honestly think Corman was more interested in making entertaining films than ones that are good in a critical sense.

  9. Do the Great Old Ones not think to open the door… or are they unable to unless aided by their terrestrial servants?

    I’m all for the idea that Lovecraft’s mythos considers Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and so forth as being above human concerns; however, there’s something deeply primal buried within this cosmology, making humanity relevant. Let’s face it, the Old Ones probably need us just as much as we need them. Not all of us, of course, but sensitive artists, degenerate cultists, and malevolent madmen.

    I, too, adore The Haunted Palace. This is the interpretation of a few men (Roger Corman, Charles Beaumont, and Vincent Price) who created their own kind of masterpiece. Not necessarily a direct adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, but certainly within the Lovecraft tradition.

    By His loathsome tentacles,

    Venger As’Nas Satanis
    Ipsissimus
    Cult of Cthulhu

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