(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.)