The Haunted Palace October 22, 2016
In no doubt is the palace haunted, but it’d be more fitting to decide that the building is just one component of the overarching paranormality of the fictional Arkham, which is your typical 1700s era Massachusetts village plagued by the effects of a smoke machine on overdrive and by residents who’ve grown accustomed to telling visitors to leave “or else” rather than greet them enthusiastically.
But who can blame them? Nearly two centuries earlier, a curse was placed on the city by Joseph Curwen, the warlock owner of the titular complex. Before being dramatically lynched by townsfolk too pissed about his latest sacrifice to Satan (or whomever he worships) to let things go once again, he calls out, by name, the people who have wronged him. They, along with their next of kin, will thus be doomed for an eternity.
Cut to the present of 1875 and we find that Curwen’s great-great-grandson (also played by Vincent Price), Charles Dexter Ward, has recently inherited the castle. His wife (Debra Paget) by his side, neither expects to do anything besides imitate an indecisive couple on a particularly good episode of House Hunters. If the property’s nice, they’ll stay. But if their intuitions suggest they go in the opposite direction, they’ll do as they feel and go back to their normal lives.
Since they’re immediately welcomed by a man who warns them that the “town is evil”, going with option two seems smarter even before they take a peek at the castle for the first time. But things that would unsettle a person with healthy common sense are cast aside as excusable quirks, and, before you know it, the couple’s begun the process of calling the manor home.
Though Charles is feeling it more than his betrothed — she’d do anything to leave, while he’s perfectly content staying and utilizing the palace’s loyal caretaker (Lon Chaney, Jr.) as a resource and friend. It doesn’t help that the spirit of Curwen has coincidentally decided to possess Charles’s body shortly after arrival, either. And so the clock ticks as Curwen regains the upper hand and begins the process of trying to continue what he started back in his heyday.
The seventh of the nine Roger Corman directed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, The Haunted Palace is hardly House of Usher (1960) nor 1964’s terrific The Masque of the Red Death, moving along with déjà vu if only because the macabre setting feels so homogenized in comparison to its counterparts. Such could be the result of its not necessarily being based off a Poe work at all — while its title derives from a poem written by the horror maestro, it’s more thoroughly lifted from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. And the film’s a doozy of black humor interlaced with fantastical terror; if it weren’t considered to be part of such a wonderful (unofficial) franchise, it’d be supremely effective in its own right.
But comparison’s inexorable, especially with Red Death released immediately after. Price is, of course, fantastic — no one plays a Jekyll and Hyde dual role with his brand of mastery — and support from Paget and Chaney, Jr. is convincing. But this time around do the sets look just a little bit cheaper, innovations drier and camp perhaps less purposeful. It very much looks like the work of a filmmaker holding the financial fort down as his next moment of inspiration lifts him into the air and changes his life. Entertainment value is inescapable, as is goes for all Corman and Price’s collaborations. But familiarity is not, and the film is more safe than shocking. B-