The Haunted Palace is, ostensibly, another of Roger Corman’s Edger Allen Poe adaptations, in this case doing a story based on one of Poe’s poems. However, it’s not that at all. Indeed, Poe’s poem barely shows up in the story in the first place. Instead, The Haunted Palace is more of an adaptation of one of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft – specifically, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, with a screenplay by Charles Beaumont (who I reviewed a documentary about a while back).
As a Lovecraft adaptation, it’s a pretty straight up adaptation, though the setting for the main action is moved to the 1800s from the then-contemporary 1920s. After an initial flashback showing the demise of the warlock Joseph Cerwin (Vincent Price) at the hands of a torch-and-pitchfork bearing mob of townsfolk in the 1760s, we shift to the 1870s. There Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) along with his wife Anne (Debra Paget), have come to take ownership of the family estate.
In grand Gothic Horror tradition, the townsfolk are suspicious of the outsiders, and even more suspicious of them going to investigate the neglected Cerwin manor. The manor itself is tended only by the caretaker, Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.), who urges them to stay. Charles begrudgingly agrees. However, over the course of his stay, Charles becomes entranced by a painting of Cerwin, and also starts to increasingly long personality shifts.
It turns out that Cerwin’s spirit has been taking over Charles, in an attempt to prolong his life, and to further extend his service of The Great Old Ones (with Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth both getting mentioned), by trying to breed the spawn of those eldritch abominations with the local townsfolk. It’s up to Anne, and local doctor Marinus Willet (Frank Maxwell) to try to free Charles from his ancestor’s power.
This leads to the acting – Vincent Price was always a great actor, and The Haunted Palace really does a tremendous job of giving him room to work – from the amiable and progressively more tormented ward to the sinister and malevolent Cerwin, often in the same scene. Additionally, this is a rare role for Chaney which puts him outside of his makeup designs, and lets him shine as an actor as well. His role as Simon shows him as menacing in appearance but disarming in demeanor, which works really well for the plot. Maxwell also does a tremendous job as, to my knowledge, the first actor in American film to provide exposition on the Cthulhu Mythos.
The production values of the film are generally solid as well. Corman films always were on a low budget, so the question generally is how far can they get with what little they had – and the answer with his Poe adaptations (or films that were marketed as Poe adaptations) was “pretty far”. Partly because they were some of his higher budgeted films, and partly because Corman got some pretty creative people to work on them. Consequently, the movie generally looks fantastic. There’s an issue with Cerwin’s Monster In The Well looking kinda rough, aggravated by just a bit too much time being spent on it. Don’t get me wrong – the Corman Cheese is in full effect here, but it’s not over-applied.
I do have a few content warnings for this film – specifically for sexual assault and gas-lighting. A large chunk of this is because Anne is a new character for the film – HPL rarely included women in his stories, whether that’s due to intentional misogyny, or if unexamined prejudices made him feel he was unable to write women is unclear.
What this leads to with Corman is rape and gas-lighting. There’s women of the town being raped by the monster while mind-wammied, there’s Corwin in Ward’s body raping Anne under the pretext of marital rape (so doubly bad there), and then there’s Corwin in Ward’s body gas-lighting Anne into thinking she’s insane so she gets institutionalized and can’t say anything to stop him, complete with Willet very nearly buying it.
Not to mention – the monsters raping women bit isn’t even from the original story. There are other Lovecraft stories that have that in them (such as The Dunwich Horror), but not this one.
It’s a good first outing for The Mythos, but it’s definitely not without some issues, and it does have a nice layer of Corman Cheese, but it’s still worth giving a shot (with those content warnings in mind).
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