This film has been on my mind for a long time. A quick search of my own blog reviews shows me that I’ve mentioned it 4 times over the past 6 years:
“The same sort of thing happened to Vincent Price and Debra Paget in The Haunted Palace, and Debra stuck around too. I don’t know why. It never ends well. When your husband’s been possessed by an evil ancestor he strongly resembles, it’s much more reasonable to leave your stately haunted home for a little while and wait to see if he has the willpower to reassert his own personality from a safe distance.”
-2014, Night of Dark Shadows
“…the Poe’d-up Haunted Palace, starring Vincent Price and Debra Paget in a Victorian gothic version with putty-faced mutants roaming the misty streets of Arkham.”
“…AIP’s Lovecraft-dressed-up-as-Poe Haunted Palace starring Vincent Price (which I really am going to review one of these days)…”
-2018, The Resurrected
“The film shown here is the ending of that Poe’d-up adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Haunted Palace (which I really am going to review one of these days; I’ve been saying so for years). “
That day has arrived finally!
I call this movie the prime example of Poe’d-up Lovecraft. The story is based on Lovecraft’s novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but features the title of a completely unrelated Poe poem and the trappings of Roger Corman’s highly successful AIP films based on Poe’s stories. (Some of Corman’s best work, in my opinion, and I may review my favorites among them some day–but I make no promises!) Most of them also starred Vincent Price.
In the 1960s, HP Lovecraft was less well-known among the general public than he is today. Edgar Allen Poe was much more famous as a writer of the macabre, and AIP attempted to capitalize on Corman’s success by distributing films with Poe-related titles even if they had nothing to do with Poe’s work.
Haunted Palace, isn’t the most egregious example of this. Michael Reeves’s excellent British Civil War film, Witchfinder General, was retitled “Conqueror Worm” for U.S. distribution and recut simply because Vincent Price starred in it. Both films include voice-overs of Price reciting sections of the respective Poe poems, to create some kind of connection with their titles.
Haunted Palace begins in Arkham on a stormy night in the late 1700s. A young woman wearing only a nightshift under her cloak is seen walking slowly up the main street; two men follow her through the cemetery to the huge castle on the hill above the village. Apparently, she isn’t the first local girl who’s headed up to the castle in a trance.
“That’s the home of Satan himself,” one of the men, Ezra Weeden, tells his companion, who didn’t believe him until now that he’s witnessed this remarkable event for himself.
Inside the castle, the young woman is met by Joseph Curwen (Price) and his evil lady friend; she remains in a daze as they escort her down into the basement and tie her standing beside an altar in preparation for some sort of sacrifice. Curwen reads a bit of Latin aloud, then raises the heavy iron lid that covers a deep pit before the altar.
When the girl sees what’s in the pit, she comes out of her trance and starts screaming.
Fortunately for her, there’s already a mob armed with torches and pitchforks on the way.
When he answers the door to the mob, Curwen tries to claim that the girl comes to the house as a regular visitor of her own free will, but they don’t believe this when they see she isn’t capable of answering simple questions. They decide to remove the threat of this dangerous wizard from their community by tying Curwen to a large tree in his front yard and setting fire to it.
Ezra saves Curwen’s lady-friend from the same fate by telling the others that she’s been “hexed” by Curwen and therefore is presumably no more responsible for her actions than the other women who’ve been entranced. But she certainly doesn’t act like it. In her case, it looks like her participation in what goes on at the Curwen house is entirely her own inclination.
It’s here we learn that the evil lady’s name is Hester; from what Ezra says to her, we quickly learn that she too is an Arkhamite and that Ezra was sweet on her before she met Curwen and joined his coven.
Ezra thinks that things will be the same between them once Curwen is gone, but from the look Hester gives him, she isn’t even grateful to be rescued from being burned alive.
Before he goes up in flames, Curwen places a curse on the individual men who have come for him. He says that he will come back one day and take his revenge on their children’s children.
I’ve seen this exact thing in at least 3 other movies: City of the Dead, Black Sunday, and the ridiculous, low-budget Mexican film Brainiac. It’s just something witches and warlocks do when you execute them–which is why you have to be very quick about it before they manage to spit the curse out. That, or not have children so that descendants hundreds of years in the future won’t have to suffer for your actions.
110 years later, in the Victorian era, the Wards (Price again and Paget) arrive in the empty streets of Arkham one evening. The town seen in whole is a rather beautiful and moody-blue painting with mists always moving in front of it; I don’t think I can call it a matte shot since there are no models or moving figures included in it, but it’s quite nice.
Mrs. Ward is amused at the sign at the inn door: The Burning Man Tavern. She calls it “Quaint.” Both she and her husband laugh when the coachman tells them that the town is cursed and he won’t be staying.
They enter the inn. The Arkhamites, who all look like their ancestors seen in the opening, are hostile to Mr. Ward, who also looks just like his sorcerous forefather. They refuse to tell him where to find the house that he’s inherited.
Only Dr. Willett is kind enough to point the old Curwen place out. It’s that enormous building on the hill at the far end of the town. You can’t miss it.
The Wards are surprised to see a castle like that in New England, but they’ve heard the story that Curwen had it shipped over stone by stone from somewhere in Europe and rebuilt here. Everyone calls the place the Curwen Palace, to try and make the story fit its title.
Whenever I watch this, when Ward introduces himself, it sounds to me as if he says his name is “Amos Ward,” even though we’ll hear elsewhere that his name is Charles Dexter, as it ought to be. A bit confusing, but if you listen carefully, what he’s really saying is “our name is Ward.”
The couple decide they won’t stay in Arkham long since they so obviously aren’t welcome here, but they go up to the castle just to see Charles’s inheritance. Besides, there’s nowhere else for them to stay tonight after the hostility they’ve met with at the inn.
After they’ve gone, Dr. Willett tries to reassure the people at the inn that Mr. Ward isn’t Joseph Curwen returned to fulfill his curse. But the Arkham folk aren’t buying it.
On their way up to the castle, the Wards encounter one of the “cursed” Arkhamites: a little girl who is not only blind, but has skin grown over the places where her eyes should be. (Or wads of putty over her eyes, if you want to get into how the look was accomplished. One of this movie’s prime failings for me is the mutant makeup. I find people with putty slapped randomly onto their faces less than terrifying.)
There are a number of these individuals in Arkham, the genetic legacy of whatever Curwen was doing to those girls a century ago. Just about every family in town has one. Some wander the streets freely and others are locked up. They are agitated by Ward’s arrival in town and are drawn to him, as if sensing his presence.
When they arrive at the castle, the Wards don’t really expect the place to be habitable, so they’re surprised to be greeted by a man who introduces himself as Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.), the caretaker. He looks after the place while the Master is away. He has the main rooms prepared for them, and dinner ready to be served at 8:00.
Simon explains that the estate lawyer wrote him to say they were coming. This sounds reasonable, but if you know the Lovecraft story this is based upon, you recognize that name as that of an old friend of Curwen’s who never seems to age. Plus, Chaney is wearing a ghoulish, green makeup to suggest that he’s possibly undead (This effect is spoiled by the makeup only being on his face, while his neck and arms are a more natural skin tone).
The Wards also see the portrait of Charles’s great-great-grandfather, which looks so much like him, hanging over the mantelpiece in the great hall.
“Charles, it’s you!” Ann exclaims.
Charles is immediately fascinated by it. He suddenly has knowledge of the layout of the rooms and which corridors lead where. “Just a guess,” he explains.
It’s while he’s gazing at the portrait–and the portrait gazes at him–that Curwen first takes over Ward’s mind.
In the morning, as they’re about to leave, Charles tells his wife that he’s decided to stay on for 2 or 3 weeks to fix the place up to sell it. “You can go home,” he tells her rather brusquely when she objects, then he apologizes. They’ll both be in town for awhile.
Dr. Willett comes to dinner that evening and explains to them about the deformed people and why Arkham is so hostile and suspicious of Ward.
Curwen came to Arkham 150 years ago (it’s said to be 110 years at other points in the story; I suppose he could have been there for 40 years, but that doesn’t fit the much briefer timeline of Willett’s story). His first wife, Ward’s great-great-grandmother, died in childbirth and he took the town’s most beautiful woman, Hester Tillinghast, as his mistress. Girls began to disappear from their homes at night, then reappeared in the morning with no memory of where they had been.
Ezra Weeden called Curwen a warlock. “One who conjures up the dead,” the doctor explains when Ann doesn’t know the term. Actually, Doctor, that’s a necromancer; a warlock is a male witch.
Willett then describes Curwen’s rumored activities in distinctly non-Poe-ish terms, but ones immediately familiar to anyone vaguely acquainted with Lovecraft. This may be my favorite part of the movie, since the doctor doesn’t believe a word of it:
“It was thought … that he had gained possession of a book called The Necronomicon. It obviously never existed, except in the minds of the superstitious, but they claimed it held enough secrets to give a man absolute power. Every mythology has such a book, but The Necronomicon supposedly contained formulas by which he could communicate with, or even summon, the Elder Gods. The Dark Ones from beyond who had once ruled the world, and now merely wait an opportunity to regain that control. Cthulhu. Yog Sothoth.
“Dreadful rubbish, I know, but they believed that Joseph Curwen and two other warlocks were trying to open the gates to these Dark Gods.”
They meant to do this by mating those beings with humans. Which sounds more like The Dunwich Horror than Curwen’s traditional work. Not an Essential Salte in sight.
In a well-phrased simile, the good doctor advises Ward to flee Arkham as if from a madman with a knife who is determined to kill him.
But the Wards spend another night at the castle, and that’s one too many. Just as a storm is brewing, Charles hears voices on the wind, echoes of that burning of Curwen back at the beginning. He goes out to visit the burnt tree in the yard and Simon escorts him back inside. When he looks at the portrait again, Curwen really gets hold of him.
Simon welcomes him as “Joseph,” and Curwen recognizes his old friends now–Simon as well as that other warlock Willett mentioned, Jabez Hutchinson. But Ward is struggling, and Curwen can’t hold on to his mind for long. Before he lets go, he confirms with his friends that, yes, they do still have their rather handsomely bound edition of The Necronomicon.
Ann finds her husband downstairs and he tells her that he must have walked in his sleep. She wants to leave now, in middle of night middle of storm; he wants to go too… but he knows he can’t.
A week later, they’re still there and the townsfolk are getting restless. In spite of Dr. Willett’s reassurances, they’re convinced that Curwen is back and he’ll be up to his old tricks and more, unless they stop him.
Charles, meanwhile, has enough willpower to struggle against Curwen and get minutes of freedom now and then, but Curwen’s mind is too strong for him and keeps taking over.
One night, Curwen has control over Ward and goes out to the graveyard with his warlock buddies to dig up an old girlfriend. They bring Hester’s coffin to the basement and try to reanimate her corpse, but she’s too far gone to be brought back no matter how many times Curwen earnestly shouts “Vivat!” at her.
Ann goes around the house at night in her nightgown and robe, trying to find out what he’s up to. She catches the ends of conversations and Curwen accuses her of spying (Although, the way she always cries out “Charles!” as she goes along the dark corridors, it’s not likely she’s sneaking up on anybody.)
On the night Curwen et al bring Hester’s body home, Ann stumbles on the secret door to the basement. She doesn’t see anything, but faints when she runs into Simon in a dark corridor and he carries her back to her room.
To be fair, Curwen has considered Ann more of a nuisance than a threat or a candidate for his Elder-God crossbreeding plan, and tells her to go away at every opportunity. But Ann is determined to stand by the man she thinks is her husband, no matter how weirdly he’s behaving.
That same night, after the attempt to restore Hester fails, Charles returns for a lucid moment and the next morning they try to leave. They’re just going out the door to a waiting coach, when Simon lures Charles back into the house under some pretext. One look at the portrait, and Curwen gets hold of him for the rest of the movie.
“Charles Dexter Ward is dead,” Curwen announces.
He now starts to take his fiery revenge on the townsfolk of Arkham, starting with Ezra Weeden’s descendant. Weeden’s own mutant relative, who has been kept locked up upstairs, gets free and attacks him, pushing him into the parlor fire. Curwen then douses another man, Mr. Gideon, with kerosene in the street and sets fire to him. (This was one of the scenes reused in Madhouse.)
The first might be taken for an accident, but not the second. Simon advises Curwen to let go of his desire for revenge, but Curwen wants to see Arkham made into a graveyard.
Dr. Willett’s great-great-grandfather was among the warlock-burners too, but he continues to cling to his man-of-science rationalist view of what’s happening in the town. When Ann confides in him, the doctor thinks it’s all a mental aberration. He also advises her to leave, but she refuses again.
“You might need me,” she tells the man she thinks is her husband.
For once, Curwen agrees. “Perhaps you’re right.”
He grabs her for a kiss, then later that evening tries to force himself on her; when she fights him off, he calls her a fool and goes back down to the basement to give his true love Hester’s corpse another try. Nope. Still dead.
After Ann turns to the doctor for help the next day, Curwen takes him aside for a little man-to-man talk and tells Willett that she’s the demented one. The house has a strange effect on her and it’s for the best that she be taken away from it. The doctor agrees to Curwen’s request that he escort Ann back to Boston.
Finally, Ann agrees to go.
As soon as they’re out of the house, Curwen heads down to the basement and gives Hester one more try.
On their way through town, Ann and Dr. Willett stop and learn about the grisly death of Mr. Gideon. A torch-bearing mob is assembling to storm the castle to get Curwen before he gets them. Dr. Willett and Ann quickly turn around to go back and warn Charles and try to get him out of there before the mob reaches him.
At the castle, they aren’t able to find him until they locate the secret door to the basement.
Curwen, meanwhile, has finally got the corpse of his lady-love up and about. The doctor and Ann find the empty coffin, as well as the altar, the covered pit, and The Necronomicon. For the first time, Dr Willet believes the stories about Curwen, and once Curwen and his friends come forward, that Charles Dexter Ward really has been possessed by his warlock ancestor.
As long as Ann’s here, she can be “honored” by being introduced to whatever’s in that pit.
When Curwen takes the grated cover off the pit, we get a look at the monster within. It’s blurred and indistinct, but it looks more like the Creature from the Black Lagoon than any one of the Elder gods, so I’m thinking it’s one of the Deep Ones. How far are we from Innsmouth?
As all this is going on in the basement, the torch-bearing mob swarms up to the castle doors (This was the second clip reused for Madhouse). But they aren’t the ones who rescue Ann and the doctor.
Charles has a last-moment recovery and frees his wife. Dr. Willett takes the opportunity to set fire to the place, presumably taking out the creature, Simon, Jabez, and Hester with the flames. The Necronomicon too.
As the house burns down around them, which is the standard for Poe-based Roger Corman films of this era, our heroes escape out the front door where the mob is still gathered. They don’t kill Ward… but maybe they should have; the tone of Price’s final lines at the end of the film strongly suggest that Joseph Curwen hasn’t let go after all.
There are things I do like about this movie: The sets are great and atmosphere of misty Arkham is nice, and Price’s switching from Ward to Curwen is good, especially when he’s mentally arguing with himself over who has the stronger will. But there’s also a lot that irritates me.
Foremost would be the change in the Ward/Curwen story–not so much the Poe-ish trappings or the move to the 1870s. What happens here is a plain old possession story, instead of the Lovecraft’s tale of an ancient ancestor physically impersonating and replacing the descendant who resembles him. Maybe writer Charles Beaumont and Corman thought that the latter idea was too weird or complicated for their audience, or perhaps they wanted Charles kept alive for that ambiguous ending.
The other change is in Joseph Curwen’s plans once he returns, and I think this is a worse flaw. With no experiments to conduct with Essential Saltes and grotesquely restored famous, dead, occult scholars, he doesn’t have a lot to do once he takes over Charles. The movie should pick up dramatically at that point, but instead it becomes unfocused as Curwen sort of wanders around being evil but not accomplishing much beyond a couple of revenge murders. The only corpse he’s interested in reviving is Hester’s–but once she’s up she doesn’t do anything. She doesn’t even have any lines. So all that effort to revive her seems rather pointless. It’s as if they didn’t know what to do with the characters once the situation had been set up.
The same can be said of Ann. The threats to her feel tacked on; she’s the heroine of this movie, so she has to be placed in danger at some point, but these come out of nowhere. Instead of Curwen having some fiendish plan to use her in his ceremonies at the basement altar all along, she only ends up there because she happens to be at hand. Curwen’s sudden, brief, sexual interest in her seems particularly gratuitous to me, since he’s never otherwise interested in her in that way–or in any way, really. At most, he finds her a nuisance because she will not go away. I can sympathize with that.