Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT we visit THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963), Roger Corman’s sixth Edgar Allan Poe adaptation.
Technically, it isn’t a Poe adaptation, since after making five horror movies in three years based on Edgar Allan Poe works, Corman wanted a break and chose as his source material for his next movie, the story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” by H.P. Lovecraft. However, American-International felt a Poe connection was needed, and so they tacked on an Edgar Allan Poe poem title “The Haunted Palace” to the film, which is mostly, if not completely, based on the Lovecraft story.
THE HAUNTED PALACE once again stars Vincent Price, who starred in most of Corman’s earlier Poe films, and he was joined by a rather interesting co-star: Lon Chaney Jr! This would mark the second and last time these two horror icons would appear together in the same movie, although the first time, in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), hardly counts, as Vincent Price only “appears” in the final seconds of the film as the Invisible Man. In THE HAUNTED PALACE, both Price and Chaney have ample screen time and share lots of scenes together.
THE HAUNTED PALACE opens with a prologue that shows the angry villagers storming the mansion of Joseph Curwan (Vincent Price) who they not only accuse of witchcraft, but they also drag him out of his home and burn him at the stake, but not before he curses the town and their descendants. The story then jumps ahead 100 plus years, and we see Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price) arrive at the home of his ancestor Joseph Curwan, along with his wife Ann (Debra Paget) to start a new life together.
Not so fast Mr. Ward!
See, the villagers who live there, including Edgar Weeden (Leo Gordon) and Peter Smith (Elisha Cook, Jr.), have not forgotten the curse placed on them by Joseph Curwan and want no part of his descendant returning home! It doesn’t help that Charles is a dead ringer for Joseph, but to that end, I would tell these folks to go look in the mirror, because all of them are dead ringers for their ancestors as well! See, that’s what happens when the same actors play ancestors and descendants. Not exactly the most creative way to cast a story!
Anyway, the one townsperson who is sympathetic to Charles and his wife is Dr. Marinus Willet (Frank Maxwell), but even he warns them about staying, since the townsfolk could make things mighty difficult for them. Inside the mansion, they meet the caretaker Simone Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.), and since he’s played by Lon Chaney Jr., you know he’s going to be something more than just an ordinary caretaker.
No, he’s not secretly the Wolf Man!
But he is secretly an old friend of Joseph Curwen, and he introduces Charles to a portrait of Joseph, and when he does, the spirit of Joseph enters Charles’ body. Together, they begin to work on fulfilling the plan they started 150 years earlier, involving the book, the Necronomicon, and the conjuring of a demon-like beast from the depths below. Their work is slowed by the fact that Joseph can’t remain inside Charles’ body for long, which allows Vincent Price the chance to basically play two different roles, almost a Jekyll and Hyde variation.
This back and forth continues, with Joseph gaining more power each time he enters Charles’ body, and the final part of the plan involves sacrificing Ann to the demon creature. Unless, that is, Charles can break through and save his wife!
THE HAUNTED PALACE is one of the livelier Roger Corman Poe films. His earlier works, like HOUSE OF USHER (1960) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) were very claustrophobic, with the bulk of the action taking place inside the castle walls, whereas here in THE HAUNTED PALACE equal time is spent in the village as well, and the whole feel of this one is more melodramatic and freewheeling.
I also absolutely love the music score here by Ronald Stein. It’s a powerful score and my favorite of the Roger Corman Poe movies. Stein scored many genre films from the 1950s-60s, including DINOSAURUS! (1960), a laughable but likeable dinosaur-on-the-loose movie by Universal in which Stein’s serious score is also a highlight.
As he always does, Vincent Price chews up the scenery here as Charles Dexter Ward/Joseph Curwen. Price’s persona dominates these movies. Sometimes he’s the character who’s tortured by the evil within him, and other times, he’s the character who seems to take such glee and enjoyment in being evil. He gets to be both in this movie. In the Roger Corman movies, Price’s most intriguing performances probably came in the next two movies in the series, which would be the final two, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). But he’s awfully entertaining here as Charles Dexter Ward and his nefarious ancestor!
Lon Chaney Jr. is creepy and fun as Simon, the caretaker with the sinister secret and agenda. There’s one shot framed by Corman in which Chaney appears from the shadows to frighten Ann, and he’s completely backlit, which means you only see the frame of his body and not his face, and with a little imagination, you can almost see the Wolf Man standing there in the dark corridor! Sadly, since he was dealing with health issues mostly due to heavy drinking, Chaney looks pretty awful in this movie. Of course, he was also made up to look rather sinister, but still, he looks about 10-15 years older than Price in this movie, when in reality he was only five years older, with Chaney being 58 at the time, and Price 53.
THE HAUNTED PALACE also has a great supporting cast. Leo Gordon was one of the great screen heavies, playing villainous roles in numerous westerns. I always remember him as the baddie Cass in THE NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY (1966). If you’re going to start a mob in a horror movie, Leo Gordon is the guy you want leading it!
Elisha Cook Jr., a terrific character actor going all the way back to THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), where he was famously humiliated and slapped around by Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Cook appeared in several genre movies, including HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), which also starred Vincent Price, and THE NIGHT STALKER (1972). Here, he plays a frightened villager who’s basically a yes-man to Leo Gordon’s character.
You also have Debra Paget and Frank Maxwell.
The screenplay by Charles Beaumont based on the Lovecraft story, and a little bit on the Poe poem, hits all the right notes and makes for a decent plot.
Roger Corman, who at 96 is still with us, keeps this one a bit more energetic than his other Poe outings. One part, however, that doesn’t work, is the storyline about the cursed townsfolk’s offspring, many of whom are “mutants.” The story is fine, but the make-up is rather ludicrous. It looks like someone stuck silly putty over their eyes. Here you go. Just add this silly putty here, and now you look like mutants with no eyes! Er…, no!
Other than this little hiccup, THE HAUNTED PALACE is worthwhile viewing, especially around Halloween time. It’s hard to find someone having more fun being evil in a horror movie than Vincent Price, and his talents are on full display here. Add a little menacing Lon Chaney Jr. and it gets even better! Why, there’s even a sinister final shot in the movie for good measure!
THE HAUNTED PALACE isn’t one of the more famous Roger Corman Poe movies– heck, technically it’s not even a Poe movie but a Lovecraft one— but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun!
Looking for a place to stay this Halloween? Try THE HAUNTED PALACE. Just don’t stare at the paintings for too long. I hear they have a knack for… getting under your skin!