When is a Poe not a Poe? Released in 1963, The Haunted Palace was positioned by American International Pictures as the fifth in the series of successful adaptations directed by Roger Corman of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, but while the title is that of an 1839 Poe poem, the screenplay is principally drawn from H P Lovecraft’s 1927 novella The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
The location is the misty town of Arkham on the coast of New England, a name familiar to readers of the weird fiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890, forty one years after Poe had died in Baltimore, Maryland under mysterious circumstances aged only forty. Unlike his predecessor, Phillips did not enjoy significant recognition or success in his lifetime, but like Poe he died young, succumbing to cancer in 1937.
Written by regular Twilight Zone contributor Charles Beaumont who himself died only four years later of a degenerative brain disease aged only thirty eight, the film opens in the year 1765 as a group of townsfolk trail a woman in red robes through the fog, through the graveyard, to “the home of Satan himself,” the imposing mansion of Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price).
Believing him to be a warlock who has mesmerised the woman, the angry mob storm the grounds, seizing Curwen. Tied to a tree, he curses the whole village: “All of you and your children and your children’s children shall have just cause to regret the actions of this night!” Warning them that he will rise from the dead, they pay no heed, and with their torches they set him alight…
One hundred and ten years later, the great grandson of Curwen, Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) arrives in Arkham with his wife Anne (Deborah Paget, one of the “cast of thousands” of Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in 1956). The townsfolk are wary, hostile even, when they find Ward is travelling to the Curwen mansion, though the greeting from the caretaker Simon Orne is entirely more welcoming, as though he had long anticipated the arrival of his new master.
Initially intending only a short stay, Anne is distressed following a nocturnal encounter with a group of heavily deformed locals who surround and intimidate her and her husband who dismays her with his sudden desire to remain in the house. Her only friend becomes Doctor Willet (Frank Maxwell), who tells her the dark history of the house and the legend of Joseph Curwen who was supposedly in possession of a mythical book of black magic, the Necronomicon…
While the edition designed for the film is more conventional than the “bound in human flash” version familiar from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1978), it is notable in that it is the first onscreen appearance of that notorious tome, and it is perhaps the only aspect of the production which does not benefit from art director Daniel Haller’s sumptuous touch. The interior of the “haunted palace” is an astonishing set, the underground secret chamber accessed by the fireplace equally vast and imposing, while the streets of Arkham, swathed in mist, were designed with forced perspective and shot by Corman with wide lenses to make them to appear to be larger than they actually were. The idea of outcasts is a recurring theme in Lovecraft, either of a stranger arriving in a town to find they are unwelcome as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936) or a family who are shunned by their community down through the generations as in The Dunwich Horror (1928), both of which were also concerned with physical mutations, manifested in The Haunted Palace in the deformities endemic in the population of Arkham; under a more scientific guise an isolated island community was similarly afflicted in the 1972 film version of Doomwatch.
It was apparent that the Corman/Poe formula had become repetitive and needed shaking up; that this Lovecraft amalgam can so easily be mistaken for Poe is its downfall, and with so little to set itself apart even at only eighty minutes it plods with little sense of urgency and like the genuine Poe films it ends up in flames, stock footage from both House of Usher (1960) and The Raven (1963) boosting the climax, though unlike those reassuringly virtuous finales where evil meets its downfall there is a sting in the tale here.
In the accompanying interview from 2003, Roger Corman recalls that it was he who first suggested Lovecraft as “a similar writer” to Poe to AIP producers Samuel Z Arkoff and James H Nicholson and it was filmed under the title The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward with elements of other Lovecraft stories brought in to give it depth
Charles Beaumont had moved onto The Twilight Zone so Corman brought in Francis Ford Coppolla to do a polish on the dialogue, and he also helped the actors rehearse their lines. With only a fifteen day shoot, all the discussions on character took place beforehand so they were fully prepared on set, and certainly Price’s performance as Ward is one of his best subdued, charming, urbane, not at all sinister, a vast contrast to the later scenes of the film.
“Vincent Price was a brilliant actor… he took it very, very seriously. Ward possessed was a challenge, but it was the kind of challenge an actor likes,” Corman states, also speaking his pleasure at working with horror icon Lon Chaney, Jr, who played Simon Orne. “This was the first time I had worked with Lon and it was a delightful experience.”
In his long career, Chaney appeared in over one hundred and sixty films between his debut The Trap (1922) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) including the title roles in The Wolf Man (1941), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and The Mummy’s Tomb (1942); like his father, in many of his films, including his first, his face was not seen onscreen. Conversely, Paget retired from acting, with The Haunted Palace being her final role. Aiming for a slightly more realistic look, Corman used starker lighting than on his Poe features, but the decision was made after principal photography that it was to be marketed as Poe. In a separate feature, horror expert Kim Newman reflects on the legacy of Lovecraft in cinema and notes
that at that time the name H P Lovecraft on a poster added no value in the way that Edgar Allen Poe did.
While there was a resurgence in interest in the works of Lovecraft in the sixties and seventies, spurred by the paperback reissues of his collected stories with covers inspired by the psychedelic aspects – the glorious Ballantine editions are shown – and this was the same era as AIP were making their Poe movies, instead of developing another franchise, AIP made only two more Lovecraft adaptations, Die, Monster, Die! (1965, based on the story The Colour Out of Space written in 1927) and The Dunwich Horror (1970) both directed by Daniel Haller.
Explaining that “even more than Poe, Lovecraft is difficult to adapt,” Newman suggests two reasons are his “refusal to engage with conventional storytelling and character” and the more physical drawback that “Lovecraft’s monsters, when illustrated, just tend to look like angry seafood… That doesn’t portray the cosmic horror that Lovecraft’s protagonists face.”
Even though those fundamental obstacles could not be overcome in the short term, the themes of Lovecraft seeped out into the literature and cinema of the following decades, Newman singling out Jerusalem’s Lot in Stephen King’s short story collection Night Shift and certain films of Dario Argento, while on the commentary writers David Del Valle and Derek Botelho concur that Clive Barker is the “modern heir to Lovecraft.”
It was not until the eighties that Lovecraft could be considered to have penetrated to mainstream awareness with Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu role playing game in 1981 and Stuart Gordon’s films Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), though even then the interest was, perhaps appropriately, cult rather than broad appeal; despite years of effort, even a director as successful as Guillermo del Toro has struggled for a decade to persuade a studio to finance his proposed production of At the Mountains of Madness.
Indeed, with ancient gods possessing mortals, sinister temples designed to focus dark energies hidden in plain sight and dimensional portals opening over major cities, Newman speculates that “probably the most important Cthulhu mythos ever made” is the one he refers to as “National Lampoon’s Call of Cthulhu,” or, as it is more commonly known, Ghostbusters.