Friday, November 1, 2013

The Haunted Palace (Alta Vista/American International/La Honda Productions, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Next up on TCM’s schedule was 1963’s The Haunted Palace — which was an outlier in the Corman/Price/Poe cycle because it was not in fact based on a work by Edgar Allan Poe! This time around Corman decided to tap into the works of another legendary U.S.-born master of fantasy short stories, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who like Poe only wrote one full-length novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which formed the basis of this film. Lovecraft’s rather blah title wasn’t exactly calculated to draw in moviegoers, so American International decided to take the title off a poem — not even a short story! — by Poe, and to add insult to injury (a phrase Poe actually coined!) they misspelled his middle name “Allen” on the credits. The Haunted Palace was scripted by Charles Beaumont with uncredited “additional dialogue” by Francis Ford Coppola, who was then working as Corman’s assistant and doing odd jobs (including re-editing and shooting new footage for Soviet-bloc science-fiction films to make them more in line with American audiences’ genre expectations; when I saw Coppola at the 1970 San Francisco Film Festival he recalled that in one of those movies, the original Soviet version had shown a spaceship landing on an alien planet and being greeted by one of the locals waving a flag of peace; in the U.S. version that changed to two monsters fighting each other) while learning the director biz. Though he was married briefly, Lovecraft was probably asexual (or pretty close to it) and he virtually excluded any romantic or sexual aspects from his fiction; his central male characters are virtually always either neurasthenic young men beset by family traumas (like Lovecraft himself, whose parents didn’t die when he was young the way Poe’s did — more on that later — but did go insane) or ancient professors with access to hidden lore.

Charles Beaumont changed Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price) from a young, unattached weakling to a married man who towards the end of the 19th century receives word that he has inherited a palace that his ancestor Joseph Curwen (also played by Vincent Price, in a prologue set either just before or during the American Revolution that shows him being lynched as a witch) had brought over, stone by stone, from Europe (like Charles Foster Kane) and reassembled in the fictitious New England town of Arkham (an important part of Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos,” which forms part of this story — including the undersea god Cthulhu him/her/itself, a few lesser beings with Hebrew-sounding names, and the Necronomicon, a book of magical spells and incantations Lovecraft made up … and in the late 1970’s an anonymous author or team of authors made themselves a ton of money publishing a work of their own that purported to be Lovecraft’s Necronomicon), where he spent much of his time conjuring up something or other until the villagers (acting very much like the posses in the Frankenstein movies) put a stop to it by tying him to a tree and setting him on fire. Alas, Curwen’s spirit survived as a ghost and has been waiting over 100 years for one of his descendants to return to the Haunted Palace, so Curwen can take control of his body and use it to continue and finish his magical experiments — and when he does this he has the help of two other people who are also reincarnations of his former assistants, his servant Simon (Lon Chaney, Jr. in one of his better late roles) and townsperson Peter Smith (Elisha Cook, Jr. — the presence of these two solidly professional supporting actors in the cast raises the acting level of this one at least somewhat above that of Pit and the Pendulum). One quirky thing this movie has in common with Pit and the Pendulum, even though both the source writers and the screenwriters are different, is that Price is playing a character under the influence of one of his ancestors, which gives Price a chance to play real emotional conflict instead of the campy one-note villainy he usually did in the 1960’s — there are a few sequences in Pit and the Pendulum where he even seems traumatized and broken the way he did in the greatest performance he ever gave, as a stage actor playing Oscar Wilde in a one-man show called Diversions and Delights in 1977 (the first half came from Wilde’s actual lectures and showed him cracking wise, but the second half came mainly from De Profundis and showed him wracked with torment over his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, his imprisonment and subsequent disgrace — as far as I know no one ever recorded or filmed Diversions and Delights and therefore it remains the great lost Vincent Price performance, remembered only by those of us lucky enough to have seen it live), even though the material either of Pit and the Pendulum or The Haunted Palace doesn’t have anywhere near the emotional heft of Wilde’s writings (or his real-life story) or Price’s incredible performance as him.

Otherwise, The Haunted Palace is a pretty mediocre movie, technically well done but suffering from the usual problems with filming Lovecraft — including his annoying habit of saying his monsters were indescribably horrible instead of actually trying to describe them (but then Mary Shelley never actually described what Frankenstein’s monster looked like — though that didn’t stop Jack P. Pierce from coming up with an incredible makeup that has become part of the world’s cultural heritage of terror) and his relative disinterest in action scenes (though he did write quite a good one in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which if not necessarily the “best” of Lovecraft’s stories certainly seems to me like the one that would have the most potential as a movie — and, oddly, one that has not to my knowledge been attempted on screen). The monsters in this movie are irredeemably tacky; there’s one being kept by one of the townspeople whom Ward-as-Curwen wants to kill for revenge on his ancestor, who was one of the people who lynched him, but we don’t get much of a glimpse of him and the glimpse we do get makes him look about as scary as a homeless burn victim, while the final one who gets summoned in Curwen’s final ritual before he’s sent back from whatever Lovecraftian spirit world he came from and Ward gets back in control of his own body is so amorphous he looks like someone decided to change the color of Casper the Friendly Ghost from white to green. Vincent Price delivers the goods performance-wise but the role was clearly nothing special for him — it was one of those scripts that wasn’t good enough to challenge him to act but wasn’t bad enough for him to camp it up, either — and Debra Paget as his wife was essentially just there, an afterthought to a story by a writer who generally had no use for women at all, either personally or in his fiction, though I liked the authority of Frank Maxwell as the modern-day incarnation of the man who led the lynch mob against Curwen way back when. And after the appealing modernisms of Les Baxter’s score for Pit and the Pendulum, Ronald Stein’s score for The Haunted Palace was even more disappointing than it would have been if we hadn’t seen the earlier film first, all gloom and doom and horror-film music cliché. Floyd Crosby was the cinematographer again, and as he had in Pit and the Pendulum he lit everything cleanly but with almost no sense of atmosphere; and Daniel Haller got credit with the set designs — not surprisingly, since the serviceable old-dark-house sets he’d created for House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum were clearly getting recycled. We even get the same glass painting of a castle on a cliff overlooking the ocean, and the same stock shot of the waves crashing on the rocks at Monterey matted into it!