Corman’s Lovecraftian pact is a splendidly twisted slice of brooding, serpentine menace
The superstitious folk of Arkham have much to trouble them.
Their ancestors burned a warlock to death over a century ago for practising foul deeds in the titular edifice, and now it looks as though the defiant curse he condemned them with is about to come true. The sorcerer’s great grandson, Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price) has come to claim his inheritance of the haunted palace, and swiftly falls under the evil thrall of his grave-defying predecessor. His wife, played by the gorgeous Debra Paget, sees these sinister changes in his personality but is powerless to intervene as Charles becomes utterly possessed, and ever-more determined to continue the previously aborted rituals to bring forth the Elder Gods.
Roger Corman’s gothic fantasy marries the inspired lunacies of Lovecraft to the paranoid mechanics of Poe in another of his inordinately atmospheric chillers for AIP. Lavish photography serenades swirling mists, torch-bearing mobs, eerie streets and dark passages. Ghastly mutants gad about in the fog. Something ancient and despicable resides in a subterranean pit. Revenge fills the air. That most infamous of grimoires, the Necronomicon, entices ill-tidings and dread. And, above it all, Price leers, sneers and revels in that decadent and debauched brand of wickedness over which he reigned supreme.
It may not be hailed as highly as its gothic brethren in Corman’s celebrated canon, but it’s definitely a visually sublime and redoubtably atmospheric offering that certainly stands on its own Eldridge-scented and webbed feet. The way that screenwriter Charlie Beaumont integrated Poe’s original “Haunted Palace” poem into a dark and sinister Lovecraftian embrace is uncannily well crafted and, come the end of the day, it matters not a jot that Corman’s production becomes a melange of the moods and themes of the two renowned literary fabulists. The fit is neat and enjoyably sinuous. And deliciously dark.
By this time of course, Price could do this sort of thing in his sleep if he wanted to. But the performer always delivered more than the written page gave him, and in this dual role of vengeful warlock and hapless host he brings his customary aristocratic leanings to bear with full force. Woe begotten, aloof and vulnerable as Charles Dexter, and regally sadistic as Joseph Curwen, Price has a ball swooning and simpering over Debra Paget one minute and sneering vile curses and demonic beseeching the next. Chilling support comes in the form of the hate-filled Leo Gordon, the bug-eyed Elisha Cook Jr. and a hulking, cadaverous Lon Chaney Jr.
On the downside, though, the film, not unlike Lovecraft’s prose itself, can be a little ponderous and somewhat laboured. Its moody longeurs are all build-up, with only a few choice instances of outright shock value... quite amusingly courtesy of Lon Chaney’s zombie-like retainer. Certain characters sudden vanishing come the Universal-style finale leaves a note of indecision and haste, indicating a lack of vision to really see the project through satisfactorily. Possibly a rush to get the film in the can for AIP, even given Corman’s famously swift turnaround.
Cruelly overlooked and often thought of as Corman’s gothic ugly duckling, The Haunted Palace is superbly rich with inky malevolence and contains a number of skin-crawling delights.
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