Tuesday, November 30, 2021

American Gothic Week: From a mere eccentricity to a dark mania


Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Charles Beaumont (based on the novella "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft plus eight lines of the poem "The Haunted Palace" by Edgar Allan Poe)

Spoilers: moderate

Famously enough, Roger Corman's sixth adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe, The Haunted Palace, was not supposed to be (and, to be frank, never became) any adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe.  Its connection to the author is as tenuous as Universal's adaptations of Poe in the 1930s.  Its connection to the short poem, "The Haunted Palace," is nonexistent, besides the title and Vincent Price dreamily reciting eight lines of it, and not all at the same time.  I'm not sure it was even an accident that the author who gets the screen credit is "Edgar Allen Poe"; it sums up how much Haunted Palace has to do with him, and, as Corman will tell you, tacking Poe's name onto the film was nothing but a mercenary move imposed upon him by AIP.

In fact, Corman had fully intended to take a break from Poe.  It's hard to blame him, considering that his Poe movies had occupied so much of his time the past several years.  He was getting slightly bored with them, which is why Tales of Terror is a melange, and The Raven an affectionate travesty; and while he had some variety in his life, his Poe films representing only about half his directorial output while they were an ongoing "franchise," even this fact only emphasizes how Corman spending just three years of his career chained to a single subject would be like another filmmaker spending thirty.  Yet he had no particular desire to leave literary horror or his Gothic style completely.  His Haunted Palace openly acknowledges what it actually isafter shrugging in the direction of "Edgar Allen," its credits own that its real inspiration is H.P. Lovecraft.  That makes it the first-ever screen adaptation of Lovecraft, and thus historic; it certainly wasn't the last.  (By 2021, I'm not sure there aren't twice as many Lovecraft adaptations, of wildly varying levels of professionalism, as there are of Poe.)  But now that I've dutifully recited what everyone already knows about The Haunted Palacethat it's bad Poe but not-so-secret Lovecraftallow me to point out what I think its historic importance obscures: it's not good Lovecraft, either.

The film begins in colonial times in the village of Arkham, Massachusetts, upon the outskirts of which there has been constructedand you can find these all over colonial Massachusettsan enormous palace.  This is the home of Joseph Curwen (Price), reputed by the villagers to be an evil warlock in communion with unholy powers, and of course they are correct: he and his mistress Hester Tillinghast (Cathie Merchant) have been, it seems, entrancing young women from all over the village, bringing them to their forbidding castle, and doing something with them that leaves them pregnant, though from what we see of tonight's hexed victim, chained over a pit and screaming when she sees the green glow emanate from the channel, it's not just fun sex parties.  The villagers decide that tonight shall be the end of Curwen, and in a mob head to his castle, where they seize him, lash him to the nearest tree, and burn him alive.  But not before he curses the village, calling several of his persecutors by name, including Ezra Weeden (Leo Gordon), Micah Smith (Elisha Cook Jr.), Benjamin West (John Dierkes), and Priam Willet (Frank Maxwell).

110 years later, in or around 1875presumably, Corman wanted to literally, arithmetically split the difference between Poe and Lovecraft, which is adorableArkham is still there, and Charles Dexter Ward (also Price), descendant of Curwen, has just arrived alongside his wife Ann (Debra Paget) to take possession of the grand old castle they've inherited.  The descendants of Curwen's killers (who, like Charles, bear remarkable resemblances to the actors who played their forefathers) basically tell him to turn right back around.  At least Willet's descendant, a doctor, welcomes them, as he is devoid of the foolish superstitions that rule his fellowsthough it's true that Willet cannot explain the high propensity for Arkhamites to be born with profound and unsettling birth defects, such as might occur in a population infected with the blood of the deep ones.  The Wards find their castle past the graveyard, and are off-put by its dilapidationthey are almost as off-put by the sudden appearance of its "caretaker," Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.)but nothing's as unnerving as the expressionist portrait of Curwen glaring down at them from over the fireplace and across a century, every inch a portrait of Charles were he twisted toward severity and evil.  They'd leave, but something compels Charles to stayit commands him to stay, even, in his own voice, the voice of Joseph Curwen, a man quite eager to get back into a body and get back to work.

Richard Matheson had concluded his tenure as Corman's Poe film writer with The Raven (though he had one more Gothic for AIP left in him), and so Corman had collaborated instead, as with Premature Burial, with Matheson's friend and pinch-hitter Charles Beaumont; that said, I'm not sure whether it was Corman or Beaumont who chose Lovecraft's 1941 posthumous novella, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," to be Corman's next "Gothic" horror film.

Lovecraft hadn't liked "Charles Dexter Ward"; he didn't even think it was publishable.  But it always pays to remember that Lovecraft was as much a professional sad-sack as he ever was a professional writer, and his revulsion was likely born of those personal problems.  Myself, I would put it high in my own Lovecraft rankings: it has a strange structure, but, unusually even for Lovecraft's longer-form works, an actual plothell, after a fashion, it's a murder mystery.  Length was not always Lovecraft's friend as a writer (I suspect everyone who hails "At the Mountains of Madness's" greatness must be forcing it, at least a little), and "Charles Dexter Ward" absolutely suffers toward the end from his penchant for overdescribing hallways; yet it's a gripping yarn with a good, horrifying twist, as well as several genuinely novel ideas connected to, but distinct from, the ideas that Lovecraft had pursued ad nauseam in his other Cthulhu-adjacent stories.  As far as the works of that cycle or even Lovecraft's whole career go, I wouldn't put much above it, the only clear exceptions being "The Colour Out of Space" and his real masterpiece of cosmic horror world-building, "The Shadow Out of Time."  In fact, "Charles Dexter Ward," initially titled "The Madness Out of Time" (and, in fact, written earlier), accidentally seems to use the former's premise as a red herring.  So if I were going to combine another medium-length Lovecraft story with "Charles Dexter Ward," I'd probably have gone with that rather than "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"but "Innsmouth" was where Corman and Beaumont went, anyway.

And if it weren't for the elements Beaumont incorporates from "Innsmouth," I don't know if they would've needed to call it Lovecraft.  (Beaumont had already written an episode for the "true story" horror TV anthology One Step Beyond with the same basic plotwhich is not, for starters, true, but likewise not the plot of "Charles Dexter Ward.")  Imagine, please, a version of The Haunted Palace that removes Lovecraft's namesWard, Curwen, Cthulhu (you'd need to replace the latter with "the Devil," but that could be trivially accomplished)and tell me if you would even guess that it's based on "Charles Dexter Ward."  Unless you identify (for example) Black Sunday as also based on "Charles Dexter Ward," I doubt it.  Some of this is just industrial reality: Corman wasn't making another Poe, but of course he was still going to make something that tremendously resembled one of his Poes, if it still starred Price, and was still shot by Floyd Crosby on Daniel Haller's ever-expanding Poe sets.  And hence a malign painting and the titular palace.  Which is fine, but all of the cool stuff about "Charles Dexter Ward" (resurrecting the dead only to torture them for their secrets; that twist) is surrendered in favor of a ghost story about, essentially, getting possessed by the spirit that lives in that painting, which had been metaphorical imagery for Lovecraft, and is magic and supremely important here.  The mutants of Innsmouth-Arkham are somewhat lamethis being down to some pancakey make-up, though the guy with no mouth would be silly no matter what.  There's also something underwhelming about a Necronomicon that has the word "Necronomicon" printed on it in Roman characters, though admittedly many such translations do exist in Lovecraft's legendarium.  On the plus side, the movie is much less casually racist.

Doing Lovecraft, calling it Poe, and then doing something more generic than either is perhaps the reason that Haunted Palace is my least-favorite of its "franchise" (that is to say, my least favorite while it was still under Corman), though there are others.  A small thing, but a fundamental thing, is that the Curwen abode takes on a less-interesting complexion than its predecessors: it's rotting and swallowed up with damp, clammy atmosphere, but something's missingCorman and Haller's other houses of Usher were living decay, sick and miserable in their degradation.  The Curwen palace is just dead.  The Wards have acquired a fixer-upper property that happens to have a mean ghost in it.  Haunted Palace has other goals, yes, but there it is.

Curwen is something of his own problem: in any given scene, he will have a completely new objective, so that, in one scene, he's busy fighting Ward for control of the body they share; the next he's plotting how to re-start his eldritch work alongside fellow necromancers Orne and Hutchinson (Milton Parsons); then he's running around Arkham burning his killers' descendants alive in a Vincent Price revenge slasher, a module that operates at such parallel lines to the rational pursuit of Curwen's other goals that Orne even calls him out about it in dialogue; and then he's, I suppose, horny, so he almost rapes Ann, and, being rebuffed, he spends a lot of time resurrecting Hester to perform the same services.  (Which somewhat undercuts the quality of this fake Poe that most resembles Poeor at least Corman Poebut we do get the sad widower digging up the casket of his long-lost love.)  You could almost appreciate Beaumont's deployment of so many different modes of evil as a kind of "complexity," but it comes off rather more like Curwen is a scatterbrain.

Happily, there are big compensations for the tottery story (and I probably overstate thatit isn't incoherent, just a little lumpy).  For one, it's edgy: even by 1963, it's slightly shocking that a movie premised on "Innsmouth's" concepts was allowed to pass the Code.  (Goodness, they advertised it with those concepts: "What was the hideous thing in the PIT that came to honor her?"  Ew!)  The Code office, curiously, was more exercised by the on-screen immolations.  Maybe it's the stateliness of Corman's filmmaking on his Gothics that allows it to gnaw at you more subliminallyit's much less exploitative than you might expect from Corman's later producer work (it's certainly no Humanoids From the Deep)and I wonder if the censors missed it.  A canny piece of editing might make that first scene read more like the villagers saved Curwen's intended victimbut they didn't, and in between cuts she was indeed ravished by a Deep One.  (Darlene Lucht, scream notwithstanding, even looks pleased about it, which is real good and gross.)  Likewise, Lovecraft's resurrected fiend still has the initials "J.C.," which is obviously more of a subversive implication in the book, but still kinda neat.*

And "good Lovecraft" or not, "good Corman Poe" or not, it's a perfectly well-crafted horror movie, and Corman, with these collaborators, wasn't going to make anything that wasn't effective.  (I believe it best to forget The Terror ever existed.)  Ron Stein's score is repetitive, but it's a solid accompaniment, a gloomy and doomy waltz.  Corman and Crosby go for something starker and, well, just plain darker in their photography, and they seemed to find their maximum here in terms of swathing frames in shadow and even actual sheets of black, though there's intelligent, subtle use of color throughout (particularly red), and very strong camera movement that tends to move the frame through a whole succession of unnerving angles.  More than just "dark" or "unnerving," it can actually be scary: there's a sequence where Chaney is shrouded in shadows, only for his face to emerge and Chaney to ask what's wrong in friendly, compassionate tones that almost conceal the underlying menace, that's legitimately frightening.  The make-up helpsthe cool, just-this-side-of-overdoing-it make-up they put on all the necromancers, but Chaney in particular, that sells him as a man who did die a hundred years ago.  Meanwhile, Paget gets the most to do of any of the Corman Poe heroines till Tomb of Ligeiawhich still isn't much, and she has a tendency to get locked in her room till the plot needs her again, yet in a movie prepared to go in that direction, Ann could be the "protagonist," with barely any script changes.

And of course there's Price, with a pretty great dual-role performance, allowing him to compartmentalize the "nice middle-aged man" and "basically Satan" sides of his persona and turn them into antagonists to one another, which is a fun exercise, abetted by Corman with keen, jumpy edits between the two states.  It's not top-tier Price, as it runs a little schematic, but it permits Curwen to be very straightforwardly (but never boringly) eeeevil, stained by very little of the human except in the purely negative sense, yet with Price usually putting a certain self-amused spin on it; so for all that Curwen is flailing around, and Curwen would probably have achieved everything he set out to if he'd had a day-planner and wasn't so obviously malevolent, Price at least casts the illusion of a master villain possessed of a great intellect and propelled by single-minded intensity.  It's upon this performance that Haunted Palace rests its nasty denouement, and it's fantastic.  The movie is not, but I've seen it three times and still get a small kick out of it, even if it is still dead-last on my personal Corman Poe leaderboards.

Score: 7/10

*There is, too, an idea that Beaumont puts in to explain the palace's existence, describing it as having been brought over "brick-by-brick" from the Old World.  If he came up with this, it's cool texture, though I believe Roderick says the same thing about his House of Usher; and I'm 99% sure it's in a third Lovecraft story that I just can't remember.

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