Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
Just over a week ago, Scott Wampler wrote a nice article about Lovecraft’s history on the silver screen, and his recantation of the history of The Haunted Palace, a 1963 film by Roger Corman, made me realize that not reviewing it in this series would be a glaring omission. In short: it is the first Lovecraft adaptation, although the studio made Corman sell it as an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation (hence the title). However, despite the dressing up in false authorial clothing, The Haunted Palace might be the best-made movie I have reviewed for this series so far…or most of it, anyway.
Based on Lovecraft’s longest work, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Haunted Palace begins with the murder by incineration of Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price), the village warlock of Arkham, Massachusetts. He casts a curse on his murderers, who are all villagers, and their descendants. Fast forward a century, and we see Curwen’s ancestor, the eponymous Ward (Price again), arrive in town to manage his inheritance: Curwen’s mansion wherein his evil deeds were done. Accompanying him is his wife, Ann Ward (Debra Paget). The two immediately face hostility from the villagers, who recognize Ward due to his uncanny resemblance to his great great grandfather. Ward, unfortunately, finds himself in an awkward situation when Curwen keeps possessing him in order to complete a ritual he started all those years ago that would bring terrible beasts into our world.
This adaptation is not perfectly faithful to the original story, and in fact it’s much more of a 1960s horror flick than it is a Lovecraft movie. But you know what? That’s okay. There are strains of Lovecraft here—ones that actually give you the sense that someone working on the film knew a little bit about the author—and they are used to tell an effective, fun, and creepy story with the great Vincent Price blessing us with two performances in one movie.
In terms of production quality alone, this movie is superior to everything else I’ve reviewed in this series, bar maybe In the Mouth of Madness (see link above). That alone makes it better than most movies on the list because it’s not a chore to watch. When you have (I think painted?) sets that invoke the atmosphere of Lovecraft’s tales mixed with great shot composition, solid performances, and a well-paced script all working together, you get a film that actually works. The Haunted Palace isn’t a great Lovecraft movie, but it’s a good movie, which sadly makes it better than almost any other adaptation.
I should clarify why I am being so forgiving of the lack of Lovecraft in The Haunted Palace, whereas I have railed on Stuart Gordon for his reduction of the author’s tales to misogynistic schlock-fests. First of all, there’s the fact that Lovecraft was barely known to the wider public in 1963; second, Corman had made Poe movies, and the studio wanted him to sell that point, even though he was interested in Lovecraft. Hell, they made him change the title and mask most influence in favor of selling the Poe angle. Thus, it’s understandable that Lovecraftian philosophy does not permeate every scene in this movie, and while Corman certainly filters the story through the lens of 60s horror, there were other factors working against a direct adaptation. He at least captures some semblance of the tone that the now well-known creator of the Cthulhu Mythos utilized.
Gordon, on the other hand, plasters Lovecraft all over his films as a selling point and claims to be some huge fan, while making the horror nonexistent, the camp high, and the excitement rooted in the rape of women. See the difference? The Haunted Palace at least has Lovecraftian strains—at one point, Curwen reflects that he is not in power (despite being the antagonist), but merely serves powers he does not fully understand. Gordon flicks have the name “Lovecraft” thrown into title cards, some monsters and references added into a few scenes, and the style of Lovecraft buried in a ditch far, far away.
That being said, The Haunted Palace is far from perfect. Ann, Charles’s wife, is a by-lined damsel in distress. Her character is sexually assaulted by her possessed husband; admittedly this is not as bad as similar scenes in Gordon films, but it’s still hard to watch. There could have been some good social commentary here, as Curwen repeatedly says he is going to exhibit his “husbandly rights” and then kisses Ann without her consent. These scenes are clearly meant to be problematic, and the commentary could have been interesting if Ann were developed beyond the point of “concerned wife.” The ideas at least seem less malicious than the wanton misogyny of analogous scenes in Re-Animator and From Beyond, but they still are problematic due to their purpose; they flesh out the male characters rather than Ann.
Beyond that issue, which is sadly not exclusive to The Haunted Palace but perhaps more representative of the style it comes from, this movie falls apart in its last minute. The first 86 minutes of this movie are great, and then the last minute takes all of the resolutions and pieces that it has carefully set and throws a cheap-thrill-bomb in the middle just to have one last little twist that makes no sense whatsoever.
Seriously, Corman gets so close to a perfectly sound horror flick, and then ruins everything he has worked toward. Follow that up with the horrendously pointless reading of a stanza from “The Haunted Palace,” a poem by Poe, while the camera freezes on Price’s face, and you have the biggest mood and tension killer since…well, I can’t rightly compare it to the atmosphere destroying scenes of the other movies I’ve reviewed for this series, but it’s pretty bad.
The Haunted Palace is flawed, but it’s still a really solid movie that my friends and I enjoyed watching, which is more than I can say about almost all of the other Lovecraft adaptations that I’ve reviewed. The Lovecraft strains are few, but they tap into the ideas of the original stories more than the “indie” movies that think Lovecraft’s horror succeeds because it has monsters that go “BOO!” I find it distressing that the best of the bunch is the first movie to be made; Lovecraft fans deserve more. However, when we accept low quality works, we can only expect to get more. We need another Haunted Palace; ideally, we could get something even better, but at this point, I’m willing to settle.