Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Haunted Palace (1963) [Hex Appeal, A Vengeful Witch Roundtable]

If there's one thing many of us fear, it's becoming like the generations before us. This takes many forms such as becoming "uncool", losing our ability to understand technology, our politics becoming frighteningly regressive, or maybe finding ourselves in a loveless marriage that will either end in divorce or both partners longing for the release of death.

And who can forget becoming possessed by the vengeful spirit of our warlock great-great-grandfather who used to summon elder gods?

You may be a might bit confused as to how elder gods fit in to a movie ostensibly based on Edgar Allan Poe. That particular trope wasn't really one of Poe's trademarks--but it was a trademark for one H.P. Lovecraft. However, at least in the early 1960s, it seems that H.P. Lovecraft's name just did not have the cachet that Edgar Allan Poe's did. Frankly, I'd argue that's still true today: name me a middle school English class where students have to read "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Colour Out Of Space" and I'll eat my hat.

Not only that but, in 1963, schlockmeister Roger Corman was enjoying great success with his cycle of films based on Poe's stories. If you're familiar with any of the stories and poems Corman chose to adapt, you're aware that many did not have much of a story to begin with. The Masque of The Red Death is showing stretch marks even with additional Poe stories added into it.

So Corman can definitely be forgiven for deciding to take an appealing title from an Edgar Allan Poe poem, have Vincent Price recite a few lines from it here and there, and then base the bulk of it on H.P. Lovecraft's "The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward."

The film's opening credits play over footage of a spider building its web, before a Monarch butterfly lands in the web and the spider sets upon it. I have to conclude that the scene of ants devouring a Monarch in Crimson Peak was at least partly inspired by this, given the definite attempts to capture the essence of a Corman Poe film.

We open in the port village of Arkham, on a suitably stormy night in the 18th Century. At the local pub, Ezra Weeden (Leo Gordon) is restless, despite Micah Smith's (Elisha Cook, Jr.) assurances that nothing is going to happen on a night like this. Well, Ezra is not convinced and he turns out to be in the right, for he catches sight of Miss Fitch (Darlene Lucht), a young woman from the town, walking through the darkened streets in a fugue state. Ezra gets Micah to accompany him as they follow the girl through a cemetery to the gates of the Curwen palace. Micah, previously skeptical, agrees with Ezra now that the palace is the home of Satan himself and they hurry back to town to form a lynch mob.

If that's what they do when merely seeing a girl walking up to the house, imagine if they'd seen inside. Hester Tillinghast (Cathie Merchant) presents the girl to her master and lover, Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price). The two then lead her down to a dungeon, where she is tied up before a huge grate. Curwen chants a rite in Latin and then lifts the grate to reveal an unseen creature that growls as poor Miss Fitch screams in terror at the sight of it.

"She's fine, I assure you. 'Aaaaaaugh!' is just our safe word."
Yet when the mob arrives, Hester and Curwen happily answer the door and present a seemingly unharmed Miss Fitch. She happily tells the mob that she came to visit Curwen and Hester of her own free will. However, Ezra asks the girl what her name is--and she cannot answer. So that's all the proof the mob needs and Curwen finds himself tied to a tree in his front yard, a pile of dry straw soaked in oil at his feet. Ezra begs Hester be spared because she was bewitched, but since he clearly desires her for himself he might not actually know what he's talking about.

As is typical of this kind of story, the townsfolk allow Curwen a chance to confess his sins and beg for mercy. Curwen uses that opportunity, instead, to curse the town of Arkham so that for generations to come the families of Ezra Weeden, Micah Smith, Benjamin West (John Dierkes), Priam Willet (Frank Maxwell), and Gideon Leach (Guy Wilkerson) will suffer for the insolence of turning against Curwen. Worse, Curwen swears that he shall one day return from the dead. Well, he has to be dead first, so Ezra goes ahead and takes care of that for him by tossing the first torch on the pyre.

"Killing me won't bring back your damned apples!"
One hundred and ten years later, Arkham has indeed languished in the shadow of the Curwen palace. So the townsfolk are not going to be thrilled to discover that Charles Dexter Ward (also Price), the great-grea-grandson of Joseph Curwen has just arrived with his wife Ann Ward (Debra Paget) to claim his inheritance of the Curwen place. The carriage drops them off at the local tavern, The Burning Man. Ann remarks that the name is quaint, but Charles seems oddly discomforted by it. Perhaps he's afraid the patrons will be white people in dreadlocks and feather headdresses.

"All right, dear, but you know how I feel about hipsters."
Well, he needn't have worried on that score. However, he does find that an uncanny resemblance to previous generations is widespread in Arkham as he makes the acquaintance of Peter Smith (Cook, again), Edgar Weeden (Gordon, again), and Mr. Leach (Wilkerson, again), The group are outwardly hostile to Charles, having recognized him on sight, and refuse to tell him the way to the Curwen place. Weeden explains that the palace was brought over stone-by-stone from Europe, and evil was a part of its very fabric. Leach tells them to tear up the deed to the place and never look back. Only Dr. Marinus Willet (Maxwell, again) defies the others on account of his rejection of superstition and directs them on how to find the palace on the cliff overlooking the sea and the town.

Yes, they probably should have been able to figure that out on their own once they knew they were looking for a palace, but just you never mind that. Dr. Willet invites them to visit him some time, but Charles informs him that they won't be staying in Arkahm once they've had a look at the palace--the welcome they received was quite enough for him. Ann is somewhat more willing to stay, but she is happy to go along with Charles if that's his decision.

On their way to the place, the Wards happen upon a woman leading her daughter along--and witness that the young girl has no eyes. Indeed, we shall soon see that deformities, birth defects, and madness afflict many of the people of Arkham. Peter Smith has webbed fingers on one hand, and Edgar Weeden has a bestial son that he keeps locked in an upstairs room--and the boy becomes increasingly riled up after the Wards' arrival.

At the palace, which the Wards have been told was uninhabited, they make a series of bizarre discoveries. First, that the painting of Joseph Curwen looks identical to Charles. Second, that a secretary desk has a harmless snake inside it, which startles Ann so Charles kills it with a handy blunt instrument. (The death blow thankfully happens just out of frame, so I feel certain the snake was actually unharmed) Third, Charles senses that a certain passage in the palace leads to noewhere, despite having no way of knowing that. And finally, the two make the shocking acquaintance of a man named Simon Orne (Lon Chaney, Jr.) in the upstairs bedroom.

"Why yes, you did see me walking with the Queen."
Simon explains that he is the caretaker and was trying to tidy up the place before they arrived. He claims that he received word from their lawyer, but that doesn't explain why he was cleaning up in the dark. Simon shrugs it off as people who live around Arkham just get used to the dark. He also advises that supper will be served at eight, and Ann is surprised that Charles now wants to stay. He assures her it's just for the night, at least.

However, as Charles smokes downstairs by the fireplace that night, something comes over him as he stares at the painting of his great-great-grandfather. As Charles's face turns cruel, Simon watches knowingly from the shadows. The next day, Ann finishes packing--only for Charles to tell her that he has decided that they shall stay, just long enough to fix the place up. He claims that about two to three weeks of work should make it far more attractive to a potential buyer and it will fetch a high price.

Ann senses something about Charles is off, especially when he snaps that she can go home when she casually mentions not being happy about staying. However, it passes and he seems to return to his noraml self. However, as the two attempt to go shopping for supplies in town, they find most of the shops locked--and then they are suddenly surrounded by the town's deformed citizens. Several are missing eyes or ears, and they have distorted faces and limbs. They crowd the Wards in tight--until the bell tolls, and they turn just as suddenly and disperse. From a nearby window, Edgar and Peter have been watching this unfold.

"Give to The Human Fund!"
The Wards have Dr. Willet over for dinner that night, and he helpfully explains a few things. One, the people that accosted them are all the mutants in town, which Willet is sure Edgar gathered together in one place to scare the Wards off. He explains that the townsfolk want the Wards gone because Arkham is haunted by the guilt and terror of a single night. One hundred and fifty years ago, Willet explains, Joseph Curwen moved to Arkham and built the palace. His wife, unfortunately, died in childbirth so he took Hester to be his mistress. Except Hester was engaged to Ezra, which meant that Ezra had it in for Curwen.

So wasn't it convenient then, that strange things had been happening in Arkham ever since Curwen arrived. Horrible noises in the night and young girls disappearing at night, only to return in the morning with no memory of where they'd been, Ezra contrived to place the blame on Curwen's doorstep, convincing the townsfolk that Curwen was a warlock. "One who raises the dead," Willet explains when Ann is ignorant of the term. Actually, that's a necromancer, doc. Willet explains that Curwen was burned alive one night and placed a curse on the village.

Charles scoffs, as surely every witch or warlock killed in America left a curse behind. Why should his ancestor's curse be taken so seriously? Well, not every witch or warlock killed in America was thought to have gotten their hands on the Necronomicon, now were they? Willet explains that the Necronomicon was though to hold the key to absolute power--and a means to summon the Elder Gods. Gods like Cthtulhu and Yog-Sothoth.

And, to my unending amusement, Frank Maxwell pronounces Cthulhu as "Thoo-Loo" instead of the more commonly accepted "Ka-Thoo-Loo."

At any rate, the Arkham townsfolk believed Curwen was conspiring with two other warlocks to open the gates that bar the Elder Gods from this world by mating them with human women. That's their explanation for all the mutants: failed experiments. To the Wards' alarm, Dr. Willet doesn't have an explanation of his own--but he tells them to flee Arkham before the townsfolk decide to destroy him.

They're just jealous of that sweet matte painting.
That night, a thunderstorm rolls in and Charles is awakened by the storm and then, oddly, the sound of voices. He follows the voices out to the front yard, to the tree where Curwen was burned as they scream out, "Kill the warlock!" Simon startles him by appearing to offer him a coat. When Simon tells Charles he didn't hear any voices, he oddly follows that up by telling Charles he ought to ask Mr. Curwen about it. Well, Charles oddly follows this advice--and one look at the painting is enough to put Curwen in the driver's seat.

He asks Simon how long it's been and is told one hundred and ten years. He is delighted to discover the body he's possessing is his great-great-grandson, and further delighted to see his other companion, Jabez Hutchinson (Milton Parsons) has joined them, Yep, Simon and Jabez are the other two warlocks Willet spoke of, who both look amazing for their age. The reunion is brief, though, because Charles is fighting for control. Curwen implores Simon to keep Charles in the palace a little longer so he can take full control. He then asks for the book, and to my delight it turns out that the Necronomicon is an embossed leather-bound tome that is labeled "Necronomicon" on its face.

"You'll never guess what I found at the flea market!"
Curwen orders the others to leave him just in time, as Ann comes down to find her husband. He has no idea why he came downstairs and he responds to her plea that they leave by saying he'd like to, but can't. When she begs him to explain why he can't leave, a flash of lightning is bizarrely followed  by the film cutting to Curwen digging up the grave of Hester. Skipping out on a scene before it's actually done is one way to advance the plot, sure.

At the Burning Man, the descendants of the mob that killed Curwen are arguing about what to do. Willet dismisses them all as superstitious fools. Of course, he's not aware that Curwen is currently bringing Hester's coffin into his palace with the help of Jabez and Simon. Ann catches him alone after the others have gone through the secret passage to the dungeon and she demands to know why he's acting so strange and begs him to leave with her for Boston. He snaps at her, but after she pleads with him to at least go see Dr. Willet, he replies that he will pay the doctor a special visit within the week. After Ann leaves, momentarily satisfied but still obviously hurt, Charles breaks through. Unfortunately, his freedom is short-lived and as the voice of the painting calls to him, Curwen takes control again.

Realizing that Ann was spying on him, Curwen orders her to leave for Boston tomorrow and then chases her off to bed so he can return to his late night sorcery. In the secret dungeon, Curwen helps his companions open the coffin of Hester. Meanwhile, Ann wakes up again and wanders the palace in search of Charles. This means she runs afoul of a few rats and a tarantula--as you would expect in a New England castle--before encountering Simon lurking in the shadows. She faints in his arms and Simon takes her back up to her room and locks her in before returning to the dungeon as Curwen recites the spell to reanimate Hester. Well, it works for a moment, but as Simon advises Curwen, it's just been too long.

"Nonsense, a little rubber cement and she'll be good as new!"

The effort to unsuccessfully revive his lost love has the effect of allowing Charles to regain control, He goes back to his room, confused as to what has been going on. He declares that he and Ann shall leave the following morning. Unfortunately, Simon is crafty and delays Charles from leaving just long enough for him to be forced to look at the painting again. So when Willet pulls up and Ann tells him they were just leaving, she's mistaken. Still, Willet tells her that he had come to warn them that they ought to be leaving--seems someone dug up old Hester's grave and stole the body. And the townsfolk believe Charles is responsible.

"Charles" comes out and claims that it was Weeden and his friends who dug up the grave to try and drive him away. To Ann's horror, he tells Willet that he is not leaving and he can tell the townsfolk that. After Curwen returns to the castle, Ann confides to Willet about what's been happening. He just assumes it to be psychological, but inside Curwen is telling Jabez and Simon that he has control and "Charles Dexter Ward is dead." To their consternation, however, Curwen doesn't want to get started on the work just yet. Simon begs him to forget it, but Curwen refuses to forgive the slight of being burned alive.

Oh, no. Before he starts raising Elder Gods again, Curwen has one hundred and ten years of revenge to catch up on...

"Wait'll they get a load of me!"
I have to say that I have never actually read the short story upon which this film is based. Lovecraft is published in so many different varieties of collections that getting a truly complete collection seemed impossible back when I actually gave a shit about trying to read most of his work. So this was one of the stories I never got around to.

So I came to this film with no expectations of what it would deliver on beyond what I knew to expect of a Vincent Price performance and a Roger Corman film. As such, I find this film delightful.

The atmosphere of the film, for one thing, is marvelous. You'll never for a minute believe it's taking place anywhere but on a set, but that actually adds to its appeal. The cemetery set, for instance, looks like something from a German Expressionist film. Everything outdoors is perpetually smoky to indicate fog. And the matte paintings, while obvious, are exquisitely done.

The only time the film's artificial nature works against it is in the rendering of what's in the pit of Curwen's dungeon. The strength of Lovecraft's Elder Gods and other beasts lies in the inability to describe them. Therefore, a film version of Lovecraft would do well to not show its monsters at all. The Haunted Palace does not learn that lesson, and the way it goes about showing an Elder God is truly, hilariously risible. The creature is blatantly a plastic statue of what appears to be a four-armed goblin with a hasty distortion filter placed over it. If you were to go mad at the sight of this creature, it would be from laughter.

"Grr! Rargh! Stop laughing!"
The monster, however, deserves to be an afterthought. The true monster of the film is Curwen, and holy crap is Vincent Price more than up to the challenge. Not only does Price do a wonderful job of creating the character of Curwen, he does an amazing job creating the character of Charles as well. You can tell immediately when he switches between the two personas. And he makes it effortless, too. It doesn't hurt that he gets some wonderful dialogue in both personalities,

Corman knows what he's doing in the director's chair, too. Apart from a few abrupt transitions, the film builds wonderfully to its climax of a beautiful woman being offered as sacrifice to a monster, as an unruly mob marches on the castle. And it wisely ends on a note that leaves you not quite sure of who actually survived the fire that destroys the castle--though you have a pretty good idea just the same,

The Haunted Palace is not exactly a lost classic. Apart from the silly monster, it also features a score that--while quite good--is incredibly repetitive. Yet, it doesn't have a single performance that doesn't fit the film's aesthetic. Price may be the film's strongest point, but everyone in the cast handles their roles well. And there's no question that it's damn entertaining.

I highly recommend The Haunted Palace. It sometimes gets forgotten amongst the rest of Corman's Poe films, but it is every bit as good as the rest and better than several--which is high praise, indeed.

The Celluloid Zeroes are delighted to present Hex Appeal! We all took a look at a movie about vengeful witches, and several of us completely forgot the witch part! (I chose a vengeful warlock, so I was in the right ballpark)

Check out the other reviews:

Checkpoint Telstar enlists the aid of The Witchfinder General

Cinemasochist Apocalypse dabbles in Black Magic

Las Peliculas de Terror got a bad case of Asmodexia

Micro-Brewed Reviews takes part in some Midnight Offerings

Psychoplasmics reminds you, Don't Torture a Duckling

Web of the Big Damn Spider joins up with Ator, The Fighting Eagle