The Haunted Palace (1963) USA / 87 min / Horror / Color
From the pit came a horror of unknown origins, which would lead to a curse on the New England town of Arkham. Based on Lovecraft’s ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’, starring Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Jr., and directed by Roger Corman, The Haunted Palace derives its title from an Edgar Allan Poe poem. Notably the credits purposely misspell Poe’s middle name “Allan” to “Allen”. The studio American International Pictures forced Corman into changing the film’s original title “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” to connect it to Corman’s Poe films of previous success.
On one stormy dark foggy night in Arkham, New England 1765, a patron at a tavern oversees a girl from the town walking the street alone. Already suspicious, he calls to another and they follow her as she walks through a graveyard. Eventually she reaches a palace with large doors at which she knocks as the two men watch from afar by a tree. The one man calls the palace, which overlooks the town, “the home of Satan himself”. Once inside, Hester (Cathie Merchant) a seductive woman in a black dress removes the girl’s red cover as Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price), introduced with a musical motif sending fright into the atmosphere, observes over the proceedings. They lead the girl into a hidden door by the fireplace, down long hallways and through another door which leads them down into a large room with a raised altar in the center. Standing on the altar, Hester attaches both of the girls wrist to separate points leaving her helpless. As Curwen chants spells the townspeople light torches outside. Curwen raises a large grate in front of the girl where a green mist escapes. As the girl looks down she screams as the townspeople reach the large front doors.
The townspeople demand the door to be open, whereby it is by Curwen and Hester. They demand to see the girl, which Curwen insists she visits regularly, as she appears trance like answering “Yes” to both Curwen’s questions. The original tavern patron asks the girl her name. When the girl doesn’t respond with her name the tavern patron incites the mob to burn Curwen for his black magic sending him back to hell. As the townspeople take Curwen to the tree, the tavern patron stops them from taking Hester telling them she’s only been hexed, telling her that once Curwen is gone everything will be right with them again. She pushes him away and walks off. Curwen uses his last words to curse the town claiming his revenge by rising up against the town of Arkham just like the town of Arkham rose up against him. He calls five of the men’s names out and curses their children’s children for the night’s deeds, as one shouts “Burn the Devil.” The man holding the torches just stands and stares, leading to the man who spoke to speak again grabbing the torch himself and tossing it onto the ground, lighting Curwen on fire.
One hundred and ten years later in Arkham, Charles Dexter Ward arrives by coach with his wife Ann (Debra Paget). The driver tell them that the town of “Arkham is an evil place, the village is cursed!” They dismiss his warning as only superstitions. Ward tells him before departing that they “don’t happen to believe in the supernatural” and that Ward thinks the driver doesn’t either. They depart into the town, Ann comments on the quaint nature of the local tavern being named “Burning Man”, which Ward repeats in an almost emotionless response as they enter the tavern to cold stares from the villagers. The Ward’s are looking for a house they have inherited from the Curwen family and at the mention of the name the barkeep immediately knows of no house by that name. As they are leaving the bar, they are stopped and asked questions by an unfriendly local who claims to know of the house but refuses to inform them of its whereabouts. Charles Ward responds saying “That’s what I like about you New Englanders, you’re so friendly.” Again another man attempts to dissuade the Ward’s from continuing on. Charles Ward asks what they suggest he do with the deed to the palace that he has inherited, “Just tear it up?!” “Yes.” responds the man which leads to the Wards leaving but not before another man says “Mr. Ward.” Dressed in a black suit, Doctor Willet (Frank Maxwell) approaches saying “Take the road out of town about a quarter of a mile. At the post road turn left past the cemetery. You shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding it. Here I’ll show you”
The Wards depart for the palace as the townspeople discuss Joseph Curwen’s return to Arkham, although the doctor dismisses it as hereditary resemblance only. As the Wards walk down a street, to their fright they pass a mother and her daughter. The daughter has no eyes only layers of skin over them instead. Eventually they reach the palace, Ward unlocks the large bolts on the front doors and enters into the dark hallways of cobwebs and furniture draped in white cloth. Ann notices a painting over the fireplace and exclaims “Charles, it’s you! It’s absolutely fantastic.” Later Ann touches a stove door that crashes down revealing the inhabitants of a snake sending her backwards in fright. Charles kills the snake immediately, then leads her out of the room but stops saying “Wait that doesn’t lead anywhere. This way.” Ann asks ‘How would you know that?” Ward dismisses it as a guess only and then leads Ann to a dark bedroom. Where he opens a curtain for light revealing Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.) the caretaker. Simon convinces Mr. Ward to stay as it is Mr. Ward’s place now and there really isn’t anywhere else for them to stay. Simon informs the Wards that dinner will be served at 8 o’clock and then he departs.
The rude tavern patron Weeden is at home when something starts making growling noises from behind a door. He asks if it’s food it wants after telling it to be quiet multiple times. He kneels down opening a small door revealing small prison bars for a window as a deformed grey hand suddenly snatches ahold of him. He struggles at first unable to get away. He uses a candle to burn it, which causes it to release its grip. He locks the door back as a lady runs into the room asking “What’s wrong with him tonight?” “Not him woman, it!” he snaps back “It knows who has come back to Arkham.”
Back at the palace Simon observes Charles Ward starring at the painting of Joseph Curwen which seems to be having some sort of affect on him. The next morning Ann is packed and ready to leave only she finds Charles in a different mood not wanting to leave until repairs have been made fixing the palace up. Ann isn’t happy about the news and Charles informs her to leave then, to which he almost immediately apologizes saying he just can’t leave yet until he finds out some things. The Wards reenter the town but after they find the tavern door locked, they slowly become surrounded by the deformed townsfolk until the church bell rings causing the small circle of people to disperse leaving the Wards alone. Later the Wards have dinner with Doctor Willet, who informs them of the reasoning for the deformities of the towns people and who orchestrated the event from earlier in town. Willet explains the history of the palace and the curse that resides over the town of Arkham due to the burning of Joseph Curwen. The doctor suggests to the Wards that they pack their belongings and leave. Only that night as Ann sleeps, Charles hears voices which lead him outside to the tree where Curwen was burned. At which point Simon finds him and suggests asking Joseph Curwen for the answers.
Once again looking at the painting Joseph Curwen takes control over Charles Dexter Ward. Simon acknowledges Curwen and reunites him with another old associate Jabez (Milton Parsons). Curwen pleased to be back utilizing the body of his great great grandson, warns them he only has limited control over Ward as for now. Curwen with the Necronomicon asks to be let alone as Ward fights him from within. Ann discovers Charles somewhat back to normal but later he is out digging with Simon and Jabez retrieving a casket. Ann noticing the severe change in Charles becomes concerned but attempts remaining obedient to him although the townsfolk have now accused him of digging up the remains of Hester Tillinghast and the killing of Gideon Leach. Pitting Ann and Doctor Willet in the middle between Curwen, his associates and the people of Arkham who have gathered again like their ancestors to rid the world of Joseph Curwin.
The Haunted Palace was the first major motion picture to introduce cinema-goers to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, his creations the Necronomicon, the Elder Gods, the Dark Ones from beyond (who had once ruled the world), Cthulhu, and Yog-Sothoth. Produced by American International Pictures on a low-budget, the front palace set and underground dungeon set would be used again in another AIP “The Terror” which was shot piecemeal with use of other film productions as well. Originally horror icon Boris Karloff was intended to play the roles of Curwen and Ward, however, he was too ill at the time to take the role, which would lead to the only onscreen paring of Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Jr., as Price only did the voice as the Invisible Man in Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, which starred Chaney as the Wolfman. Eerie from the start, the mood creeps along through the foggy locales revealing the horrors that reside in the darkness as Vincent Price delivers subtle humour between the haunts. I give it a 2 out of 5 for a rating of Good.
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh-but smile no more.
…Edgar Allan Poe