Joseph Curwen has no chance of escape. Lashed to a tree and surrounded on all sides by a baying mob of illiterate peasants, the stately master of the occult looks helpless, defeated, and vaguely preposterous with his frilly cravat and polished costume.
Then, he steels himself against the indignity and brazenly returns the gaze of his persecutors.
“Have you anything to say, warlock?”
Curwen trains his icy blue eyes on the crowd. “Yes. As surely as the village of Arkham has risen against me, so shall I rise—from the dead—against the village of Arkham!”
The camera then assumes Curwen’s perspective, rapidly panning as he singles out the leaders of the riot. He pauses on each guilty, quaking face and levels his malediction. “From this night onward, you shall bear my curse!”
A torch is cast on the straw at his feet. The flames rise. Curwen looks about him in shock and disbelief, as though he cannot fathom his powers failing him. His face contorts as he attempts to bear the agony of the consuming blaze, but cannot. Curwen rears his head back, and a reedy, bellowing cry escapes him, mingling with the distant crackle of thunder.
So begins the The Haunted Palace, my pick for the most unsettling of the Corman-Price collaborations. To address this head-on, the film, though presenting itself as an adaptation of Poe’s “The Haunted Palace” and also of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” doesn’t really fulfill either claim, on a narrative level, at least. Sure, it borrows the basic premise and a few tidbits of mythos from Lovecraft’s novella, but bulldozes the modernistic intricacy of the original.
Nevertheless, I relish the irony that this film, with its mutants and monstrous human-god couplings, is itself a misshapen hybrid, a cross-pollination of two American horror masters. Corman and screenwriter Charles Beaumont bred the cosmic weirdness of Lovecraft with the lusty revenge motifs of Poe to forge what I consider a truly disturbing movie. And Price’s virtuoso performance captures notes of the tormented conscience and the paranoid alienation that we tend to associate with Poe’s and Lovecraft’s antiheroes respectively. Not bad for a film shot in 15 days!
I think we can all agree that Vincent Price boosted the quality of basically every film he was ever in—and if you don’t agree, you shall bear my curse. He was the ultimate value-added actor, turning even the most threadbare of characters into tapestries of terror. However, for the film in question, his taxing role provided a perfect showcase for his considerable acting talents. As Roger Corman observed, “I think the concept of Vincent playing the dual role of Ward and Ward possessed was a challenge, but the kind of challenge an actor loves. It gives him the opportunity to work in a more complex way on camera.”
Price plays Joseph Curwen’s meek descendant Charles Dexter Ward who returns to Arkham to claim his ancestor’s palace. Despite the threats and protests of the village, Ward and his wife investigate the drafty mansion. Unsurprisingly, a haunted psychedelic portrait of Curwen soon gets hooks in Ward and, before long, the warlock is using Ward’s body to exact vengeance on the town and continue his attempts to mate the Old Ones with mortal women.
Foreshadowing his deadly earnest performance in Witchfinder General, Price wisely dialed down his camp sensibility to practically nothing for The Haunted Palace. I’m a huge fan of all things camp, but it does have a time and a place. In a Corman-Price picture, one might crave the comfort of wink-wink theatrics or the risible excess of some medieval debauchery. The absence of the cozy over-the-topness we expect makes The Haunted Palace doubly squirm-inducing.
If the audience wants ham, they’ll go hungry in this one. Even some exaggerated makeup design can’t defuse the chilling impact of Price’s serene wickedness. It’s the little things that make him so unnerving. The way he calmly pops a grape into his mouth as he connives to get his wife committed to an asylum. How he tosses a lit match onto an alcohol-soaked enemy without a twitch of sympathy. His sour wit as he lights ceremonial torches, cooing, “Well, I’ll admit the furnishings do leave something to be desired, but it has a lived-in quality, don’t you think? After all, home is where the heart is…” Curwen-as-Ward is no laughing matter.
As far as cinematic depictions of possession go, The Haunted Palace stands out as one of the most implacable and frightening ever captured on film, in my opinion. No projectile vomiting, no levitation, no special effects, merely a different entity taking up residence in someone else’s body. Whereas a great number of horror flicks focus on the consequences of possession, relatively few movies dwell on the process by which the physical being, mind, and soul of one decent man are progressively permeated and conquered by a force of darkness. I mean, The Shining portrayed this kind of transformation brilliantly, but was Jack Torrence ever a normal, lovable guy? I think not.
By contrast, Price’s Charles Dexter Ward immediately endears himself to the viewer. He is attentive and courtly towards his wife, polite to strangers, and, when the occasion calls for it, dryly humorous. The goody-two-shoes victims in classic horror movies tend to bore me to tears and have me rooting for evil in no time flat, but I appreciated how likable and initially unaware Price made his interpretation of Ward.
Several of the most important scenes in The Haunted Palace are essentially monologues—just Charles Dexter Ward standing in front of his ancestor’s portrait and gradually coming under its malign influence. There’s the occasional ghostly voice-over to raise the stakes, but these integral exchanges mostly consist of just one man standing alone in a room. Doesn’t sound particularly cinematic, does it? Yet, through Price’s eloquent pantomimes in these portrait soliloquies, we witness Curwen’s venom slowly digesting the mild, gentle Ward. I have a hard time imagining any other actor “selling” such a sustained transformation.
The first encounter with the portrait offers an introduction: Ward and his wife walk towards the lurid painting and one shot-reverse-shot exchange suggests Ward’s connection and resemblance to it.
When Ward next goes face-to-face with the eldritch portrait, we see Curwin’s spirit take root. Lighting his cigar, Ward glances at the painting. Then, in a closer shot, he stares up at the portrait with guileless blue eyes, but then winces, as a man might looking into a bright light or a heavy, hot wind.
We get a series of cuts back and forth from the painting and Ward, who tries to shield his eyes but can’t resist its lure. Ultimately, he looks straight at the portrait and his face ripples from within. The forehead seems to heighten, the eyes recede, and the mouth fixes itself into a line of immovable cunning. It’s like Barrymore’s famous no-cut transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—but in close-up. (In fact, it was that famous horror performance that stoked Vincent’s childhood interest in acting; he emulated Barrymore’s Hyde in front of his mirror for hours.) By moving a few muscles, Price alters his character’s identity. The audience sees the badness of Curwen enter and possess him.
The third portrait scene is brief—a single frightening shot, after Simon tells Ward to “ask Mr. Corwen” the answer to a question. We see a long shot of the portrait and the camera tracks back to show Ward’s head in the bottom of the frame, dwarfed by the surroundings. The sudden intrusion of his head disorients the viewer, so that when Ward whirls around, revealing Curwen’s pallid, pitiless face, we’re all the more alarmed. Curwen has installed himself in Ward.
The fourth major portrait scene stresses the triumph of supernatural sin over a normal, healthy mind. Under Curwen’s control, Ward cruelly tells his wife not to pry into his affairs. She runs off to bed and Ward, momentarily regaining his free will, calls back to her when a disembodied, resonant version of his own voice calls to him. The camera reframes to remind us of the painting’s presence. Ward turns towards it fearfully, but bravely calls out, “Leave me alone!”
Two progressively closer shots of the portrait emphasize Curwen’s hypnotic power as the voice protests that he and Ward are really one. Corman cuts back to a shot of Ward, cowering slightly, as the camera sweeps down in a crane shot like a falcon in the dive. Cut to the painting: “My will is too strong…” Cut to Ward, whose face shows no fear, no love, nothing but a stony resolution as Curwen’s voice completes, “Too strong for you.” Price finishing that sentence in a slightly deeper, firmer voice scares the hell out of me; nothing has changed, yet we’re looking at a totally different individual. Ward’s own body is enunciating the victory of something that Ward hates and fears. The invasion is almost complete.
There’s more spooky portrait soliloquy turmoil, but that gives you a taste of Price’s extraordinary task of making scenes like this—which could’ve been boring—into mortifying depictions of evil winning out over good. And you might be surprised by how much evil does win in this game.
Some of the most effective horror stories I’ve read—Blackwood’s “The Secret Listener” and Onions’s “The Beloved Fair One” come to mind—derive their menace from repetition. A normal fellow explores and describes a confined location over and over and over again, eventually succumbing to its monotonous spell.
On film, it’s damned difficult to pull off this sort of horror that grows by almost imperceptible increments until the sum total of everything not-quite-right overwhelms the viewer.
Of course, Corman still throws in a few drive-in shocks, like one of the townsfolk’s deformed progeny reaching its grotesque hands through a slot to receive a dinner of giblets. Still, he patiently let Curwen’s creeping evil unfold through variations on these portrait scenes.
Intimate and almost anti-cinematic, these gripping passages of time spent alone (but not really!) with our tortured protagonist make us wriggle as we notice how Ward emerges from each scene having imbibed more of Curwen into his nature. Corman thus approximates a “flavor” of fear that I usually associate with top-notch macabre literature.
The performance has the meticulous shadings that come from strategic pre-planning. Roger Corman remembered, “Vincent and I would discuss in depth the character before each picture… In fifteen days, to shoot what were fairly complicated films, there was no time to have deep discussions about character. We had to go and shoot!”
Price and Corman (left) rehearsing the movie’s opening sequence
The tug-of-war for the mind, body, and soul of Charles Dexter Ward, as conveyed by Price, elevates the film to the level of psychological horror. A key strength of Price’s dual characterization resides in his ability to react to the wickedness that overtakes him. The actor communicates Ward’s horror at the horror he’s becoming, as the good man pitifully struggles with the spirit that’s colonizing him.
Not only does Price bring two distinct personalities to life, but he also suggests the relationship between them—condescending domination on one side and appalled resistance on the other. He’s a one-man dialectic!
In addition to Price, the film features some stunning wide-angle cinematography, by Corman veteran Floyd Crosby, that glints like a star sapphire. It also boasts a sublime score by Ronald Stein that conveys the otherworldly sweep of the narrative. An ill, woebegone Lon Chaney is appropriately raspy and lends his considerable horror cred to the mix, but doesn’t get much to do.
Apart from Price, the standout performance is Debra Paget as Ann Ward, who reacts poignantly to her changed husband and displays admirable fortitude and courage for a horror movie wife. She loves the man she married as much as she is disgusted by the belittling, lascivious Curwen.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a delicate dance of eroticism and creepiness, Curwen-as-Ward tries to have his wicked way with her or, as he says, “exercise my husbandly prerogative.” All the great horror stars had a gift for suggesting both sexual attractiveness and repulsiveness and, if you watch this scene, you might conclude, as I did, that Price negotiated this balance most adroitly of all.
Be sure to unearth this underrated classic. I suspect that you too will fall under the spell of The Haunted Palace… though thankfully not to the extent of Charles Dexter Ward.
I did this post as part of the Vincent Price Blogathon, which also I hosted. I am honored by the amazing bloggers who participated, so be sure to check out their entries!