29 October 2011

VAST FORMS, THAT MOVE FANTASTICALLY TO A DISCORDANT MELODY

"The Haunted Palace" is a great little poem, one of Edgar Allan Poe's all-time best pieces of verse. Emphasis on little. It's all of six stanzas long, a total of 48 lines, and its single function is to describe the atmosphere clinging to a palace in a luxuriant valley that was once, generations ago, a beautiful and vibrant place, and which is now the ruined, evil home of the ghosts of those who once celebrated there.

It's just about as ill-suited to be made into a film as anything Poe ever wrote, and yet that didn't stop American International from making The Haunted Palace the sixth film in their Poe cycle. Though calling it a Poe film is a bit obtuse, really, for it's not actually an adaptation of "The Haunted Palace" at all, other than the appearance of a few lines from the poem's last stanza. It is, in fact, an extremely loose version of the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the longest piece of fiction ever written by H.P. Lovecraft, one of Poe's foremost literary heirs; though the later author is more concerned with cosmic terrors than with the intimate chamber horror typical of Poe's work, they are two of American fiction's best creators of thick, dark, foreboding atmosphere. Roger Corman had initially conceived of Charles Dexter Ward as a palate cleanser in-between Poe films, and given the amount of success he'd been having of late, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson gave him a good bit of slack, though in the end, somebody blinks; Corman has said it was the producers, Nicholson indicated it was Corman, eventually the film was reverse-engineered into the Poe series with the application of a half-dozen lines recited by Vincent Price, plus the poem's title, which itself was justified by removing the action from a routine Massachusetts home to a giant, gloomy Gothic castle of a sort found intermittently in Poe's writings and absolutely never in Lovecraft's.

The film opens in the 18th Century, where warlock Joseph Curwen (Price) is dragged from his not-yet-haunted but clearly disreputable palace on the edges of Arkham, Massachusetts, by the local townsfolk, chief among them being Ezra Weeden (Leo Gordon), Micah Smith (grand master character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.), and Jacob West (John Dierkies). Curwen is tied to a tree and lit on fire for his alleged role in the disappearance of young girls from Arkham, and in his ungodly defiance, he spits a curse at his captors, promising to return from the dead to wreak his revenge on their descendants. From that moment on, Arkham is a dismal place full of a far higher than usual rate of birth defects, and that explains the ice-cold reception offered 110 years later to the affable Bostonian Charles Dexter Ward and his wife Ann (Debra Paget) - he's Curwen's great-grandson, and the spitting image of the old man, and when he announces a bit too proudly that he's just come into his inheritance of the old Curwen place, it doesn't do much to make him popular with the locals, other than Dr. Marinus Willet (Frank Maxwell), who is a solid, scientific, totally unsuperstitious kind of man, despite being descended from another one of Curwen's attackers.

The Curwen palace is a giant Gothic horror all its own, equipped with a soft-spoken but deeply foreboding, pallid housekeeper, Simon Orne (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and boasting right in the middle of the main room where you can't possibly ignore it a giant portrait of Curwen done in a style not at all likely for the 18th Century; it wouldn't be too much to call it proto-Expressionist, a violent slashing thing of angry blue brushstrokes culminating in the dead warlock's eyes, so piercing and evil and bright that they almost pop right off the canvass. For want of anything else do before returning to Boston, the Wards sleep in the nasty place, and this turns out to have been the worst idea ever: something happens to Charles in that place that drives him to want to stay, in despite of Ann's increasingly urgent requests to the contrary; he becomes obsessed with the painting, starts to hear it speaking to him in his own voice, and as the days drag on, he starts acting less and less like his pleasant self and more snappish and wicked, seeming to frankly enjoy the distress that Ann seems to suffering as a result of his changes.

So plainly, we have here a case of intermittent demonic possession by one's evil, magical forebear out to kill the descendants of his executioners and to complete whatever nefarious deed he was working on all those years before; Willet, in his dismissive scientific way, has no truck at all with the stories of the Elder Ones, dead gods from before the rise of humans, and of the dread Necronomicon, a book of the evil mysteries required to bring the Elder Ones back to life, but he's entirely willing to tell the far-more-believing Wards about it, though it does no good other than to make the full scope of the deep shit they're about to be in quite apparent.

All in all, this is just barely close enough to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward that we can't accuse screenwriter Charles Beaumont of inventing things the way he did in Premature Burial or the way Richard Matheson did in most of his Poe movies, and that probably has a lot to do with how much more narrative there typically is in a Lovecraft story than Poe story. Even so, this is pretty far away from the source material: setting aside incidentals like the age of the characters, the presence of Ann Ward, and the time period, the book is far more of a science fiction tale, with none of the possession or black magic seen in the movie. I am frankly not that exercised about it: though no reader has ever probably disliked the novel as much as Lovecraft himself, who refused to permit its publication during his life, but I also doubt very many people consider it to be top-tier Lovecraft. Frankly, the changes made end in a movie that's a lot more effective in the creepy horror department than the book ever was, and they're all of a sufficiently Gothic bent to situate the film fairly, if not exactly comfortably, within the aesthetic and tonality of the Poe films (there are just a few Lovecraft stories you could rightly call "Gothic" and Charles Dexter Ward certainly isn't one of them).

Ironically, this might even be my favorite of the "Poe" films; it is very possible that it has the most rich and creepy atmosphere of any of them, and it is almost certainly the most tightly controlled, aesthetically, outside of perhaps Pit and the Pendulum. I am tempted to speculate that Corman's brief foray into Gothic comedy with The Raven recharged his batteries and got him eager to do a straight Gothic horror again (it is known, at any rate, that he passed on The Comedy of Terrors to make The Haunted Palace), but something must have happened, at any rate, for The Haunted Palace looks absolutely gorgeous: it is perhaps the apex of Corman's skill for reworking AIP's standing Gothic sets (along with essential cinematographer Floyd Crosby - his last film in the series, alas! - and production designer Daniel Haller) to get the maximum possible bang for his buck. This film simply looks different, less showy and more strained: the color palette has been reduced to only earth tones, sickly blues, and red. So much red. Red used in the most cunning possible way; sometimes just a single candle in this shot, sometimes the florid dressing gown that Price wears, always reminding us of the death and blood and danger underlying all of this.

For this is a dangerous film; it takes its horror more seriously than any Poe film preceding it, except for maybe House of Usher. That has a lot to do with Price's fantastic performance - prior to this, it's almost impossible to believe, but he'd never played a for-real bad guy in any of these movies. But now, whew! His Curwen is one of his all-time great villains, delighted by his own evil but not grandiose about it; he is sharklike and vicious and pointedly cruel in the pain he inflicts. And the contrast with the sweet-natured Charles Dexter Ward just makes the characterisation that much sharper.

There are flaws, as there usually must be. In particular, I find composer Ronald Stein to be an unfortunate replacement for Les Baxter, for although his score is certainly moody and florid and atmospheric, I find that it's also very pushy. And Debra Paget has absolutely nothing resembling enough to do. But the good is so good - including Chaney's last really great performance as the quietly menacing villain whose doughy, Chaneyesque features contrast so neatly with his meanness, and a depiction of a Lovecraftian Thing of Another Dimension that, in its low-budget attempts to hide whatever the puppet actually looks like, manages to be as convincing as just about any Lovecraft Elder One has ever been. Not that the film is great Lovecraft; it's actually kind of lousy Lovecraft, just like Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven are lousy Poe. Which is to say: it doesn't take fidelity to make a movie that captures the essence of the source material, and however far from the specifics of the novel the film might end up, it captures the atmosphere of universal corrosion phenomenally well, and is as genuinely unsettling and creepy as any of Corman's "actual" Poe pictures.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)

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