The Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace is out now on Region B-locked Blu-ray from Spirit Media, a division of Koch Media, and can be purchased through Amazon.de.

Though his name is plastered practically everywhere distributor American International Pictures could find to put it, both within the film itself and on its advertising, this moody slice of early 60s horror is a Poe adaptation only in the minds of those who marketed it. 1963′s The Haunted Palace, filmed by Roger Corman at the height of his directorial career, instead holds a more precious honor, and stands (at least according to whole minutes of research) as the first credited film adaptation of the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Though infused with touches from other tales (including The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow over Innsmouth) and altered substantially besides, The Haunted Palace is in its foundation a loose version of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, with none other than Vincent Price (of late a regular with both AIP and Corman) in the title role.

The tale begins in the coastal village of Arkham at some point in an intangible, diffused past. The locals are on edge, and justifiably so. Young woman in the community have been disappearing into the night with disturbing regularity, only to reappear some time later, their minds traumatized by some unremembered thing. Blame for the trouble is heaped solely (and correctly) at the feet of resident warlock Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price again), who’s been putting on a fiendish twist on the Dating Game in his basement courtesy of a conveniently located pit-to-beyond. When yet another fertile young lass wanders off to the foreboding confines of Curwen’s mansion the local men decide they’ve had enough, and divvy out the stocks of torches and pitchforks for a good old-fashioned witch burning. While his complicit mistress Hester is spared Curwen is not so lucky, though he gets the last word in the usual way – by promising to beset Arkham once more from beyond the grave.

An oddly specific 110 years later Arkham still dwells under the Curwen curse, and its shadowed alleys crawl with the half-human great-grandchildren of the warlock’s bizarre experiments. The men of the town, an unintentionally hilarious set of familiar faces (amusingly also all the same age as their long-dead ancestors) still grumble, but their grumblings take on a newfound seriousness when Charles Dexter Ward and his young bride (Debra Paget) roll into town. The Wards are there to take on their inherited estate, the Curwen mansion, ignorant of the dark history of the place (Mrs. Ward muses at the quaintness of the name of the town tavern – The Burning Man!). As anxieties stew in town the Wards settle into their new home, finding the mansion unexpectedly livable thanks to the similarly unexpected presence of housekeeper Simon (Lon Chaney Jr!). Charles settles in especially well, even as his wife finds his behavior increasingly peculiar. Particularly strange is his fixation on a portrait that hangs over the fireplace, a painting of a man long dead, yet all too familiar…

It must be said that, as an adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Haunted Palace is pretty lousy. A standard ancestor-possession angle (Price on Price!) takes over for the story’s more corporeally sinister model and indeed, too many alterations otherwise have been made to list. Though it may fail strictly as a Lovecraft film it does maintain interest as a Lovecraftian one, and while undeniably quaint by the standards of the writings themselves it remains notable as cinema’s first real stab at the mountainous legacy of weird the author left behind. Odd as it seems to say of such a traditional Gothic horror picture, this was pioneering stuff, with the inescapable usual-ness of Charles Beaumont’s screenplay (completed, it’s said, with an assist from one Francis Ford Coppola) balanced by the incursion of Lovecraft keyphrases – “Necronomicon” and “Cthulhu”, “Yog-Sothoth” and “Elder Gods”. It’s an uneasy mix to be sure, but it paved the way, and when Die Monster Die! arrived from AIP two years later Lovecraft and his tale The Colour out of Space were duly noted as the inspiration.

The Lovecraft connection aside The Haunted Palace presents precisely what one came to expect from its generation of Corman productions. Though made for what was doubtless an insubstantial sum Corman does his damnedest to give every penny its due, and deceptively spacious set design coupled with the keen art direction of Daniel Haller (soon to direct two of AIP’s Lovecraft productions himself) keep the film from ever feeling so compact as it really is. The style here is squarely in line with that of Corman’s earlier Poe films (complete with a seaside castle, cobweb-draped interiors, and endless dark and stormy nights), and that’s just fine with me – in terms of the genuine artistry displayed this generation of features remain his best work as a director. Also of note is the cast, another fine mix of aging big-name talent and B-movie regulars. Price and Chaney Jr need no introductions here, but the supporting cast is full of familiar faces as well, including house favorites Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, House on Haunted Hill), John Dierkes (The Naked Jungle, The Hanging Tree) and television regular Frank Maxwell.

This isn’t exceptional cinema, not by a long shot, but those looking for an atmospheric bit of classic horror could certainly do worse than The Haunted Palace. Beaumont’s writing may be suspect (what should really be expected of he who gave us Queen of Outer Space?) and the tropes all too familiar, but Corman’s direction is certainly on the mark, at least until the limp and perfunctory “we’ve gotta have a monster!” finale. Still, I’m a forgiving sort (at least where this kind of cinema is concerned), and The Haunted Palace pushes more than enough of the right buttons to earn my recommendation. See it, and keep the hell out of the cellar!

I suppose we had to start somewhere with bringing Roger Corman’s cycle of Poe films to Blu-ray, and even if The Haunted Palace just barely fits that bill (there is a Poe quote at the end…) it’ll do in a pinch. Working from a fine high definition master minted by MGM (who appear to have transferred practically everything AIP, including the lamentable/lovable In the Year 2889, to HD) German outfit Spirit Media have produced a similarly fine disc here, and with Premature Burial already out from the same label the future of Corman’s best films on Blu suddenly looks bright indeed.

The Haunted Palace is presented in full 1080p at the original Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (actual AR 2.36:1), and despite giving the impression of being largely unrestored the image here is quite strong for the most part. There are smatterings of minor damage (dust, specks, scratches and so on) throughout the video presentation, most notably during the many optical shots (there are a lot of fades here, as well as a few special effects outright), but nothing really untoward for a film of its age and production standard. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s ace photography ranges from crisp interiors and close-ups to soft-diffused exterior takes, and all is properly preserved here with a reasonable level of definition. The Pathe Color shows some intentional restraint, but appears natural throughout, and contrast is rich in the frequently dark image. It’s not a perfect presentation – several of the frequent opticals are overwhelmed with grit, due perhaps to limitations in the source elements for these segments, and there are shots, especially early on, that have the appearance more of video than of film. Still, the benefits of this HD offering substantially outweigh its few limitations, and for the most part this looks very good.


One of the opticals mentioned above, which looks substantially rougher than others of its ilk seen throughout the film (compare to the castle shot below).

Spirit Media’s single layer approach leaves the technical specifications modest for The Haunted Palace, not that the film appears to suffer for it. The video receives a middle-of-the-road Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 19.6 Mbps, evidently more than enough for the production’s modest visual charms – I noted no egregious encoding faults, and have no complaints. Audio arrives in two flavors – original English and German dub, both presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 monophonic – and sounds very strong across both. Ronald Stein’s tremendous score, a waltzy and atmospheric affair that becomes a star of the show in its own right, benefits particularly from the lossless bump. There are no subtitles to be found (not even German), and an original trailer in English (SD, and in very rough shape besides) is the only extra. The Haunted Palace is coded for Region B, and those itching to import will require multi-region capable hardware to play it.

Given its regional coding, price (around $22 to import for me), and dearth of supplemental content Spirit Media’s Blu-ray of The Haunted Palace isn’t going to be for everyone, but for fans of Corman in general and his Poe films specifically this is tough to resist. If there’s a proper indicator of my personal feelings it’s that upon viewing the disc I wasted no time in ordering the same label’s Premature Burial as well (for those keen, the two arrive as a Blu-ray double feature in late October), and provided that disc turns out as well as this one I’ll be a happy man. Fans unencumbered by region-locking may wish to indulge, and for the rest of you there’s always the old MGM DVD.

Blu-ray screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click each image below to view at full resolution.

The Haunted Palace is available now through Amazon.de

Die Farbe

dir. Huan Vu
2010 / Spharentor Filmproduktionen / 85′
written by Huan Vu
from the story The Colour out of Space by H.P. Lovecraft
cinematography by
Martin Kolbert
music by Tilman Seege
starring Ingo Heise, Michael Kausch, Marco Leibnitz, Erik Rastetter, Marah Schneider

The 70s. The father (Patrick Pierce) of Arkham academic Jonathan Davis (Ingo Heise) disappears while retracing his own steps during and shortly after World War II in rural Swabia. Jonathan, deeply concerned, follows him, only armed with a pack of old photos.

At first, Jonathan seems to be completely out of luck. Nobody in the small village he traces his father to seems to have seen him, but at last one of the villagers, a certain Armin Pierske (Michael Kausch), recognizes the elder Davis not on the contemporary photo but at least from a thirty year old army picture.

Pierske tells Jonathan a weird story about how he met the elder Davis when he himself came home from the front, and tried to warn Davis and his men off of visiting a neighbouring farm for reasons Pierske then goes on to explain to Jonathan by way of flashing back to a time shortly before the War.

A meteorite crashed down on the farm of Pierske’s (in the flashbacks played by Marco Leibnitz) neighbours, the Gärteners (Erik Rastetter, Marah Schneider, Leon Schröder, Philipp Jacobs, Jonas Zumdohme). The scientists coming to investigate were confused by the thing’s curious properties: meteorites don’t, after all, generally shrink over time, nor do they have properties strangely at odds with what we know about physics. Shortly before the meteorite could disappear forever during a lightning storm, the scientists found some sort of capsule inside of it, setting free an unearthly colour when trying to take a sample.

 
 
 

With no physical evidence at all anymore after the disappearance of the meteorite, the scientists left. However, strange things began to happen on the Gärteners’ farm. Fruit (and later some animals) started to grow freakishly large, but they also developed a taste that made them unsalable; the trees in the family’s orchard took on disquieting properties, moving when there wasn’t any wind to move them. And slowly, one by one, the family members began to change, growing unstable, mad, and ill through the agency of something not from this Earth.

Of course, the Gärtener’s farm is the one Jonathan’s father was visiting after the War; and it might just be that something he saw there has now called him back in one way or the other.

Huan Vu’s (whom you might know as the director of the Warhammer 40K fan film Damnatus that was killed by the angry lawyer brigades of Games Workshop) Die Farbe is a very fine adaptation of one of my favourite Lovecraft stories, the wonderful “The Colour Out of Space”. At first, I was rather sceptical concerning the story’s relocation from New England to Southern Germany, but for the most part, this change of location is to the film’s advantage. Sure, a viewer has to make a bit of an effort to accept the actors speaking English with clear (yet not very heavy) German accents in the film’s beginning as Americans, and then, once the film’s narrative has relocated to Germany, Ingo Heise’s Jonathan speaking German with a fake American accent, but the alternatives would surely have ruined what is after all an independent low budget production. Trying to pretend Germany is New England would have either robbed the film of its often impressive and mood building outside location shots, or threatened to make unintentionally funny what desperately needs to be earnest. A bit of accent trouble is much preferable.

This is especially the case because Vu uses the individuality of rural Swabia so well, giving the film the all-important sense of place that – as I can’t help but repeat again and again in write-ups – is one of the most effective ways for a low budget movie to gain a character all its own; competing with high budget films – European or American – on their own terrain generally means ignoring the advantages this kind of production has over them. Plus, the Swabian-Franconian Forest can be – filmed in the right way like it is here – an excellently creepy place, just the kind of locality where the intrusion of the Weird seems believable.

 
 
 

Die Farbe not only manages to evoke a place, but also specific times, through simple yet effective tools. Initially, I thought the three time levels were unnecessarily complicated, however, it soon became clear that the nested flashbacks really were the best way to tell Vu’s version of Lovecraft’s tale, and that – not a given in independent horror – Vu actually knows how to handle this sort of structure without the resulting film becoming tedious or needlessly confusing. It’s also nice to see a Lovecraft adaptation that does not feel the need to permanently include winks and nods towards the authors other works or shoehorn historical guest stars in for no other reason than to demonstrate that its writers know who Charles Fort was. There’s a guest appearance of the Danforth Memorial Library at the beginning, but that’s mostly that.

This admirable sense of restraint runs through the majority of the film’s writing. The movie prefers to underplay many of its dramatic and horrifying beats, all the better to be able to get its viewers with those it doesn’t underplay. It’s spiritually as close to Lovecraft’s writing in this particular story as possible, using those of the writer’s techniques that are applicable to film, and only changing the story’s framing instead of its major beats. The only part of the writing I’d criticize is the twist in the last act that doesn’t ruin the film, but also doesn’t do anything to improve it. As plot twists go, it isn’t horrible, it just seems a bit unnecessary.

On the visual side, Vu makes the interesting decision to film in black and white, except for the Colour itself, which is a clever and elegant way to get around the question of how one shows a colour that is indescribable – when the world is black and white, any colour will look Weird. For once, I also find it impossible to be annoyed by the use of CGI; in fact, CGI seems to me the right method to bring a living colour without a body as we understand it to life (such as it is). After all, a thing without body mass can’t suffer from the typical CGI problem of things looking like they have no body mass.

All these elements (plus some decent to good acting) add up to a piece of contemporary independent horror cinema I for once find easy to praise; I am, as it turns out, a sucker for films whose directors make one intelligent decision after the other and even improve on these decisions through thoughtful execution.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Mist

POSTERcompany: Dimension Films
year: 2007
runtime: 126′
country: United States
director: Frank Darabont
cast: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden,
Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher,
Toby Jones, William Sadler
dvd companies: Genius Products
and Dimension Home Entertainment
release date: March 25, 2008
retail price: $24.95
disc details: Region 1 / dual layer x 2
order this film from Amazon.com

Plot: Citizens of Bridgport, Maine contend with dangerous otherwordly creatures and themselves after an ominous mist envelops their town and traps them in a supermarket.

I missed this film while it was out in theatres and took my sweet time in catching up to it on home video, assured by the trailers that it was going to be little more than another prototypical glossed-up studio horror.  I’m happy to say that my cynicism was misplaced, and that it’s better to be late in coming to a good film than to never see it at all.

Sourced from Stephen King’s 1980 novella, THE MIST follows in the trend of claustraphobic survival horror initiated by Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD while tapping into a Lovecraftian fear of things unknown.  The focus throughout is on the collective of survivors and the tensions that build between them as an ambiguous and alien threat swirls about outside.  The drama is centered on artist David (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy, who are picking up supplies at the local supermarket when the titular mist descends, announced by a local man’s frantic story that one of his neighbors was taken by something hiding within it.  David spearhead’s efforts to protect the store and those within it, piling supplies in front of the plate glass storefront and gathering makeshift “weapons” (rakes, knives, and mops doused in kerosene) to defend against the creatures lurking just beyond it.

It isn’t long before the large group held up within the supermarket splits into factions, including one led by David’s disgruntled lawyer neighbor Brenton (Andre Braughter) who refuses to believe that there’s anything at all in the mist.  His group leaves on a mission to find help just before their assumption is proven disastrously wrong.  Fatal to his group as it may be, Brenton’s skepticism is never dangerous to those outside his sphere of influence.  The same cannot be said of the brand of apocalyptic Christianity held by the vitriolic Mrs. Carmondy (Marcia Gay Harden).

Mrs. Carmondy’s lengthy diatribes about divine judgment and the end of the world falls on an assortment of deaf and annoyed ears early on, but as the crisis continues and more and more lives are lost a congregation develops around her.  The message she preaches is not of hope and faith, but of expiation – atonement for the sins she sees as having brought the mist and its many monsters upon them.  To Mrs. Carmondy these sins can only be paid for in blood, at first that of a local military man (connected to a secret government project underway just outside of town) and later that of David’s own son.  Things grow so dangerous within the store that David and a small group of sensible locals see no alternative but to take their chances in the mist . . .

While the struggles of the human characters dominate the narrative, the film delivers on the monstrous goods in spades.  The idea of Lovecraftian horrors let loose upon the everyday offered ample opportunity for the effects crew (headed by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger on the design side of things and Cafe FX for the frequent CGI) to devise hideous creatures that do hideous things – huge spiders with gnashing human teeth, bat-winged reptiles, and claw-ridged tentacles belonging to who-knows-what.  While these animated monsters aren’t as endearing to me as, say, the ghostly giant grasshoppers of BEGINNING OF THE END or the pulsing tendriled eye-monsters of THE CRAWLING EYE, they’re campy brand of horribleness should appeal just fine to newer fans of B-movie thrills.

001 002

Director Frank Darabont [THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE] effectively guides the proceedings, offering up a few moments of camp among the overriding seriousness of the rest.  Photography, by Ronn Schmidt [THE SHIELD], is gritty and immediate, alternating between static and handheld with generally fine results.  The only potential misstep of the project may be with its ending, which brings things to a decidedly grim conclusion that deviates (reportedly with King’s blessings) from that of the source novella.  Ending aside this is a fun little film steeped in the old-school tradition of lower tier horrors that, with more rubber and less computer trickery, would fit nicely on a double bill with any of the more grotesque creature features of old.

The Genius Products / Dimension Home Entertainment dual disc DVD of THE MIST is quite the looker.  The film itself is presented in two transfers – one in the original color and another in Darabont’s own preferred black and white.  Both look as good as one should rightfully expect for a film scarcely two years old and the black and white version, with its harsher contrast, provides for a unique alternate viewing experience.  Audio is offered in English 5.1 surround for both versions, with an additional French dub (also 5.1) present on the theatrical presentation.  Subtitles are offered in Spanish and English SDH for both versions.

Extras are expectedly stacked.  The theatrical presentation is accompanied by a full-length commentary track with screenwriter and director Darabong while the black and white version comes with an optional introduction by the same.  There are a nice collection of featurettes focusing on the creature design and visual effects as well as a more traditional Making-Of and some Behind The Scenes videos originally posted online.  An appreciation of Drew Struzan, the artist who inspired the character of David in the film and an assortment of short deleted scenes (with optional commentary from Darabont) and trailers round out the set.

003THE MIST opened to mixed critical reception but made more than enough at the box office to account for its relatively low ($18 million) budget, and certainly exceeded this reviewer’s expectations.  It’s no classic of the genre by any means and the ending will rub many the wrong way, but it succeeds more than it faulters and is certainly worthy of recommendation.  The special edition DVD package comes without any complaints on my part, though casual viewers may want to consider the lower-priced single disc release instead.