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.
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.