Thursday, October 29, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: THE HAUNTED PALACE

at 2:00 PM
Our Halloween "Spook-tacular" is now underway! We'll be checking out three movies loosely premised on the Dracula model (foreigner in a haunted castle preys on society people of the late 19th century), starting with the brand new CRIMSON PEAK (2015), ending on DRACULA (1931), and stopping midway in between for THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963). Here we get a taste of Roger Corman's Poe cycle, starring Vincent Price as his own ghoulish ancestor hell-bent on coming BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985).

THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles Beaumont, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft

THE HAUNTED PALACE in one sentence:
Yourself: Two Vincents for the Price of one.

Golem: Vincent Price possesses Vincent Price.

Here's a story about me and THE HAUNTED PALACE:
Yourself: As any sane person living, I'm an avowed Vincent Price fan. I'm also the kind of nerdling that makes my friends read At the Mountains of Madness, though I have yet to convince any of them to like it.

Golem: I loved HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and this is more cool Price.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: So the running joke of this movie is that it's called "Edgar Allan Poe's THE HAUNTED PALACE" but Poe's actual "The Haunted Palace" is a like 40-line non-narrative poem that even in its tendentious link via a central castle is more concerned with transformation than the eternal purgatory presented in the film. The stanzas recited in the film's bookends suggest an "inspired by" angle - and one can certainly see how classic Poeisms like "A hideous throng rush out forever / And laugh—but smile no more" could do just the trick - but that notion too is fairly quashed by the opening credits' acknowledgement, "oh yeah, this is based on H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward".

So whether you choose to blame the scarcity on the namesake or Lovecraft's trademark thin plots, what you have here is a script where very little moves. Charles Dexter Ward (which my fingers are desperate to type as Charles Nelson Reilly and then I want to read that as John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor) and his wife poke around Arkham and old Curwen Castle and find unpleasant things. As their discoveries become more grotesque and start to weave a greater tapestry, the characters gradually mentally disintegrate until we reach one great crescendo of "agh!". As in the most successful of Lovecraft's work, it's not that final "agh!" that makes the cake, but the completeness of the hill leading up to it.

Hey a sweet analogy just occurred to me: Lovecraft is the Godspeed You Black Emperor! of horror stories. He's certainly equally divisive.

Golem: The later IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS also adapts Lovecraft; its stark visuals go a long way to portray eldritch horrors and ominous darkness, and this itself is the strength of MADNESS. We get to witness everything through our hero.

THE HAUNTED PALACE focuses on Charles himself. We watch Charles confront his past, caught up in a half-struggle where part of him doesn't recognize the danger he's in and another part is dragging him towards darkness. Charles is pulled by his ancestor, Joseph Curwen, and Joseph himself is pulled by offscreen deities, so we do have a link to the supernatural, but it's way off in the background. Instead, the plot centers on Charles' struggle, fleshing out the influences that pull him one way or the other.

It's a nice balance, keeping Cthulhu's crew in a vague background with precious few creepy details, like some plot about impregnating townsfolk over a bubbling pit. The plot also gives Vincent Price lots of time to interact with a lots of characters in a variety of ways: Charles being genuine, Joseph overtaking Charles, Joseph imitating Charles - Charles has a different face for every character and every context.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Painterly, in accordance with the impressionist portrait of Joseph Curwen hanging in the central (whatever) chamber of the castle. The sound-stage-bound filming elides realism and instead depends on distinctive strokes like a foregrounded lone tree in the court/graveyard, a confining balcony whipped by wind, even the painting itself. The best set-piece for my money is the wooden scaffold staircase featured on the poster, leading down from the castle proper to the dungeon of rituals below. They're more functional symbols than you see in say CRIMSON PEAK; used to construct the space and form of the world, they casually represent say the transition between dual worlds, minds, personality, and history in say the case of the scaffold.

Golem: The cinematography enjoys broad, static shots, lending the film part of its "stagey" feel. We do have a few shots inside tiny tunnels, their impact all the stronger for their rarity. The town itself has that stereotypical old timey feel (stone houses, cobblestone streets, etc.), and we get to hang out in the town tavern quite a bit (I wondered if the townsfolk ever did anything but drink).

To be sure, though, the castle takes the cake. It's lushly decorated, with suits of armor and a huge fireplace and a gorgeous bed with a canopy and just too much to list. Honestly, the castle itself is a treat to take in, and characters make good use of it. Remember when Ann Ward peers at her husband from the stone staircase?

Both Yourself and I wanted the great Vincent Price painting.

I almost forgot! THE HAUNTED PALACE also enjoys an excellent score, which does a wonderful job of underscoring the ebb and flow of a mystery drama. And, at its swells, it reaches the gravity hinted by Joseph Curwen's darkest plots. Note to self: thank Ronald Stein.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: When is it not fun to see an actor playing against themselves? And when is an actor not better off being replaced with Vincent Price? So it's to be expected that the Good Vincent / Bad Vincent stuff here is utterly delightful. The prologue starts us off with a tease of Price in full evil mode: Joseph Curwen is the kind of villain who stays up til the witching hour to psychically woo a local virgin to his dungeon for elder god copulation, then, caught shucking the catatonic teen by a torch-wielding mob, retorts "No I didn't". It's not an ambiguous or subtle performance in any way - you can see the light-switch go off when kind ol' Charles is replaced by "shut up and go to hell" Curwen. In particular Curwen's distaste for poor Ann Ward is hilarious in that domestic-violence-is-fun-for-villains way.

Lon Chaney Jr. shows up in a side role as Curwen's Igor-like assistant, sporting a hulkish pallor that may or may not actually be green face-paint. His quiet creepiness offsets Price and allows the latter to become more authoritative than assholish.

Golem: Frank Maxwell comes out of nowhere to make Dr. Willet a memorable character.

At first, Edgar Weeden (played by Leo Gordon) steps up to antagonize Charles Ward, immediately suspicious of Joseph Curwen's descendant. He starts off rude, and he's totally ready to escalate to violence. Charles (or is it Joseph?) nips that in the bud by arranging his death. By the way, he would've done a great job; he's got a deep voice with angry, if self-righteous, delivery. It goes well against Vincent Price's delicate manner of speaking. But, without an external antagonist, Vincent Price is left to fight against himself, and the supporting cast fleshes out that fight.

Dr. Willet, on the other hand, takes a moderate stance. He makes as if to plant his feet in logic, wanting to believe that Joseph Curwen's curse has no basis in reality. However, at tiny moments, he lets on that he's afraid of it like everybody else. He's pulled in these two directions, allowing him to sympathize with Charles (also pulled in two). Weeden's lashing out drives Ward right to Curwen, but Willet gives Ward and his wife genuine understanding. He actually stands a chance of preventing Ward's transformation.

Frank Maxwell as Dr. Willet firmly states his belief in logic, giving us a character to rally behind as Charles loses himself and lending the character's insecurities subtlety.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: Though it is perhaps the cheesiest horror movie moment in the film, I found the march of the mutants to be surprisingly effective. The mutant children are harbingers of the town's guilty nature, its unshakeable damnation, yet their nature and behavior is never clearly explained. In the scene in the town square, when Charles D.W. and his wife find themselves surrounded, we see that the mutants function as one, as part of Arkham, grimly closing in as the fate of the Wards is sealed. Among their cheap-looking latex make-up, the one consistent deformity is the absence of eyes - they are deprived of humanity, deprived of knowledge, deprived of means to distinguish who it is they haunt. Like the other supernatural elements of the film, the mutants are an unreasonable, unstoppable mass, too human to be discarded but too damned to be pitied.

Golem: Disturbed by voices, Charles wanders his castle at night, eventually leading him to the fateful tree where Joseph Curwen burned. (Would the tree have burned down?) Charles is yanked by unseen forces this way and that throughout the film, especially when he gazes at the painting of Curwen. This scene in particular gives Vincent Price the opportunity to make a full-on mime act out of it (well, not literally, I mean). We get to hear the voices that Charles follows, which is a rare glimpse into his slipping mind.

I wonder if this scene would be more or less effective without the voices. On one hand, it underscores the horror that Joseph drags Charles towards. On the other hand, without those voices, would Price's performance have given a stronger indication of insanity? I think both sides have merit here, but I do prefer the scene as it is, since we already have a sense of Charles losing himself. Instead, the scene gives us a reason to root for Charles. He really is up against some creepy stuff here! Plus, THE HAUNTED PALACE is sparing enough with its horror that I would regret taking out any of it.

Towards the end of the scene, Charles grips that tree outside of the palace. It plays a passive but pivotal role at Joseph's burning and at Charles' final transformation in the film's closing scene. Is it just a convenient stage element? The more I think about it, the more I realize I have no reason to think anything of the tree, and the more that tree creeps me out. Maybe I take a little after Dr. Willet.

What does it all really mean?
Golem: THE HAUNTED PALACE paints a world ruled by the past. We can spend our lives in eternal fear, like Edgar Weeden. We can spend our lives in total ignorance, like Charles Dexter Ward. It fits well in a film based on largely off-screen forces such as ancestral spirits and elder gods. The past sneaks up from behind Ward and takes over without his realization. It's a vague force, something we can kind of feel without ever looking directly at it.

While THE HAUNTED PALACE is a thorough movie, this is the nugget at the center of its horror. We don't see Charles in a fair struggle. He never sits down to arm wrestle Joseph Curwen. Instead, he just feels the slightest inexpressible agitation, and he can't manage to put the feeling to words before unspeakable horrors engulf him.

THE HAUNTED PALACE loves these unfair fights. Even Edgar Weeden, ever pugnacious, is cut down before he can muster the proper aggression.

Yourself: Eternal insolubility and the worthlessness of free will are Grade-A Lovecraft themes, and here they come home to roost in the company of as few tentacle monsters as most people are surprised to discover his literature contains. The monster at play here is hubris in the face of fate, the townspeople struggling against the damnation their ancestors bought as Charles Dexter Ward fights the corruption he walked right into and called home. His wife Ann struggles to bring back her husband, knowing full well the man she's seeing isn't him. They all know and they all still fight, and the movie does not end well for these characters who cannot face their guilt and willfully simplistic nature.

The castle "brought over stone by stone from Torquemada", the portait of Curwen, and the tree where he was burnt function as pillars of eternity, symbols of the everlasting corruption summoned by Curwen, corruption that outlasts human lives and permeates all that dare to touch it. Thus without any magical explanation at all, it makes sense that Curwen's grip is broken when his portrait is destroyed - it is the realization that forces beyond human comprehension are at work and compassionate reason will not defeat them.

Note to future self on watching THE HAUNTED PALACE:
Yourself: This is a hella chill and mood-setting flick that serves as a great introduction to Corman, Price, gothic horror, period pieces, 1960s, Torquemada, Edgar Allan Poe, cinematic experience, Bryan Cranston, and torches. It is the best direct Lovecraft adaptation I've seen and does his oeuvre better justice than any film this side of J.C. (John Carpenter).

Golem: The characters here are loud and expressive, making the film immediately engaging. They pulled me in, but the setting and atmosphere kept me engaged. Meanwhile, the plot builds towards horror in careful and gradual steps.


Come back next week for the finale of both our Halloween special and MYASS Series 1, featuring a special guest interview with Bela Lugosi as DRACULA!

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