The Haunted Palace (1963)

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It’s common knowledge that Roger Corman’s 1963 film of “Edgar Allan Poe’s” The Haunted Palace is not really based on Poe’s poem at all but an H. P Lovecraft story entitled The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  Corman tells us in an interview on the DVD release that, after directing several Poe films, he simply wanted to change things up a little.  However, there is relatively little that is different about this film from the previous Poe adaptations, but this is a case of “more of the same.”  With the emphasis on “more.”

There is more of almost everything here than in the other films of the cycle.  Firstly we have Vincent Price in not one but two roles, and giving perhaps his best performance in the whole series.  There are times, sure, where he eats up and spits out the scenery with gusto, but also moments (thanks to his dual character) where we see subtleties in his performance that are not present elsewhere.  There are moments of genuine tenderness between him and Debra Paget, as well as times when he appears to be the personification of pure evil.  We’re used to seeing the latter, the but former comes as something of a surprise.

The visual aspects of horror are increased here.  While the film isn’t gory as such, we see a number of people burned to death, as well as getting more than a glimpse of the “mutants” of the village, and whatever that “thing” is lurking underneath the palace – and here Corman breaks that golden rule of never showing your monster if you have a low budget.  A blurred image doesn’t make it look any more real.  There are, of course, some visually horrific elements to other films in the series, but they are normally resigned to thrilling set-pieces such as the climax of The Pit and the Pendulum and not to effects through make-up or photography.

There is also more music here, and the soundtrack by Ronald Stein is both stunning and beautiful and, hearing it away from the visuals, one might be forgiven for thinking it was written more for a 1940s melodrama than for a 1960s horror movie.  What this lush score does is complement, and yet draw attention to, the grandeur of the palace itself.  Looking at the cinematography, and the way the set is presented, it is difficult to remember that this is still film-making on a budget.  It seems as if with each film in the series, Corman was getting more and more confident, and managing to achieve a more luxurious look to his film, and this seems to reach a peak here, although many view Masque of the Red Death, which followed, as a better film.

For me, both The Masque of the Red Death and The Haunted Palace fall down slightly because of their longer running times – yet another example of “more.”  While The Haunted Palace is beautifully done, and well-acted, it does seem to outstay its welcome by around a quarter of an hour or so.  Part of the reason for this is due to the repetition within the film.  There are only so many times that Ward/Curwen can decide to leave the palace and the village and then decide to stay again, and this recurring issue seems only to prolong the film rather than make it better.

Perhaps this is why, despite everything I have written above, I just can’t warm to it like I can some of the earlier films in the series.  The other films may not have been so sumptuous as The Haunted Palace, or as well acted, but there were also never sections where they were seemingly being artificially extended.  There is a sense here that the notion of making something of quality from a low budget has gone just that little bit too far towards a real quality picture – a bigger budget literary adaptation – and I’m not sure that’s what audiences want(ed) from a Corman/Poe/Price horror movie.

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Axe-murderers and psycho-killers: Mental Health Conditions and the Horror Film

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I sat at home the other night watching Roger Corman’s 1961 film version of the Poe story The Pit and the Pendulum. I confess that it is my favourite of the Corman Poe films and one that I return to more than the others. When I finished the film, came upstairs and started browsing the internet, I was reminded that this week was Mental Health Awareness Week, and it got me thinking.

Last year Thorpe Park was under attack for its “asylum” Halloween attraction, and yet we seem to have no problem with mental health issues being used for entertainment purposes in horror films. From the “mad doctor films” of the 1920s and 1930s through to the “psycho killers” of today’s horror films, mental health issues have been used in order to instil fear into audiences, and one has to wonder whether this has had an impact on society’s view of those suffering from mental health conditions.

While most of us are not going to view the “mad doctor” films of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and others as somehow a form of education on “madness,” can the same be said for other representations on film? I would argue that the “mad doctor” films (or any films referring to “madness”) are somehow less “real” because the specific health condition of the protagonist is not spelled out but simply given the general term “madness” – a term that is not really in use these days.

It is when the exact nature of the mental health condition is spelled out in more detail and given a name that things become more complicated. After all, if the word “schizophrenic” or “schizophrenia” is searched for within the Internet Movie Database, the list of films that is provided is quite telling: The Mad Ghoul, Bug, Cutting Class, The Boston Strangler and the “wonderfully” titled Schizopheniac: The Whore Mangler (I must hunt that one down). I don’t pretend to have watched all of the films on the list, but what is clear is that, even when the mentally ill character turns out not to be the murderer, the association between mental illness and violence and murder has been made and reinforced.

This isn’t just the case for schizophrenia, of course. The same is true for any number of mental health conditions. For example, a new indie (and low budget) horror film is due out in 2014 entitled Bipolar, which IMDB tells us has the following plot: “When Harry Poole tries out a new medication for Bipolar Disorder, he is reborn as “Edward Grey”, a seductive but dangerous alter ego who dramatically takes over his life, changing the young man and those around him forever.” Similarly the otherwise-splendid drama series Rookie Blue last year had a narrative arc that involved a bipolar policewoman acting irrationally, obsessively and dangerously – leading to other members of her force being shot and wounded (and possibly killed).

There have been relatively few studies on these issues, although Peter Byrne writes in The Psychiatric Bulletin that it has been discovered that these films are “sources of misinformation about mental illness, causing distress of relatives of the mentally ill. The images reinforce the spurious association between all mental illness and violence.”[1] In other words, many of the prejudices about mental illness and those that suffer from mental health conditions may well originate from how film and other forms of fiction have “educated” us over the years.

The big question, of course, is what to do about it. After all, even as a bipolar sufferer, I am not going to give up my regular dose of watching Karloff, Lugosi or Price descending into madness and bumping a few people off. However, it seems to me that, at some point, filmmakers have to become somewhat more responsible. Attitudes change. Nobody is suggesting the films that have been with us for decades should suddenly be banned, but is it responsible to make a film like Bipolar in 2014? Is it about time that killers in films had another reason to kill other than the fact that they are mentally ill? If the “asylum” Halloween attraction at a theme park is now viewed with disdain, then perhaps it is finally time for filmmakers to look again at their representations of mental illness and start taking into account the damage they might be doing in helping to reinforce the prejudices and misconceptions of the past.

[1] Peter Byrne, “Fall and rise of the movie ‘psycho-killer’,” The Psychiatric Bulletin, 1998, 22:176.