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.