Secret Behind the Door (1947)

secretdoorAfter what must have been several months or longer, I’ve finally gotten around to watching the fourth and last disc in Arrow’s unimaginatively titled ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ Blu-ray set that I bought last year. This last film was generally regarded as the weakest of the set and I have to agree, although it does have its plus points. 

Secret Behind the Door is a noir from consummate visual stylist Fritz Lang, who was no stranger to the genre and later would direct The Big Heat, the Indicator release of which a few years back blew me away and a film I would count amongst my very favourite noir. Secret Behind the Door is nowhere near as good as that later classic, but it does sport some absolutely top-notch visuals. There are a few shots that are amongst the best of any noir I’ve seen- shots that are framed in a particular way, and so consummately well-photographed with lighting and shadows in selected areas, that tell the story wholly cinematically without any need of narration or dialogue. Visually we see everything regards how characters relate to each other, body language, their positioning relative to each other within the frame, the scaling, lighting… really quite arresting stuff that is sadly let down by a script that borders on the implausible and then jumps off the cliff into the frankly bizarre.

Its perhaps some testament to Lang’s skills as a director and control of the medium that he manages to hold together the film for as long as he does. By the end of the film we’ve somehow passed from dark romantic drama to murderous noir to Roger Corman’s Poe horror territory and somewhere beyond before landing with a terrific thud back into the land of ridiculous romance. I really wasn’t sure what I’d just seen, to be honest. 

Celia Lamphere (Joan Bennett) is a beautiful New York socialite who seems to have finally decided she’s spent too long carefree and single and its time she found the right man: in this case the safe choice of an old friend,  Bob Dwight (James Seay), who works with her wealthy brother. Dwight is besotted by her and is eminently dependable but its clear she doesn’t love him- he’s simply a safe choice. Before she acquiesces to his advances however she goes off on one last vacation/adventure, this time to Mexico where she finds a man who strangely excites her like she’s never experienced before; tall, dark, handsome magazine owner Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). In just days they marry, but moving to his mansion home near New York she suddenly discovers that not only was Lamphere married, he also has a son and a household full of strange characters including a dominating elder sister and a fire-scarred assistant.

Possibly strangest of all however is her new husband who acts increasingly odd and unhinged, soon revealing his pastime of adding a wing of rooms to his mansion in which famous historical murders of wives by their husbands or lovers took place, a chamber of horrors if you will, but the final room, behind door number seven, remains mysteriously locked and whose contents he refuses to divulge. Something to do with his recently deceased wife, of his new wife perhaps?

Clearly this is a psychological horror dressed up in noir tropes: certainly not an unlikely combination at all and as I have noted, it visually wears its noir stylings spectacularly well. It simply drips noir in most every shot- deep shadows, surreal lighting and framing, exaggerated angles and backlighting accentuating mood and tension. Unfortunately Redgrave doesn’t convince as romantic lead or as twisted, haunted and dangerous male- not that’s he’s really helped by a nutty script that goes dafter with every page. The oddest thing about the film -and likely what saves it at all- is Joan Bennett who seems so intoxicated by the premise that we can almost accept, to our utter bafflement, that she hangs around with her new husband and his deranged family more than a day in his mansion of horrors. I suspect there is a valid reading of the film in which every character is quite insane, including Celia, especially when, at the films end after Lamphere has almost strangled Celia to death and both almost died in a fiery conflagration as the house of horrors burns around them, we finally see them enjoying a second honeymoon back in Mexico. If Celia at this point has not got bountiful reasons to cite for a swift divorce, no-one has. Its like the cinematic definition of jumping the shark, but hey, maybe wives were more forgiving back then.

 

 

Suspiria (1977)

suspStyle over content- there is, oddly enough, nothing wrong with that. Its what elevates some films to classic status – Blade Runner, for instance, was criticised back in 1982 for being all style and little substance, but that ironically defined the very thing it became most famous for, and what remains so impressive about the film to this day: sometimes style is everything.  Such is perhaps the case with Dario Argento’s horror film Suspiria, which I have been a long time getting around to watching- indeed, seeing the remake/reboot beforehand.

Suspiria is all about style: its a horror film as arthouse movie, or maybe arthouse movie as horror film, if there’s a distinction looking at it either way. There is very little plot, pretty much non-existent characterisation. As a traditional film, it functions very poorly indeed.

As such, I have to confess I found it rather disappointing. I do believe a part of that is simply because I am so late to the party, the film being over forty years old now. When it first came out, when it was so new and fresh and experimental, such an assault on the senses, it might well have seemed extraordinary, and I can understand this reputation continuing for years, into its release on VHS and DVD. Certainly it has an atmosphere all its own, from its in-your-face, assault-on-your-eardrums score by Goblin, its garish colour schemes and rather surreal, other-worldly, dreamlike imagery. Back in 1977 and likely years later, it must have been astonishing, exhilarating, but to me it just seemed a little, er, irritating.

Which is my loss, I expect. I’ve just come to the film too late. Intellectually I can appreciate what it did/does, and why it is so revered, but I’m watching the film in 2020. It just doesn’t work in the same way it did back then. Its a bit like when I talk to people who have never seen Blade Runner; before they do so I have to caution their expectations a little, or usually, discussing the film afterwards, I have to confess that to appreciate how new and fresh and special the film still seems to me today, you really had to be there in 1982. Or perhaps in understanding the impact the first Star Wars film had in 1977. You cannot really divorce films from when they were first released, they are forever of their time. They can’t hold that same magic forever.

But it certainly is a beautiful film; most of the shots of the film are exquisite and visually it remains quite extraordinary. I was just a little disappointed that this was all the film really was. The violence/horror is mostly a ghastly, over the top orgy of gore and so self-aware and artificial its clearly shocking for shocks sake (circa what people were used to in 1977). Perhaps that’s the point of it, engineered to repulse, but I can’t say I was ever involved in any of it. Instead I felt outside of it, distracted by its technique and artifice: its a dream that never feels real, and in so doing it never really involved me.

If anything, the film made me consider a reappraisal of the 2018 Suspiria: I can see now, having seen the 1977 original, what that film possibly succeeded at. It wasn’t a remake, and neither did it try to mimic very much of the 1977 films style and atmosphere. Instead it took the basic plot and made a more routine, traditional narrative: something more cohesive. Back when I saw it I felt rather frustrated by it, and I doubt that watching it again I’d enjoy the film anymore than I originally did- it strangely enough has its own problems, as I recall, and all of its own quite seperate to those of the original. But maybe the 2018 film wasn’t as terrible as I originally thought, or certainly not quite as inferior to the original as I thought it might be. Both films are quite flawed, but I suppose that, considering its age, one can give the original some credit for what it did back then that made it seem so unique and ‘new’.

Mind, I’m hardly an expert on the horror genre, but for all the hype over Suspiria’s bold and garish visuals, I think some are forgetting the colour-drenched visuals of the best of the Gothic Hammers and much of Roger Corman’s Poe horror line of the 1960s. Suspiria in 1977 may have done it to a heightened and lasting degree, but certainly it had its precedents.

 

Apostle (2018)

apostle2Welsh director Gareth Evans, famous for his action double-whammy The Raid and The Raid 2, returns with an absolutely batshit-crazy horror/torture-porn oddity that is likely destined for some kind of cult status someday. It is totally off the rails, nonsensical and baffling and frustrating and brilliant in perhaps equal measure. At over two hours its about thirty minutes too long and its script needs a few rewrites and perhaps a few sub-plots taking out, but its a fascinating film to watch simply because it just defies convention, as if Evans was trying to test how much free-reign and control Netflix was willing to give him. Turns out he was given pretty much complete freedom, which likely works against the film in the long run but does make it something of a curio and hypnotic experience. You just don’t know where its going next.

Disorientation is the heart of the film: Dan Stevens, having left Downton Abbey well behind him now, plays main protagonist Thomas Richardson, a twisted and troubled man who in some abrupt and deliberately (?) vague flashbacks is set on some vague mission to save his kidnapped sister from a vaguely-defined religious cult based on a vague remote island off the undefined mainland. Yes, it is all very vague: Thomas is the kind of unreliable fulcrum that H P Lovecraft sometimes used,  whose narrators were possibly as crazy and untrustworthy as the cultists they bumped into. Thomas is twitchy and haunted and reliant on drugs and stares balefully from under his tightly-knitted brow and grimaces bearing rotting uneven teeth. Something about Steven’s performance kept bugging me until I realised that he was channeling actor Sam Neil, as if deliberately mimicking Neil’s mannerisms in films like In the Mouth of Madness and Jurassic Park etc.  Its a role that perhaps might have actually suited Nic Cage although that might have proved to be unwatchable for me. Eventually we learn why Thomas seems so fucked-up but its perhaps one revelation too many at that point.

The island of Erisden holds a religious community run by cult-leader/prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and it all seems very Wicker Man with a medieval twist, but there are visual hints dropped in that suggest something genuinely supernatural is going on in the background, a deeper threat/horror than the cult itself. Again, perhaps in a further nod to Lovecraft fiction, layers and layers of mystery are revealed as the film progresses, so much so that it reminded me of the Call of Cthulhu RPG that I used to play many years ago. Ultimately there are perhaps just too many layers, too many revelations and twists and turns for the film to really manage successfully. I had the feeling that it could have been two completely seperate films but that Evans just threw it all into the crazy mix to see what came out.

apostle3I understand the film is set in 1905, but I don’t believe it states this implicitly onscreen (although I may have simply missed it) and while it is obviously a period film it does seem to have a dreamlike quality, particularly on the island which is genuinely like some medieval setting with torture devices straight out of some dungeon of horror/Roger Corman Poe flick starring Vincent Price. Strange camera angles occasionally add to the weirdness as do sudden outbreaks of violence- as might be suggested by the director’s previous films, Apostle is very graphic and violent in places and there is plenty of gore to satisfy horror-fans. Thomas has to swim in a subterranean river of blood at one point so that will give some indication of its crazy excesses.

The weird thing is, how I’m writing this possibly suggests its a much better film than it really is. This film is in no way wholly successful. As I’ve noted, its too long and really quite disjointed with perhaps too many characters and sub-plots. That being said, I do think it may be destined for cult status as such odd/flawed films often can be and it might actually reward with successive viewings.

So anyway, a very interesting experience and another indication that Netflix Originals can be very worthwhile. I’m not sure how this film might have fared as a cinema release, but dropping onto a streaming service to watch at home during a wet and windy Autumn night its pretty much perfect. I’m just a little frustrated that a disc release might have benefited from a commentary track which explained some of the film-making decisions. I don’t know if Netflix could manage seperate audio streams or provide seperate versions of content with audio-commentary tracks; likely there is insufficient demand for that kind of content but it something that I will certainly miss with the future veering away from physical releases.

Big Bad Mama (1974)

bbm6Wow, I really enjoyed this, but feel guilty for doing so. A bawdy sex-comedy/crime drama set during the American Depression, its a trashy Roger Corman b-movie from 1974 full of geeky pleasures, not least being Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, William Shatner, and Alien‘s Captain Dallas, Tom Skerritt, featured in a film together. Its just so bizarre seeing them sharing scenes, Shatner with Star Trek a few years behind him and Skerritt with Alien a few years in his future. My inner geek screaming out ‘its Kirk and Dallas- together!’ as if its some majorly important cinematic event.

But there are plenty of other things going for it. For one thing, it stars Angie Dickinson in a genuinely great ‘I’m better than this movie’ performance from just before her role in the seminal ’70s tv show Police Woman– but I’ve never seen her in anything quite like this before. Although in her early forties at this point, she features in several nude scenes in this film which get progressively more graphic as the film progresses- it’d be a brave career move for any woman today, never mind one back in 1974, which seems an unusual decision as she was already a well-known actress, but it probably makes this one her more famous/infamous movies. The film also features genre stalwart Dick Miller, who is always a pleasure to see on film, as an increasingly frustrated FBI chases our heroine throughout the movie.

bbmSo anyway, we’re in Texas in 1932, and Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson) is so frustrated by her life of poverty and wanting more for her two daughters, that she stops her youngest daughter’s wedding during the wedding service.  They race away from the Church with her bootlegger lover but during an encounter with two FBI agents, Wilma’s lover is killed. Wilma and her daughters carry on her dead lover’s bootlegging business and progress onto an ever-daring crime spree. They get caught up with a bank robber, Fred Diller (Skerritt) and they commit several robberies together, and Wilma and Diller become lovers. During a later robbery, Wilma meets a charming but disreputable gambler William Baxter (Shatner) who falls into the gang and replaces Diller as Wilma’s lover. Diller is annoyed but turns his attentions to Wilma’s daughters, eventually bedding them both and getting the youngest pregnant. Wilma decides she has to make one last con to set her daughters up for life which involves kidnapping a wealthy heiress, but the FBI are closing in.

bbm1So there’s lots of sex, and lots of violent gun-play and chases. Its tawdry stuff filmed with a very low budget but it somehow has a lot of charm too, particularly from its ‘seventies feel with lots of actors familiar to anyone who saw much ‘seventies American television shows. Indeed, its a surprisingly strong cast all round, but I have to wonder what Shatner was doing in this. He is very good though, and cast rather against type, as a no-good scoundrel who’s a coward and a liar, albeit hindered by a not very good wig. I suppose Star Trek was years behind him and was just an old sixties tv show at that point; back then the show was clearly in the past and never going to have any future and Shatner had to get acting gigs wherever he could. There is good fun to be had here though- considering Kirk’s weekly amorous encounters in Trek, its a bit of a chuckle here to see him in bed with Dickinson and she declining his advances in favour of a book.

bbm5Skerritt by then had a few minor movies behind him but was still very much trying to work his way up the ladder to stardom by whatever role he could get, and while there’s little here to suggest what awaited him, there is indeed some fun seeing him being such a lothario bank-robber, bedding first the mother and then her two children. Career-wise the best was yet to come for both of the male leads, and of course Dickinson herself was soon to land a major acting part in her television show Police Woman. So this exploitation b-movie is almost a time-capsule, a moment in time in all three careers that stands out almost like some kind of reality check- actors have to eat, as they say.

Big Bad Mama is currently available ‘free’ to Amazon Prime members, and I stumbled onto it completely by accident, having never even heard of it before- maybe this is the biggest plus for streaming services such as this. There’s lots of old rubbish on Amazon but a few little gems like this one that I would miss completely if not for them sitting hidden away for me to stumble on. After a long day at work it made for a perfect Friday night viewing, its not a great movie by any means -its pretty lousy, really, but the amazing cast and the unique style of those old ‘seventies movies makes it an enjoyable 90 minutes (the cinematography alone is lovely). I see there’s even a sequel on Amazon Prime, that was released in 1987, but considering how the first film ends I cannot figure out how Dickinson manages to star in it too- something tells me I’m going to have to find out by pressing that ‘watch now’ button some night soon…

The Love Witch (2016)

lovewAnyone fond of Roger Corman’s vividly-coloured 1960s horrors featuring Vincent Price, or 1970s tv cop-shows, will absolutely adore the decadent technicolour-saturated charms of this strange movie. It’s a love-letter to 1960s and 1970s occult horrors and as a retro feature its an unmitigated success. The casting, the acting, the sets and costume design, it’s a beautifully garish work of art. As a movie in its own right, well, maybe not, but I guess your final opinion will be swayed by how much you love and recall those 1960s and 1970s exploitation flicks that this film revels in. You might find yourself thinking that the style is strong enough to outweigh the lack of substance, or you might find the film long out stays its welcome over its two hours.

Samantha Robinson chews up that lurid scenery as Elaine, a beautiful, single witch in search of a man- the perfect man, and she’s going to use all her witchcraft to get him. Unfortunately, her search pulls a a number of gorgeous hunks into her web but when found lacking they end up dead, and the police end up on her trail. Wouldn’t you know it though- that police detective hunk measures up just fine, and Elaine decides she’s found her perfect man. But will detective Griff be man enough to resist her spell?

In all honesty, the story isn’t the film’s strong point, particularly with its overlong running time and awkward speeches about feminism and the role of women in an ostensibly man’s world, or how women use their sex to overpower men. What I enjoyed was the garish production design, that incredibly vivid cinematography and the deliberately (?) wooden acting and delivery that seems straight out of a 1970s tv-movie. As an homage, I thought it was brilliant.

Budget constraints hurt it somewhat. Or maybe it’s an advantage, all the curious mixing of authentic 1960s/1970s styles with modernity awkwardly (accidently?) thrown in like mobile phones, modern cars etc. sneaking into shots making it a particularly surreal, dreamlike film.

If only this was a Kolchak: the Night Stalker movie instead of something about witches, it might even have been perfect. I’m sure I’ve missed the point of it, but really, someone should shoot a Kolchak movie just like this one was shot, complete with Kolchak’s cheesy monster-of-the-week. It’d be fantastic.

 

Napoleonic California: The Terror

terror32017.71: The Terror (1963)

An impossibly young Jack Nicholson plays a Napoleonic officer with a lazy californian accent, Boris Karloff plays a reclusive Baron with a shady past (with a twist straight out of leftfield) and Dick Miller plays his tough-guy servant as if he somehow stepped straight off a tough New York street. Its one of those old films full of utterly bizarre casting, a cheap-as-chips exploitation b-movie (Karloff filmed his scenes in just four days, using sets from Corman’s previous flick, The Raven, I think, just before they were torn down) that doesn’t make any sense at all.

And yet there is a certain charm about it. Partly it is that fun, twisted casting. It is strange indeed to see Nicholson phoning-in a performance so early in his career, or maybe it’s just that he isn’t taking any of it as seriously as Karloff, who clearly relishes it like it’s his crack at Shakespeare (but that was true of Karloff in every film). Any historical accuracy is purely coincidental, simply adding to the dreamlike sensibilities of the confused script and the vibrant, richly colourful lighting that reminded me of ’60s Star Trek.

Indeed, it’s almost shocking to reflect that as a ghost story (before it veers off into something else) this film almost works, in spite of all that is so wrong about it- the plot-holes and inconsistencies lend it an air of dreamlike strangeness that threatens to make it a much better film than it is. But of course, it’s all accidental, a combination of rushed and fractured shooting and a script that looks like it was cobbled from out-takes from other scripts (like the sets themselves, evidently, as many props and scenery look like leftovers from earlier Poe films by Corman). With its cast and strange sensibilities it’s a rewarding curio, if nothing else.

Crimson Peak (2015)

crims22016.14: Crimson Peak (Blu-ray)

Crimson Peak is clearly Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic love-letter to the Hammer Films of the 1950s and 1960s, and also the Roger Corman Poe adaptations of the same period, and as such it succeeds brilliantly. Its obvious in the rich colour-palette and sumptuous gothic sets and costumes, and in little nods such as the protagonists family having the surname ‘Cushing’. But no Hammer horror or Corman Poe adaptation ever looked as strikingly beautiful as this film does. Guillermo is a visual stylist who crafts beautiful-looking films, the only problem being not having stories and characters that are equal to those visuals, and unfortunately this is something that Crimson Peak suffers from too. But goodness its one of the most beautiful Gothic horror films I have ever seen.

The main problem is, this film is a Gothic Romance that is strong on Gothic but weak on Romance. Its got shocks and scares and creepy moments and blood and violence and my goodness did I mention it really is incredibly beautiful, but somewhere, despite the great cast, it falls flat in the romance, which is rather unfortunate as that should be the core of the film. It feels more of a technical achievement than an emotional one, the romance being dominated and supplanted by those visuals. The house- my God the house! The major part of the film takes place in the titular haunted house, a magnificent piece of art direction that dazzles and takes the breath away. It is the House of Usher of Corman’s wildest dreams. It literally bleeds from the floor and walls, and snow falls elegantly from its broken roof that is open to the sky. Its jaw-dropping stuff and so well built and designed that it can be shot from all sorts of angles and never fail to draw gasps from the viewer. Its the main character of the film- possibly the best character in the film too, dominating everything to such a degree that the whole suffers. How can any story equal such an incredible piece of art direction? No matter how good the cast, they can’t fight it- the house steals the show.

crims1Which is not to suggest that Crimson Peak is a bad film- far from it. It just feels unbalanced. Like many films these days, the story it has to tell is not equal to the dazzling way the film tells it. Which is not to suggest the story is weak (although the ending does have an inevitable feeling of anti-climax) its just that the visuals overpower everything. The heart of the film is lost somehow. I think if del Toro had spent more effort on the romance and the mystery behind it than on those striking visuals, the film may have been less pretty but better for it. Maybe if it were smaller, more intimate. Just because you can use a big budget to craft incredible sets and visuals doesn’t mean you have to. Its still a superior horror film – the jumps and scares are all there and I’d much rather watch creepy period horrors such as this than present-day gore fests populated by dreary youngsters, but I had the nagging feeling that this film could have been -should have been- something more, definitive in the Gothic Horror genre. Maybe subsequent viewings will improve things. I do feel with some films that I should be watching them two or three times prior to presenting a ‘definitive’ opinion, but it’s so hard getting to watch everything as it is without trying to watch them two or three times.

My problem with Crimson Peak -and I shall be careful here not spoil things, as I hate to put spoilers in reviews of ‘new’ films- is that the central premise, the mystery in the background that slowly unravels, is, when I think about it, genuinely disturbing and horrible. There is a central relationship in this film that it quite disturbing but it doesn’t really come across that way- something is implied but it seems to be lost behind those beautiful visuals. Which is unfortunate, because it could have been up there in Psycho-territory had it been handled a little differently. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I was just too distracted by those incredible sets, which will lessen when rewatching it.

crims3.jpgCertainly fans of Hammer and of Roger Corman’s wonderful Poe adaptations will lap this film up though. The scale just seems a bit too big for me, the craving to impress too obvious and overpowering. Its a good film that might have been great had it been rather more restrained, but that’s not how it’s really done in Hollywood these days.

 

The Raven (1963)

raven1Watching The Raven is a delight, but I must confess it hardly feels like a proper Edgar Allen Poe movie. In a similar way to how The Haunted Palace was really a H P Lovecraft story posing as a Poe story (bookending the film with Price reading passages from Poe’s poem The Haunted Palace to maintain its place in the Poe series of AIP films by Roger Corman), I got the feeling that Price reciting lines from Poe’s The Raven, and then diverting into something else entirely, was a way of launching it into some other literary territory. This time it wasn’t Lovecraft but another of his Weird Tales contributors, Clark Ashton Smith, that was the inspiration.

Or maybe not. I’m not aware of any specific leanings towards CAS being admitted by the films creators or mentioned in the films credits. I doubt that the films screenwriter Richard Matheson ever admitted to it or likely even intended it, but Matheson was obviously aware of the writings of Clark Ashton Smith so there is a suspicion that its possible. I may indeed be barking up the proverbial wrong literary tree, but it just feels very much like a CAS story.He wrote such wonderfully rich, powerfully vivid stories of sorcerers and magic, that The Raven‘s central theme of three extravagant rival magicians, played with such scenery-chewing aplomb by horror thespians Price, Karloff and Lorre, seems to somehow channel the spirit and vitality of CAS’ prose so well, intended or not.

The obvious problem for any movie based on Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting poem The Raven is that there is little cohesive narrative to it- certainly not enough to fill a movie. Richard Matheson solved the problem by using the poem simply as a starting point for the film; not only that, but he dropped any leanings towards any horror implied by the title or by the film being part of Corman’s Poe series of films, by instead turning it into a comedy. And it works- it just doesn’t feel, as I stated earlier, authentically ‘Poe’. Perhaps it was turning it into a comedy that lost ‘the Poe’, but Clark Ashton Smiths stories certainly had plenty of macabre humour, and the subject matter echoes some of his writings.

But all this may be utter tosh and hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, as The Raven is a hoot, whatever its literary origin/influences. You just have to be in the right frame of mind, as it can be rather disorientating early on, if you are expecting a serious horror film and find yourself instead watching this strange comedic tale. Its one of those weird films in which nothing seems real, the characters behaving very oddly indeed.

The cast in particular is a joy, and includes a very young Jack Nicholson which seems quite bizarre, in a ‘was he ever really so young?’ sort of way (all the time I have known of him he always seemed middle-aged onwards re: The Shining, Batman etc, so much so that seeing him so young, and so, well, heroic/innocent/non-crazy in this does seem weird). Indeed Nicholson’s casting, considering his fame afterwards, in such a minor role in what is obviously a very b-movie production just makes the film seem more nuts than intended, somehow. Chief delight though are the great actors chewing up the scenery, hamming it up with the warm Matheson script (and ad-libbing and improvising like crazy when they aren’t, apparently). It looks like the film was just great fun to be involved with when making it, and its infectious too- by the midway point, whatever misconceptions you may have had, you can’t help but get carried away with it.

It is, to be sure, daft 1960s hokum, like the Batman tv series or the campier episodes of Star Trek. As opposed to Hammers more serious Gothic horrors of the period, these Corman films always had a West Coast, Rock and Roll, ironic sensibility and none more so than in this film.

The Haunted Palace (1963)

hp1One thing can be said of Vincent Price -and its a trait shared by the great Peter Cushing, too- is that he acted in his horror b-movies as if he was performing in a classic Shakespeare play. Its one of the reasons I love his movies so much- no matter how cheesy and dated they might seem now, at their beating, bloody heart is Price, a huge presence on the screen exuding the aura of a mighty thespian reciting Hamlet. Horror fans just love their sneered at, b-movie genre treated seriously by anyone, especially back prior to when The Exorcist made horror movies respectable. Price, like Cushing in his many Hammer pictures on the other side of the pond, makes the films worthwhile all by himself, made a pleasure just by his presence- Price had such charm and wit and conviction in what he was doing. One of the greats.

So The Haunted Palace. This one’s a strange one, as its not Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace at all- its really H P Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Roger Corman was well into his cycle of Poe films at the time for AIP and here tried to branch out a little, but it was ultimately felt that the film masquerading as a Poe film would make it an easier sell, so the film is bookended by Price reciting lines from a Poe poem entitled The Haunted Palace and… well, there you go, another Poe movie.

hp3In some ways this is no bad thing. Much of Lovecrafts original story (one of my personal favourites of HPL, even though the author himself thought little of it) is lost in the adaptation, the film-makers clearly leaning towards the safety-net of their earlier stylistic Poe adaptations, so calling it The Haunted Palace seems fair enough. There is, however, just enough Lovecraft to make the whole thing worthwhile with quite a bit of the original stories unnerving horror proving effective. I have always thought The Case of Charles Dexter Ward would make a fantastic horror film if treated with the reverence it really demands and Palace rather proves it. Some of the references and hints towards the girls of the village being bred with whatever creature crawls up out of the subterranean pit are quite disturbing. Its also nice, frankly, to see a serious Lovecraft adaptation, after being assaulted by all those horror-comedies like Reanimator and The Beyond, which threw in humour and shovels of gore replacing the psychological horror of the original stories. At least in Palace, diluted by the censorship of the time as it is, the real horror of Lovecraft yet lingers and is given serious attention. This is a horror film without the laughs or OTT gore, and on the whole it works very well indeed. I also got a kick out of the characters having names from the original Lovecraft story- I know it might seem dumb, but hearing names like Joseph Curwen and Charles Ward and Dr Willet bandied about was a genuine thrill.

hp2The sets and general production values look far more impressive than the films actual basement-level cost, and really holds up very well- even when the sets at times reveal their true nature by looking somewhat ‘fake’ it gives the film a strangely dreamlike quality that only increases its effectiveness. The dungeon with its wooden staircase and its pyramid-like pit, however, is a triumph and is really effective.

The films prologue details a village uprising in Arkham, that results in the burning of evil Warlock Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price), who has been taking village girls into his lair and subjecting them to blasphemous ordeals. Just before Curwen perishes in the flames, he curses Arkham and promises them that their descendants will yet suffer his wrath. 110 years later, Curwen’s great-great grandson Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) arrives in Arkham, oblivious to his ancestors dark deeds, and takes up residence in the mansion that overlooks the town. Ward and his wife (an excellent Debra Paget in her last film prior to her retirement) are shunned by the town folk, except for the town’s physician, Dr Willet, who tells them that the horribly disfigured people that they have seen amongst the townsfolk are considered part of Curwen’s curse on Arkham.

The mansion seems to hold a particular hold over Ward- particularly the fireside portrait of Joseph Curwen that reveals an uncanny likeness to Ward. It soon becomes evident that the evil spirit of Curwen yet lingers in the mansion, slowly but surely taking hold of Ward’s psyche until the innocent Ward is utterly overcome. Wards wife is horrified but powerless as Ward begins to resume his ancestors evil work, including resurrecting Curwen’s own long-dead wife and offering Ward’s wife to the demonic creature of the pit. Price is of course marvellous in the dual role, at times shifting from innocent to pure evil in the blink of an eye. He seems to be relishing the part- well, of course he is. He’s treating it like one of the greatest roles ever written, as he always seemed to.

The Haunted Palace is a very effective and enjoyable old-style horror film. Fans of Lovecraft will particularly enjoy picking out the Lovecraftian elements from the original story, but on the whole it works simply as a very good horror film, certainly on a par with much of Hammer’s output. This is clearly a contender for my choice of this years Halloween viewing come October…