Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

leave1I thought Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) was Born to be Bad, but she had nothing on Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), the beautiful psychotic narcissist who… well, I guess no man forgets this film in a hurry. 

I will confess, I took a little while getting into this- I think I was side-tracked by the gorgeous, golden-hued cinematography which suggests a melodramatic, intense romantic feature, belying the noir-tinged psychological thriller it turns out to be. It just looks so Gone With the Wind, its so, well, Hollywood Technicolour, larger than life- I knew of the year the film came out and assumed it would be post-War escapism. I honestly think that, had it been shot in traditional black and white, it would have been much more obviously classic noir, right from the start, but instead thanks to its Technicolour charms it all rather sneaks up on the viewer. Well, that’s how it progressed for me; I had no idea what was coming.

Gene Tierney, of course, starred in Laura, that highly-regarded (and rightfully so) noir that I watched last year, and the role for which she is best-known, but I think she might actually have been better in this. We first see her on a train, staring at a male passenger across from her – we think she’s slowly recognising him from the back cover of the book that she has been reading (he’s the novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde)) but instead she’s fascinated by his resemblance to her recently deceased father. We don’t know it yet, but Ellen has an unhealthy obsession regards her father and that’s soon to be transferred to Richard, and woe to anyone who gets in her way.  The two soon learn that they are vacationing in the same luxury resort in the desert, a favourite place of Ellen’s father, and it transpires that she has come to spread his ashes there.  Once this duty is done (whilst racing on horseback with big, sweeping music playing on the soundtrack) Ellen begins seducing Richard who is quickly beguiled by her mysterious enigmatic beauty. 

leave2Richard is pretty much a moth to the flame and something of an insipid wimp. Ellen’s fiancé, attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), suddenly arrives on a (typically) stormy night, furious that Ellen has broken their engagement. Much surprised by this unexpected turn of events, Richard is even more shocked when Ellen announces to everyone that she and Richard are to be married. He lets himself get swept away by the events and the whirlwind romance, clearly intoxicated by her beauty.

There’s a moment, perhaps midway through the film, which is so shocking that… well, its perhaps silly to worry about spoilers with a film already 76 years old, but hey, I’ve already stated I had no idea what I was watching. Richard has a younger brother, Danny, who has been crippled by polio and comes to live with the newly married couple. Ellen clearly resents the young man intruding upon her marital bliss, although outwardly she pretends to enjoy having him with them and content at the immediately extended family unit. What happens to poor Danny is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in any film; I just cannot believe it isn’t something as infamous as Psycho‘s shower scene, its remarkable that I’d never even heard about it.

By this point of course, Leave Her to Heaven has become some other film entirely from the one I thought I was watching. Its a trick increasingly difficult to fall for, the more films one watches, and of course I’ve seen many, many films, so its immediately a special experience. There’s a few moments later on… I mean, Ellen is one of the most incredible characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. Whether she actually qualifies as a femme fatale, I’m not certain, but she’s certainly bad to know, and a nightmare when the subject of her romantic interest. Gene Tierney was evidently some kind of extraordinary talent- I can’t imagine too many actresses carrying off a role such as this as well as she did. Its so strange that I haven’t seen many of her films – indeed, this is only the second, although I have her following film, Dragonwyck on an Indicator Blu-ray to watch soon. How strange this world is that I can ‘discover’ an actress and films like this after such a long time. Times and situations such as this, I rather wonder whatever next.

Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984)

bloodbth2This really isn’t the film the title suggests that it might be, and the oddest thing about it is that I had absolutely no idea that this film even existed until I stumbled upon it watching Netflix a few nights back. Some films slip into an obscurity so total its like they were never even made, and to be brutally honest, some of them deserve that too. Which is the case with this one.

Released way back in 1984 this British comedy-horror film stars a bunch of British television actors/comedians of the time and is thus something of a time capsule for those of us who lived through the 1970s/1980s. Kenny Everett, Pamela Stephenson, Gareth Hunt, Don Warrington, Cleo Rocos, Sheila Steafel… you might not know their names but if you were watching television here in the UK back then you’d remember their faces, possibly with nostalgic affection. The film even features a minor role (albeit important to whatever constitutes a plot role for horror favourite Vincent Price who, like Peter Cushing, had a peculiar penchant for appearing in any old rubbish as long as there was a pay check. 

But strike from your mind any thought that this might be some long-lost classic, because this film is terrible. It isn’t funny, it isn’t scary, its just appallingly bad. Most of the cast listed above are playing a bunch of scientists investigating alleged paranormal goings-on at Headstone Manor, a creepy old building with a history of death and violence, and none of them convince as actors never mind scientists: the acting wooden to the point of being inferior to a Gerry Anderson puppet show, and the direction woefully perfunctory and lame. Its a chore to get through and I winced most of the way through -partly out of embarrassment for those onscreen, partly through the jokes landing with repeated thuds. Its a cringe-worthy ordeal to sit through during which one frequently wonders, “what were they thinking?” 

The film was written by Barry Cryer, something of a legend in British television comedy, who worked on several comedy shows of that era like The Two Ronnies, Morecombe and Wise and many others, but most notably The Kenny Everett Video Cassette, which was Everett’s hugely popular comedy series airing between 1978-1981 that I loved growing up, and likely landed him this gig which proved to be Everett’s one ill-fated foray into movies. Lampooning horror tropes of the time, this could have been quite fun, but it fails to hit the mark of aping the style of the 1960s Hammer horrors that its supposedly making fun of. It feels more like a television comedy sketch stretched too far, too much a thing of the early 1980s when it should have been more of the gothic horror of two decades before with an affectionate comedy bent. This film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be- at least the infamous Carry On films knew what they were, and Carry On Screaming is some kind of golden classic compared to this and far more successfully nails its horror-comedy balance.

bloodbthIt probably doesn’t help that the budget must have been pretty dire;  there’s indications that much of it was shot under considerable time-pressure, resulting in blatant continuity errors and a disjointed story that really makes no sense whatsoever. Vincent Price for instance, nominally playing the major villain evidently filmed his scenes quite apart from everyone else. It has the effect that his scenes seem from some other movie just edited in-between scenes featuring Everett and company exploring the manor (which Price never enters, and with whom Price never shares any screen-time). Worse, Price is written out suddenly as if they literally ran out of time (was he available for just three days or something?) so he just seems to disappear midway through. I accept that in a horror-comedy lampooning horror tropes the last thing one should expect is a sensical storyline or anything approaching genuine horror, but all the same, when you have a guy as canonical as Vincent Price in a film, you should use him as such. Price was always so larger-than-life that part of the pleasure of any of his horror films was his tendency to play things big, almost parodying the very horrors he was starring in (whereas Peter Cushing would underplay roles, not drawing attention to himself). Mind, there is some pleasure in seeing that Price was clearly enjoying himself as usual, so at lest some good came from the film.

Maybe they just couldn’t afford him to be around sufficiently enough to use him to the films advantage. In defence of the film, one cannot appreciate the pressures when making a film, the money and time constraints at the time. Which sounds like I’m making excuses for a film being woeful, but its obvious that a British film such as this is an entirely different enterprise to a $200 million Hollywood blockbuster that turns out appalling. Some scenes such as a flashback of Everett’s character messing up a surgery is a blatant one-camera piece of schtick that looks like something direct from his television sketch show. I can imagine in some film projects a director shooting retakes until he can say “that’s perfect!” whereas I imagine director Ray Cameron here would just say “that’ll do!” and then move on to the next (likely unprepared) scene. Its just the reality of low-budget film-making, particularly back in the early 1980s here in Britain, when we hardly had any film industry at all.

So really one to avoid then, unless the sheer curiosity of this strange oddity overwhelms you, as it did me. Its really something of a time capsule for those of us who grew up back then, albeit perhaps one that shouldn’t have been dug up yet. I wonder how on Earth Netflix got a hold of it? I suppose its just further proof that Netflix will stream anything and everything.

The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967)

fu manchu boxIndicator are releasing in October a Blu-ray box-set of the Fu Manchu film series starring Christopher Lee as the nefarious super-villain- a huge fan of their Hammer box-sets, I was pretty intrigued they would go to all that effort – its the usual bonanza of restored films, commentary tracks, archive audio recordings and new video interviews – considering that the films are largely frowned upon today in just the same way as similar Hammer material of that era. Discarding all the racial stereotyping issues, I was unimpressed, really, by Hammer’s The Terror of the Tongs (1961) that appeared in Indicator’s third Hammer set last year- I thought it was a very lacklustre effort only enlivened by a typical Christopher Lee performance elevating it to Shakespearean drama. Someone obviously noticed something in Lee’s unofficial Fu Manchu to warrant hiring him for the real thing, because five official Sax Rohmer adaptations followed: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and finally The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).

I’d never seen any of them, but the geek and film-fan in me seems to be instinctively drawn to box-sets such as this, in a similar way as Arrow’s The Complete Dr Phibes Blu-ray set with its gloriously rotten films staring the wonderful Vincent Price. I imagined that the Fu Manchu series were at least as politically incorrect and racially blundering as Hammers The Terror of the Tongs, and marvelled at how ill-timed the release seemed to be, considering everything going on in the world today.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, but I noticed Talking Pictures, yet again proving to be a marvel as they broadcast the third entry in the series just a few days ago. I set the Tivo (Talking Pictures always schedule stuff at exactly the time that its impossible to watch it), and yesterday gave it a go.

fu manchu1I’ll cut to the chase- I’ve ordered the Indicator Fu Manchu box. Yes it was bad, but it was bad in a good way; surprisingly well made (far more ambitious and successful than Hammer’s effort) with a good cast and impressive locations and sets, and I found it a great pulp yarn. Yes its very politically incorrect and you’d never get this kind of thing made today, but that’s exactly part of the films appeal: its all rather insane and feels so wrong but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu is the third film in the series, which means, in the time-honoured tradition of film cycles, that’s its worse than the first two but better than the last two, and gauging those other films on the merits of this one, I have to say, this series could well prove to be a delirious blast this Autumn. 

fu manchu2There’s a scene in The Vengeance of Fu Manchu set in the super-villains lair in which an American crook perpetually doffed with  a cowboy stetson is torturing a woman stretched out on a rack while her father is forced to look on from a cage suspended above: its decidedly strange and as crazy as it might sound. Considering the sensitivities regards western actors playing Asian characters these days, this film also features the novel spin (I doubt it qualifies as serious social commentary) of a plot-point in which an Asian character is given plastic surgery in order to pose as white man and commit murder.

I should point out my affection for a series of Robert E Howard yarns, Skull-Face in particular, but he did a run of Weird Menace stories for the pulps, which Howard wrote obviously inspired/indebted by the Sax Rohmer tales of Fu Manchu and the Western world under the threat of degenerate Asian menace. Clearly they are of their time and have to be accepted as such, but Howard was a masterful storyteller and wrote incredibly powerful potboilers (Skull-Face just blew my teenage mind back in the day). I can’t speak for the original Rohmer yarns as I never read them but Howard was a brilliant pulp writer. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu rather appealed to that love of mine for those Howard stories.

So I look forward to rewatching this film in high quality- all five films have been remastered in 4K from the original negatives for Indicator’s box-set – and naturally watching all the films in order.  Should be a guilty blast, if nothing else. We can’t get The Abyss on Blu-ray but we can get these Fu Manchu films… its a crazy bloody world, but I figure you just have to go with it.

 

Laura

laua1Moving backwards in time from 1965’s Bunny Lake is Missing, my delve into the directing work of Otto Preminger now turns to 1944’s film noir Laura, a tale of romantic obsession. In some ways it seems an unlikely film noir: its high society setting of affluent people seems a strange milieu for a film noir, however, and I must confess that I think its a curious entry in that genre. Sure, we have the hard-boiled, world-weary detective and visually many staples of the genre in its expressionistic cinematography, some of the iconography of the film, etc. In some ways, though, the film straddles two, if not more,  genres- a mid-film twist that pulls the rug from film noir tradition and settles into romantic melodrama, if anything. Its a little unsettling and not entirely successful; a romance between detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) and Laura (Gene Tierney) feels too sudden, too melodramatic- not so much McPherson’s fascination with the enigmatic subject of his murder investigation, but rather how Laura suddenly seems to fall head over heels for this cold man she finds in her apartment. Its something that doesn’t really work that feels something more of an idealistic romance picture than a dark foreboding noir. Its the weak element in an otherwise strong picture, for me, and whenever the swooning Laura calls him “Mark” I always felt like it was coming out of nowhere, something that isn’t earned. something almost absurd.

Indeed, part of the fascination of this film is the positioning of Laura as a rather unlikely, and quite unwitting, femme fatale. Usually in these noir, the central femme fatale is a  beautiful and seductive woman using her charms to ensnare her lovers, often leading male characters into a deadly doom or trap. In many ways Laura fits the bill, but she doesn’t seem to knowingly do this: she is the almost helpless subject of male fascination: Waldo Lydecker (an outstanding Clifton Webb) who has moulded Laura into his object of female perfection,  Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) a caddish lothario who is using Laura to climb the social ladder, and Detective Mark McPherson, who becomes far too intrigued by Laura’s portrait and recollections he is told of her. Laura doesn’t really engineer any of this, not in the traditional noir sense, and this makes the film perhaps more interesting think it might be. It reminded me greatly of Hitchcock’s later Vertigo, and perhaps it was an inspiration for Hitchcock. Laura seems rather submissive at times, easily moulded by Waldo, easily seduced by Shelby and suddenly helplessly attracted to Mark: odd ways for a femme fatale to behave in a noir: indeed, she seems more trapped than anyone in some ways.

laura2I suspect that the strange incongruities of logic within the film, may actually make the film more rewarding on subsequent viewings: indeed, I gather the film has become only more successful and highly-regarded over the decades. We are told the story of Laura through a number of different viewpoints, and perhaps all of them prove to be unreliable narrators. Certainly there seems obvious parallels between Laura Hunt and Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks, a wholesome cheerleader to some but someone quite different and darker to others, facets revealed over time as that tv series ran its course. Is the ‘real’ story, or truth of the film, something we discover for ourselves, or is it just the viewer managing the films shortcomings? Maybe I’ll have an opinion on this in a few years time.

I watched Laura on a very fine Blu-ray from Eureka, that comes with two audio commentaries that I really should have on my immediate ‘to-do’ list. Its a very good package and is currently quite cheap on Amazon: alas, my efforts to curtail my spending on discs appears to have been temporarily undone by Laura’s charms- oddly fitting, though, that, considering the subject of the film itself.

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.

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.

 

Dr.Phibes Rises Again (1972)

phibes2016.49: Dr.Phibes Rises Again (Blu-ray)

Now this film is a hoot. More a comedy than a horror film, the campness that runs throughout the film is irresistible once you’re in the right frame of mind- although the film is set in 1928 there is something oddly perfect when Phibes sings “Over The Rainbow” at the end, a song not written until ten years later in 1938. Likewise at the start of the film, when Phibes and the beautiful Vulnavia rise via church-organ elevator to the surface from his underground tomb, they are suddenly wearing completely different clothes in a reverse of the Batcave gag from Adam West’s Batman tv series. There’s all sorts of oddness like that which you just have to go with.

Of course, chief joy about this film is simply that it’s a Vincent Price movie. This guy has such a flamboyant, larger than life screen charisma that he carries it all with consummate ease, tongue firmly in cheek as his murderous Dr Phibes returns to once more try to raise his beloved wife from the dead (or half-dead, as Caroline Munro looks pretty gorgeous for an ageless corpse, another one of the films crazy oddities). While this film is weaker than the original The Abominable Dr Phibes it’s nonetheless a wonderful, odd little film littered with all sorts of craziness and the sort of intricate deaths that have you guessing where the next one is coming from.

One of the films particular pleasures is simply its cast of largely British thespians (the film was shot chiefly at Elstree). The wonderful Terry-Thomas displays his perfect comedy timing in a charming cameo, and we even get Peter Cushing in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo he likely shot in just half an hour. Fiona Lewis (who some will remember from Joe Dante’s Innerspace years later) plays the villain’s girlfriend, and Caroline Munro reprises her finest acting role -that of a pretty corpse. Added to that we get the wonderful Hugh Griffith, Beryl Read and a very young John Thaw as a hapless archeologist, and Peter Jeffrey and John Cater reprising their roles as the most inept detectives England ever produced. Of course we also have the beautiful ice maiden Valli Kemp as the mysterious Vulnavia and Robert Quarry, seemingly channeling Christopher Lee as Phibes’ chief foil, the villainous but oddly conflicted Biederbeck.

phibes2The sets are colourful and camp but oddly impressive, and there is a pervasive art deco/Seventies pop-art feel to it that is rather bizarre from the vantage-point of 2016. The score by John Gale is really so good it seems it must have originally been destined for some other (better) film.

Its just a shame this was the last appearance of Dr Phibes, although him singing “Over The Rainbow” is perhaps a worthy and fitting send-off. We won’t see films like this again, just as we won’t see charismatic charmers like Vincent Price chewing up the scenery like this again either. This is a better ‘bad’ movie than most people give it credit for, I’m sure.

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…