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HAUNTED PALACE, THE(director: Roger Corman; screenwriters: Charles Beaumont/from an H.P. Lovecraft story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” & an Edgar Allan Poe poem; cinematographer: Floyd Crosby; editor: Ronald Sinclair; cast: Vincent Price (Charles Dexter Ward), Debra Paget (Ann Ward), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Simon), Frank Maxwell (Dr. Willet), Leo Gordon (Ezra Weeden), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Micah/Peter Smith), John Dierkes (Jacob West), Cathy Merchant (Hester); Runtime: 86; American International Pictures; 1963)
“Vincent Price is deliciously maddening.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This film is tailor-made for those who love all the following in their horror tales: schlock, an old-fashioned Grand Guignol story, and a hammy performance. Well, you get all that here. Vincent Price is deliciously maddening in a dual role as the warlock Joseph Kerwin and as his great-great-grandson Charles Dexter Ward. Ward returns sometime in the late 19th century to Arkham, a small village in New England, to inherit the palace of the warlock Joseph Kerwin — someone he bears an uncanny resemblance to. Kerwin was burned-to-the-stake by these villagers 110 years ago for practicing evil magic and cursed the town before he died, swearing revenge by giving a wonderfully damming speech before his demise.

Warning: spoilers to follow.

Arriving by carriage to Arkham to claim their inheritance, Charles and his wife Ann (Debra Paget) are told that the town is haunted and that they are not wanted here. They are frightened when they witness the town mutants in the street (those who were born with severe birth defects), but refuse to leave without visiting their castle. When they enter the Burning Man Tavern to ask for directions, they are shunned except by Dr. Willet (Maxwell). Willet will tell them of the legend of the palace they inherited and of how his great-great-grandfather was accused of being a warlock. The grandfather, Kerwin, came to the village 150 years ago and built his palace out of stone transported from Europe, where he conducted secret experiments in the occult. It was believed he communicated with the dark underground gods and tried to bring them back to life. The grandfather brought to his palace the town’s young women by putting them in a trance as his hope was for them to give birth to a new species on Earth, one with the powers derived from hell. When Kerwin’s first wife died, he had Hester (Cathy Merchant), the beautiful fiancée of one of the town’s leading citizens, Ezra Weeden (Leo Gordon), come live with him. The warlock used the book of Necronomican to get the spells and chants and formulas for his black magic. One night Ezra and Micah (Elisha) spotted a trance-like young woman crossing the cemetery and entering the warlock’s palace and got the villagers to burn him at the stake…taking the law into their own hands.

In Kerwin’s palace Charles is greeted by his hulking manservant Simon (Lon Chaney Jr.), who tells him that he is here to serve him. Soon a battle of wills begins, as the spirit of the warlock tries to enter the spirit of Charles and take control of his body. Charles has a strong will of his own and they battle for control, with Charles being the good guy and the warlock still hellbent on revenge to the relatives who acted against him. The warlock also wants to resurrect Hester from the dead and continue with Simon and another assistant hidden in the palace’s secret chamber, Jacob (Dierkes), his secret occult experiments. Well…you can imagine how disconcerting that is to those who hang out in the Burning Man Tavern, as they get wind of what’s going on in the palace and decide to act in the old-fashioned way to rid themselves of a threat!

The film was atmospheric — with plenty of cobwebs, dark corners, and ghoulish creatures around to add to the eerie tale. I suppose it was chilling enough, but it still lacked that missing magical ingredient to make this horror story more satisfying. I think the problem was it dragged after the exciting opening scene and never could pick up steam again. This turns out to be a minor film from Roger Corman’s oeuvre, not up to his other more daringly told horror tales. Yet, it is enjoyable in a goofy sort of way.

It was the last film role for Debra Paget. She married her third husband a Chinese-American oil millionaire and retired (they divorced in 1971).

REVIEWED ON 12/26/2000 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”