The Films of Charles Dexter Ward

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Out of the whole Lovecraft canon, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward on the face of it looks like a good candidate for cinematic adaptation. You have a strong mystery driving the narrative, a powerful plot twist, and most of the monstrosities actually encountered “on stage” during the story are human-scale things – the mutilated results of Joseph Curwen’s necromantic experiments. Even better, it’s written in a pseudo-documentary style which assembles the facts in the case but doesn’t give a scene-by-scene breakdown of the story, which on the one hand poses a challenge for anyone attempting to adapt it but on the other hand also means you have a lot of leeway to adapt it whilst still remaining fairly true to the original.

It’s no surprise, then, that it was the first of Lovecraft’s stories to be adapted for the big screen – but both that original adaptation and a second attempt in the 1990s have some pretty severe issues. Let’s raise them up from their essential salts and check ’em out, eh?

The Haunted Palace

This is part of Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s series of loose Edgar Allen Poe adaptations – in this case, it’s particularly loose, since although it takes its title from the Poe poem (and quotes it at one point in the script), the vague outline of the plot is borrowed from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, making this the first Lovecraft adaptation to hit the big screen.

I say the vague outline, because the story (scripted by Charles Beaumont) differs from the Lovecraft original in several ways – and in fact, you could make a solid argument that it resembles an adaptation of the “Standard Narrative” August Derleth used in his Lovecraft pastiches (as I discussed here) than it does an adaptation of the novel. You have the protagonist, Charles Dexter Ward (Price), coming onto the scene when he unexpectedly inherits Curwen’s house – nothing of the sort happens in the novel, but it’s a major part of the Standard Narrative. You have the locals be a superstitious lot who are terrified of the old evil starting again; this happens all the time in the Standard Narrative, but is explicitly not the case in the novel – Arkham has very specifically forgotten Curwen.

There’s even a Derlethian Mythos Dump in the form of a rambling rant from the local doctor in one scene about the Necronomicon and Cthulhu and all that jazz in a way which, true to the typical Derlethian Mythos Dump, sheds little new light on the proceedings, and a riff on The Shadow Over Innsmouth when it turns out that one of Curwen’s experiments involved crossbreeding local yokels with Mythos races, resulting in generations of profoundly affected children being born to the townsfolk (though admittedly, the idea of Curwen’s experiments poisoning the area somehow feels like the sort of thing which could naturally have fitted into the original novel but wasn’t mentioned).

The strong Derleth influence may be combination of the force he exerted at the time over Lovecraft criticism and interpretation and the the fact that this came out when Derleth had polluted Lovecraft’s bibliography with those fake collaborations of his. Derleth would express bemusement at the adaptation, but not sufficient self-awareness to realise that perhaps its disloyalty to the original may in a large part be his fault. Still, between the campy acting and Corman’s wild visual imagination this at least a much more entertaining delivery of the Derleth Standard Narrative than Derleth’s clunky prose ever offered. In the name of providing a more stimulating aesthetic, Corman and Beaumont decide to shift Ward’s era some 30-odd years into the past, so that a more Victorian style can come out to play.

Additional changes seem to be the result of an attempt to make the title a bit more relevant than it would otherwise be. Making Curwen’s old home a big fancy palace is the major shift there, though I would actually say it is adeptly handled and quite cleverly done: there’s a passing reference to the locals believing that the palace was imported from Europe somewhere, but the dialogue makes it clear that they don’t have a very firm idea of where it actually hails from, which is a nicely subtle way of suggesting that it was transferred here from some other plane where the Old Ones rule supreme – which, in turn, makes the fact that there’s a rapey Great Old One in the basement seem more plausible.

Ah, yes, about that. So, the rapey Great Old One is the vector for the contamination of the town’s bloodlines, which Curwen brought about by hypnotising local hotties into visiting at the dead of night to get impregnated. This is entirely original to the movie, and seems to have been invented as a result of Corman and Beaumont not being sure of how deep to get into the necromancy angle from the original. On the one hand, it’s still present; on the other hand. It’s toned down and is no longer the primary focus of Curwen’s activities.

Most particularly, the weird scientific-mystical necromancy of the original novel is no longer the basis of Curwen’s own return; instead, it is simple possession. There are many disloyalties to the original novel, small and large, that I could forgive, but this robs it of its entire point: Lovecraft’s whole approach to the story is dedicated to making it look like a story of possession, right until he drops the plot twist that no such thing has happened at all. To change this up and make it straightforward possession is like doing an adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray where the picture doesn’t age and Dorian ages like a normal human being.

The possession angle is made even more risible by the really ham-fisted way it’s telegraphed to the audience – whenever someone gets possessed by Curwen or one of his goons, they end up wearing really comically obvious grey facepaint, which makes you wonder why people don’t immediately sit them down and fetch a doctor to deal with their obvious medical crisis.

Another way Beaumont needlessly complicates the process of adapting the story is in the question of who gets to be the protagonist, investigating Charles’ strange behaviour at the behest of his family. In the original novel, it’s Dr Willett, an old friend of Ward’s family – but because Ward’s family live far away in this take on the story, that wouldn’t work. There is a local “Dr Willet” here, played by a dull as ditchwater Frank Maxwell, but he doesn’t do much beyond delivering the Derlethian Mythos Dump and then showing up at the end to save the day. Beaumont also invents the character of Anne Ward (Debra Paget), Charles’ wife, but in keeping with the unfortunate cliches of the time she doesn’t so much get to be a heroic investigator as a damsel in distress, threatened with rape both by Curwen possessing Charles and by the monster in the basement.

(The basement monster, by the way, is just awful – perhaps the worst Corman monster since the angry carrot in It Conquered the World. Early shots of it through a grate and heavy-handed visual effects disguise the fact that it’s an immobile model well enough, but at the climax, when it’s supposed to be climbing up through the grate to get Anna, it just looks terrible.)

The upshot of this is that this is a movie without any clear hero or main protagonist. It’s almost like Beaumont was under the impression that Ward was meant to be the protagonist, but that’s not the case in the original novel (he’s a mystery to be investigated there, not the primary investigator), and it doesn’t really work for the movie either.

Yet another new angle added by Beaumont is a killing spree, in which Curwen uses his dark powers to murder the descendants of the angry mob that burned him back in the 1700s. There’s almost something useful there – it feels like a much less stylish precursor to Vincent Price’s later “thematic serial killing” movies like The Abominable Dr. Phibes or Theatre of Blood, but the killings themselves aren’t especially creative.

Beaumont seems to try to use the angry townsfolk both in Curwen’s time and Ward’s as parallels to Southern lynch mobs, right down to Dr Willet chiding the citizens of Arkham for seeing Ward as being a threat to “their women” – protection of women being the fig leaf of justification typically used for lynch mobs in the South. This is an interesting angle which is problematic on several levels. Firstly, if you’re going to draw that comparison in a movie, it would be nice if your movie included a single black actor, but this cast is as white as they come. Secondly, the residents of Arkham were actually entirely justified in seeing Curwen as a danger to them and their loved ones, and Ward as a potential return of their danger, whereas Southern lynch mobs were entirely unjustifiable.

I think the idea is to make the townsfolk seem a potential threat to Ward, who we want to root for and see prevail over Curwen’s influence, but even so this presentation is actually more dodgy than Lovecraft’s handling of the vigilantes who take down Curwen in his original lifetime in the novel – who don’t in the slightest seem like an overpowering lynch mob murdering a man who’s basically defenceless against their assault. (In fact, they barely survive the experience.) Really, it takes a lot to do a Lovecraft adaptation and find a whole new way to make the material racist that Lovecraft himself hadn’t even thought of.

The emphasis puts on angry gangs of Arkham residents also raises a massive plot hole. A mob with torches is shown as being perfectly capable of burning down Curwen’s house at the end of movie, but no convincing reason is offered for why the original mob couldn’t do it at the start of the movie. They were right there, they had the burning torches in their hands, they had every motivation to want to destroy the place. (We’re also asked to imagine that over a century has passed without arsonists from the town plucking up the courage to burn down the hated, looming structure.)

In the original story, Curwen’s home was actually destroyed by the mob that killed him – but rather than going into the labyrinthine tunnels underneath, they simply blocked them up, making this yet another instance where Corman/Beaumont’s changes end up needlessly making problems – but, of course, had they gone with this plot point he wouldn’t have had a cool haunted palace to justify the title!

Right there is a microcosm of the basic problem with this movie. The problem isn’t that it’s a not especially loyal adaptation: it’s that the particular ways it chooses to be disloyal to the original are pointless and unhelpful. Corman and Beaumont’s deletions, additions, and changes don’t improve the story or make it more suitable for presentation as a movie, or shed an interesting new light on the themes or introduce an interesting new take on the scenario; instead, they just make the movie cluttered and messy, full of all sorts of different strands which are just left sitting there. He doesn’t really do anything with the mutant citizens, he doesn’t really do anything with the Mythos lore vomited forth in the info-dump, Anne doesn’t get to do anything interesting and the big bad is a massive disappointment. Whilst a 100% loyal adaptation would be tricky to do and wouldn’t necessarily make a good movie, it would at least have the advantage of not having all this weird baggage stacked on top of it.

One last thought: if you were going to pick out a Lovecraft story that could fit the title The Haunted Palace, why go for Charles Dexter Ward when The Rats In the Walls fits perfectly?

The Resurrected

Directed by Dan O’Bannon from a script by Brent V. Friedman, this 1991 adaptation is much more loyal to the original story, at least in terms of the outline of the plot and the major incidents. Where it differs, it differs intelligently; for instance, the order in which incidents are narrated is very different, because O’Bannon understands, as Lovecraft understood, that the order you put facts in front of an audience matters, and O’Bannon also understands that the optimal ordering for prose fiction is not necessarily the best order for a movie.

Some of O’Bannon/Friedman’s changes are an improvement on the original, in fact. For instance, Ward (played this time by Chris Sarandon) is still old money, but rather than being an awkward young man as he is in the original story, here he’s a successful, well-established adult, married, and is the head of research at a cosmetics company – so as well as being independently wealthy, there’s also a good reason for him to have a laboratory at home, whereas in the original novel it’s always a little rich that Ward’s parents let him run this home lab for as long as they do. (OK, Lovecraft’s mum let him do a lot of home self-study in chemistry after he dropped out of high school, but incidents which make sense in real life can come across as being unrealistic in fiction.)

The addition of Ward’s wife Claire (Jane Sibbett) sets up the vector to bring in our protagonist – John March (John Terry), a private investigator hired by Claire to investigate why Ward has been behaving so oddly after he moves out of the family home to set up in a rural house formerly belonging to Ward – an incident which would correspond to the point quite late in the novel where Ward goes off and lives in this newly-built bungalow over the site of Curwen’s old estate.

Making the lead character a private eye isn’t a terrible decision; there’s good precedent in the novel, in which Ward’s parents hire investigators to look into his affairs at around this same point in the story, and it’s a familiar cinematic trope that allows the character to have a strong motivation to go poking about in mysteries without us needing much convincing to accept that they are doing that (whereas making the family doctor the main investigator, as in the novel, would require O’Bannon to spend a little more time explaining who they are and what their connection to Ward and why they’re going above and beyond the call of medical duty here).

However, John Terry is given precious little meat to work with in his characterisation of March, making him an almost painfully generic detective, and it isn’t helped that the script seems to have him do a bunch of hardboiled detective-y stuff just by default. For instance, there’s a bit where he sleeps at his office rather than at his home for no apparent reason other than that’s the sort of stuff detectives do when cases get intense. Admittedly, he’d been working late – but working late looking up stuff on a computer database, and I can’t believe a guy flash enough to have a carphone at this point in time wouldn’t also arrange to have dial-up access at home. Then again, this may be a budgetary thing, since it means they don’t have to make an entire set up just to be March’s home.

Likewise, in principle the idea of setting the film in the modern day makes sense – after all, it was a modern-day story to Lovecraft when he wrote it, and major technological advances in the intervening six decades hadn’t hit the point where the original story wouldn’t work. However, as well as updating the setting, O’Bannon seems to spend about half the film – though by far from all of it – trying to riff on the hot occult detective show of the era, Twin Peaks. You have your sharply-dressed, dictaphone-wielding detective who has weird dream sequences that are germane to the mystery, you have people looking very stylish in a deliberately vintage sort of way, you have characters who are consciously presented as being quirky and characterful, you have the use of rumbling industrial noises and mysterious bass winds on the soundtrack, you have lots of shots of beautiful, scenic forested areas and people driving through them… it isn’t the sort of outright clumsy and overly blatant pastiche that Wild Palms was, but it is close enough to be noticeable, though the Twin Peaks riffing falls away somewhat partway through the movie – particularly once the characters start exploring the dungeon underneath Curwen’s home.

(Naturally, the dungeoneering bit is quite good, because characters rushing around in darkened corridors haunted by monsters is right in O’Bannon’s wheelhouse. In particular, he chooses the most delicious times for the lights to fail.)

Now, it would be interesting to know whether all this Twin Peaks stuff and the corny detective tropes were in the original version of the script or not – or, for that matter, the original cut of the movie. Word is that after disappointing test screenings the movie was subjected to extensive reshoots, recuts, and alterations at the hands of the studio, and I wonder whether March was made more of a two-dimensional character for the sake of pandering to audience expectations.

I also suspect that the actual progress of the investigation was wrecked by the alterations. In the final cut March jumps to the conclusion that Ward has deluded himself into thinking he’s Curwen solely on the grounds of some weird behaviour on his part – a much too specific diagnosis based on what he’s seen so far. If you’ve read the story, you know that this was a theory people had raised, but if you haven’t you’ll be confused by this and other inferences March draws. It seems like a good swathe of the investigation prior to March and Claire making the decision to have Ward committed to mental hospital is truncated, which is probably good for running time, but O’Bannon fails to communicate to the audience why Ward’s behaviour suggests outright delusional behaviour – most of what we find out prior to that point seems more suggestive of criminal conspiracy rather than mental illness.

That isn’t even the only instance where the intervening steps in a character’s thought process and character progression feel like they’ve been skipped over. March puts together how to make the resurrection process work surprisingly easily, and he and the others are terribly willing to contemplate blowing up Curwen’s house with explosives even before they have any idea of what’s down there. (And how do they get away with that once they do it? Admittedly it’s a rural area, but it’s well-established in the earlier segments of the film that the neighbours are nosy enough to note all sorts of much more subtle goings-on there, so how would they miss a comically huge explosion like the one depicted here?)

I also wonder whether the reshoots have an impact on Chris Sarandon’s performance, which is extremely inconsistent. He’s alright when he is playing Ward, and OK when he’s playing Curwen pretending to be Ward, but his performance as Curwen giving March a villain monologue at the end is terrible. Part of this is due to the awful dialogue he’s given; the final confrontation between March and Curwen is drawn out longer than it needs to be in order to work in more cosmic-scale horror by having Curwen ramble about it, which doubtless tickles the fancy of fandom but does work to the movie’s detriment. (Also, Curwen is given a hitherto unhinted-at level of super-strength at the conclusion solely so there can be a final fight between him and March.)

That said, the movie does has its good points. O’Bannon has a good eye for visuals, especially the little subtle touches – for instance, in Ward’s home laboratory there’s a copy of William Blake’s famous picture of Saturn eating his children, which has been used in goodness knows how many horror contexts but is rarely more appropriate than it is here when you consider Curwen’s interactions with Ward. Likewise, there’s some nice little visual hints to allow you to spot the differences between Ward and Curwen: for instance, Curwen has much nastier teeth than Ward, because for all their physical resemblance there’s still centuries of advances in dentistry and toothbrushes distinguishing them. On a more overt level, the realisation of the creatures who’ve been brought back incomplete is chillingly effective.

To the extent that the conclusion of The Resurrected despite Sarandon’s scenery-chewing, it works because of the ways in which it chooses to be disloyal to the original, which are a perfect example of how you can change a story for the adaptation process to make it better for the medium you are adapting to. The use of an incantation to Yog-Sothoth as part of the resurrection process is removed entirely from the story – a good call because, whilst it’s effective in prose, it would have risked looking dorky in a cinematic context. (Think of the ridiculous ending of AIP’s Dunwich Horror adaptation.) The different, abbreviated resurrection process means that there’s no dismissal spell, which means the original ending can’t work, but O’Bannon and Friedman comes up with a really elegant new resolution which retains the power of the original and works along similar lines but (crucially for cinematic purposes) is more visually striking, ensuring that there is at least at the end a surprise or two for those of us who know the story (though a surprise entirely thematically appropriate to the story as established so far).

At the same time, a good ending is not quite enough to yield a good film. The Resurrected is celebrated in fan circles for its fidelity to the original story, but I think on balance this has been overstated – perhaps because it is, at least, a more loyal adaptation than The Haunted Palace – but the fact remains that it’s largely a big, muddled also-ran of early 1990s horror which, beyond having a quite effective conclusion, is a bit too much of mess to be especially satisfying and has dated poorly.

2 thoughts on “The Films of Charles Dexter Ward

  1. Pingback: Besieged By Horror In a Darkplace – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: What Price Poe? – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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