In the 18th Century American village of Arkham, the locals are suspicious of the owner of the palace on the cliff top, Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price). They believe he is a warlock who has been planning to sacrifice a young woman he has placed under a trance, and they're not far wrong. Arriving at the palace doors that night, they are greeted by Curwen and his mistress, and decide to take the law into their own hands. Curwen is dragged out, bound to a tree and burned alive, but not before he places a curse on the village...
Although Edgar Allan Poe's name is on this film, technically it's not part of producer and director Roger Corman's Poe cycle, because this tale was actually based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, adapted by Charles Beaumont. That's not to say it shares none of the same traits with the Poe films, because once again there is the stifling influence of the death and the dead hanging over the characters, only here mixed with the dark, Lovecraftian Gods who dwell on the other side of reality, biding their time until they manage to break through.
One hundred and ten years later, Curwen's great-great grandson Charles Dexter Ward (also played by Price) arrives in Arkham accompanied by his wife (Debra Paget), after inheriting the palace. The villagers make no gestures towards welcoming them, as they are suffering the curse of Curwen that leaves many of them mutated, as though the curse involves inbreeding, especially as the same actors play the descendants of the people who put the warlock to death.
Now Ward is here, the spirit of Curwen begins to possess him. The caretaker of the palace is Simon, played by Lon Chaney Jr, and it's one of the pleasures of this film that we get to see Chaney and Price in scenes together, even if Chaney looks ill (and not because of his green faced makeup, either). Simon is in fact one of the warlocks who was originally in league with Curwen, and he wastes no time in bringing him back.
Curwen is one of Price's most despicable characters, and even Price's charm can't take the edge off of the warlock's drive for vengeance, which not only has him burning the descendants of his tormentors to death, but also sacrificing Mrs Ward. Corman relies heavily on atmosphere, meaning a lot of wandering about in the cavernous, cobwebby, shadowy sets, but he's not above the odd shock to relieve the tension.
The film is less concerned with the demon in the cellar than with the insidious evil of Curwen, and manages a number of creepy scenes, such as the Wards being advanced upon by the mutants, that make this worthwhile, and better than its unfairly obscure reputation would have you expect. It's definitely one of the best (if looser) Lovecraft adaptations, even if the oppressive sense of overwhelming, otherworldly evil is largely substituted with something more man made. Music by Ronald Stein.