The Dunwich Horror
HP Lovecraft purists might understandably object to the liberties taken by this cheapie Roger Corman adaptation, and no one is going to reach the end credits utterly unnerved, but it isn’t a complete wash-out. As clumsy as the direction and storytelling often are, The Dunwich Horror is anchored by a smoothly creepy performance from one Dean Stockwell. Appropriately, he sports a diabolical perm to match his dark dealings.
Stockwell is Wilbur Whateley, a “student of the occult” who wishes to “borrow” a rare copy of the Necronomicon belonging to Dr Armitage (Ed Begley, in his last film role). His plan is to unlock the gates to another dimension, where the Old Ones reside. Nancy (Sandra Dee), a student of Armitage, falls under Whateley’s spell and returns with him to his family pile in the town of Dunwich. She learns of the family’s dark past, including the lynching of Wilbur’s great grandfather for beliefs Wilbur also espouses. Wilbur’s mother resides in the local asylum (“It’s hard to believe she’s only 45 years old”) and something lurks upstairs behind lock and key. And just what does Wilbur have planned for Nancy? Not romance, that’s for sure.
Corman’s American International Pictures had long since left behind the grudging respect garnered by his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. At the time The Dunwich Horror was released, AIP’s repertoire had extended to counterculture exploitation romps like The Trip and Psych-Out. Corman had dabbled in Lovecraft before, 1965’s Die, Monster, Die! (if nothing else, a more arresting title than that of the original story, The Colour Out of Space). That picture received criticism from Lovercraftites that it was attempting to channel Corman’s Poe pictures rather than render the necrotic spirit of Lovecraft (Corman being so cheerfully rip-off minded, this is probable rather than possible). Certainly, while I haven’t seen Monster, Dunwich’s cinematography immediately evokes the lurid decay of the Corman Poe movies.
Daniel Haller directed both these Lovecrafts, suggesting Corman wanted something tonally similar unless he was just being loyal. Haller was a set designer on the Poe adaptations and Monster was his first directing gig, followed by a couple of AIP motorcycle pictures. He didn’t take long to settle into TV work, though, subsequently tackling the likes of Kojak, Battlestar Galactica, The Fall Guy and Knight Rider (and Manimal, let’s not forget Manimal). He doesn’t bring much to Dunwich, short of the bleeding obvious; this is a plodding affair, and what atmosphere there is comes from the production design rather than the staging and editing (an unobtrusive owl sits quietly on the veranda at the Dunwich residence, unmentioned; the glass “ornaments” Wilbur communicates with are suitably odd). The climactic events go on and on, without building up to anything very exciting, and then the picture just sort of peters out with an obligatory nod to Rosemary’s Baby.
While Dunwich employs prolific sound effects, the creature side is sorely lacking. Haller lacks the imagination to lift the unseen horror to a level exerting any kind of resonance or unease. There’s a thing in a cupboard than can magic off Dee’s girlfriend’s (Donna Baccala’s) clothes before doing unspeakable things to her. Dee has a triptastic dream resembling a bad day at Glastonbury Festival. Even an (much cheaper) episode of Doctor Who (Image of the Fendahl, which has certain Lovecraftian elements) is able to deliver more lurking menace (and a rubber monster!)
The camera effects aren’t especially inspired, although Sam Raimi and friends must surely have seen and loved the movie; there’s the point-of-view of the “thing” in the woods at the end, surely an influence on Evil Dead. And with an opening line like “And now, if you would take the Necronomicon and return it to the library” one almost expects Bruce Campbell to enter screen left at any moment. There’s a matte shot temple on the cliffs that looks great (The Devil’s Hop Yard) but on the debit side the old age make-up is atrocious (in particular, Lloyd Bochner’s local doctor; his presence in this state is mystifying until all becomes clear during a flashback scene).
This kind of picture needs a strong lead to keep the most attentive viewer from drifting off. Fortunately, Stockwell delivers with his special moustache, wicked sideburns, hypno-eyes and quietly persuasive tones. A former child actor who was among the the Corman thing ranks with Nicholson and Hopper (well, those two had just moved on) by this point, Stockwell might be better compared to Roddy McDowall in terms of career (another former child star). Both have made their main mark in TV, with Stockwell’s greatest claim to fame being as the interesting one in Quantum Leap. But since the ‘80s he has also made in-roads with smallish but memorable supporting roles in a broad church of movies, working with everyone from David Lynch to Wim Wenders to Jonathan Demme. One thing that is rare on his CV post-Corman is that of movie lead, so Dunwich should be savoured in that regard (especially as he isn’t playing a biker or a werewolf). Stockwell also appeared in the Begley role in a (roundly slated) 2009 TV version.
As for Stockwell’s co-stars, this appears to have been an attempt by Sandra Dee to muss up her squeaky-clean image. Unfortunately, it’s really only rather mild in that regard. The closest she gets to provoking a frisson is when Wilbur wedges the Necronomicon between Nancy’s legs. Sam Jaffe is amusingly fraught as the elderly Whateley. He even gets to deliver the immortal “Now get orf moy land”. Begley is more the mad minister than a man of science, but at least he has presence.
One aspect deserving unqualified praise is the opening titles. Sandy Dvore’s arresting design has a welcome sense of humour, and plays as if Saul Bass was set loose doing a full-on animation. Les Baxter’s score, which becomes annoyingly intrusive during the film itself, is the perfect accompaniment.
It isn’t only Haller who should shoulder the blame for The Dunwich Horror not being all that. Where it falls down is in making so little of the concept. There’s no doubt the original story would have needed reworking to succeed on screen but, aside from the reimagining of Wilbur, most of the choices are rather lacking. There’s the occasional great scene; Stockwell attempting to bury his unconsecrated grandfather on church ground, and being met by a storm of angry townsfolk, is sterling stuff. There’s also a kind of ramshackle post-Manson ’70s vibe to the picture that’s a curiously good fit for Lovecraft. But as a whole, this never gets under the skin, which is surely the key to a good HP. Altogether now: “Yog-Sothoth…”