Wednesday, December 18, 2013

THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)


Daniel Haller, 1970
Starring: Dead Stockwell, Ed Begley, Sandra Dee, Talia Shire

A group of people watch a woman give birth. Years later, at Miskatonic University, Dr. Armitage, a historian, lectures on the Necronomicon, a rare, valuable book. He gives it to his student, Nancy, to return to the library, but a young man, Wilbur Whateley, interrupts her, hoping to see the book. She is attracted to him and allows him to sit quietly with the book. He briefly meets with Dr. Armitage, who knows about Wilbur’s family history and wants to keep the young man away from the book. Ignoring Armitage’s warnings, Nancy drives Wilbur home late that night to Arkham, a small village. 

Nancy winds up staying the night, after Wilbur has drugged her and damaged her car, and develops feelings for him despite the strangeness of the situation. Despite the pleas of her classmate and the townspeople’s hatred of Wilbur and his family, Nancy decides to stay the weekend to learn more about Wilbur’s plans. Her classmate learns that Wilbur’s mother delivered twins, though one was allegedly stillborn and the birth drove his mother mad. Wilbur’s twin is not really dead, but is horribly monstrous, and begins killing off locals. Wilbur, meanwhile, takes the Necronomicon and prepares Nancy for sacrifice in order to finally bring back the Old Ones. 

Director Daniel Haller was the art director for a number of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe-themed films with Vincent Price, which should come as no surprise here. Between the mouldering Whateley estate that resembles the family home in House of Usher, the vivid color scheme, and psychedelic dream sequences, this feels very much like an imitation Corman film. This was not Haller’s first Lovecraftian film; he also helmed the superior Die, Monster, Die! and it’s a shame he couldn’t turn his Lovecraft series for American International Pictures into something as successful and long running as Corman’s Poe series.

Despite its undeniably trashy elements, The Dunwich Horror has a lot of charm. Probably the worst thing about it is the “Horror” mentioned in the title, which doesn’t appear till more than halfway through the film and is marked by some psychedelic visuals including red-blue negatives that make it difficult to see anything. Oh, and did I mention that the movie ends with the close up of a fetus?

Dean Stockwell (Blue Velvet, Dune) is absolutely the reason to see this film and I don’t think I can quite do justice to his performance. He spends half of his screen time staring madly and the rest of the time being sympathetically villainous. Sandra Dee (Gidget) is also good and though she seems blonde and vapid for much of the running time, the fact that being with Wilbur was Nancy’s conscious decision adds an interesting undertone. It’s refreshing that she is not some buxom victim devoid of personality, but rather goes along willingly with Wilbur’s scheme and seems to know what her fate will be; she does not resist.

This was Ed Begley’s (12 Angry Men) final role, though he is absent for much of the film and spends the rest of the time looking confused. Sam Jaffe (The Day the Earth Stood Still) is suitably creepy as Wilbur’s grandfather and Joanne Moore Jordan (I Dismember Mama) is his insane mother, Lavinia. Lloyd Bochner (Satan’s School for Girls) has a brief turn as the town doctor and a young Talia Shire (Rocky) appears as his nurse.

Unlike Lovecraft’s long, carefully plotted story, here the events (aside from the pre-credits birthing sequence) are jam packed into one weekend. Miskatonic University is unmistakably not in New England, but on the sunny shores of California. Keep in mind that it is one of a handful of Lovecraft adaptations before the ‘80s, along with my personal favorite, Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963), Die, Monster, Die (1965), and British films The Shuttered Room (1967) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968).

I think what really keeps this from having the type of power Corman’s early Poe films had - aside from a weak script and some inexperienced directing - is the undeniable influence of the ‘70s. Instead of subtlety and mystery, we have Sandra Dee moaning and writing on an altar with the Necronomicon between her legs. Dean Stockwell wears some questionable New Age jewelry and puts his rings up to his face when he’s feeling mystical. It’s all rather hilarious, particularly the dialogue, frequently crossing the line into outright camp. 

Despite its occasional silliness, much of The Dunwich Horror has a feeling of weirdness,  certainly a positive in a Lovecraftian film. For all the ridiculousness, there are some very effective moments and the first half of the film has tremendous potential. There’s a great score from Les Baxter, a regular composer for Roger Corman and AIP, and I think this is one of his finest. It is certainly the best Lovecraftian film score that comes to mind and helps elevate the shallow script and often stilted acting in many scenes. The Dunwich Horror comes recommended. It’s available on DVD from MGM’s excellent Midnite Movies line. 

2 comments:

  1. A) I want to be Dean Stockwell in this movie.

    B) I think I dig the 70s more than you, 'cause that's one of the things I love about this movie. Nice to see some sexuality as opposed to Lovecraft's frigid, repressed nature (as brought on by a philandering, std-riddled father).

    C) Fantastic score.

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  2. Yeah, Stockwell is amazing here, as he is everywhere. And I love the '70s elements, but you have to admit some of them are damn cheesy.

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