1970 // USA // Daniel Haller // May 8, 2013 // DVD - MGM (2005)
Based On: “The Dunwich Horror” (1929)
[Note: This post contains spoilers. Part of a series on film adaptations of the works of H. P. Lovecraft.]
The 1970 film “The Dunwich Horror” was the third H. P. Lovecraft adaptation from legendary B-movie assembly line American International Pictures—fourth if one counts their distribution of Tigon’s Curse of the Crimson Altar. Unlike AIP’s The Haunted Palace (1963) and Die, Monster, Die! (1965), which possess a timeless sort of gothic stateliness, The Dunwich Horror feels unequivocally like a horror film that could only have been made in 1970. Its screenplay might be adapted from a story originally published in 1929, but The Dunwich Horror is riddled with post-60s anxieties. Certainly, the plot has a Manson Family flavor: the villain is an offbeat yet alluring stranger who murmurs Free Love bromides but is secretly a malevolent occultist, and he employs mind-control mojo to enthrall a naïve coed for his apocalyptic schemes. The film’s vintage is also apparent in its eccentric style, which draws from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella, and Rosemary’s Baby (all 1968) in shallow but unmistakable ways.
In terms of literary pedigrees, a low-budget horror feature could scarcely do better than Lovecraft’s short story, which is regarded as a central work in his Cthulhu Mythos cycle. The villains of the tale are members of the loathsome Whateley family, a degenerate clan dwelling on the outskirts of the New England village of Dunwich. One of several corrupt, faintly inhuman bloodlines to populate Lovecraft’s fiction, the Whateleys are widely known among the local populace as a tribe of warlocks and devil-worshippers. The events of “The Dunwich Horror” concern the emergence of Wilbur Whateley, spawn of the albino imbecile Lavinia and an unidentified father, later revealed to be the Outer God known as Yog-Sothoth. Wilbur’s preternatural parentage is apparent in his alarmingly rapid growth to adulthood and in his affinity for black magic, the latter encouraged by his maternal grandfather. The young Whateley’s unsavory occult research eventually brings him into conflict with Miskatonic University librarian Dr. Henry Armitage, who manages to trammel the madman’s schemes. Unfortunately, Wilbur’s subsequent demise—by the jaws of a university guard dog, no less—unleashes a hidden monstrosity at the old Whateley farm. The titular Horror of the story is a colossal, invisible abomination once bound and satiated by the family’s arcane rituals, and upon Wilbur's death it bursts forth to maraud across the New England countryside.
While narratively straightforward, “The Dunwich Horror” is a thematically intricate monster tale. Lovecraft’s story draws heavily from the works of Welsh writer Arthur Machen, and in particular from the latter author’s renowned fantasy-horror novella, The Great God Pan. That work’s conceit of an aberrant god-spawn recurs in “Dunwich,” although Lovecraft places it into the context of his own alien mythology rather than Machen’s Victorian paganism. While Lovecraft’s story touches upon several strains of physical, psychological, and existential horror, its chilling core turns on a well-worn campfire tale technique: the slow reveal of the Creature in a manner that inspires maximum terror. From the outset, it is obvious to the reader that something unspeakable is concealed at the Whateley farm, and that it will eventually appear in all its writhing, blasphemous glory. Like many Lovecraft stories, “Dunwich” is told in the third-person omniscient past tense, and the author ruthlessly exploits early hints that Something Bad has befallen Dunwich in order to create a sensation of swelling doom.
The film adaptation aims for a similar mood, although it emerges mostly from the off-kilter setting and the hokey familiarity of the monster movie beats. Little credit can go to the frankly dreadful screenplay. That script is a collaborative effort from a trio of writers, all new to feature films at the time: rookie television scripter Henry Rosenbaum, former editor Ronald Silkosky, and an untested fellow named Curtis Hanson. (Hanson would go on to an enduring and respectable career as a writer, director, and producer, hitting his zenith roughly three decades later when he helmed the back-to-back L. A. Confidential and Wonder Boys.) As in prior AIP Lovecraft films, the screenplay is only loosely based on the original story. However, the narrative core of the feature is more or less preserved from the source material, and some scenes are translated with only scant modification. When it was released, The Dunwich Horror was arguably the most faithful Lovecraft adaptation that AIP had produced up to that point.
That said, the changes that have been applied to the story are fairly significant. The film shifts the setting from 1920s New England to contemporary northern California, turning fabled Miskatonic from a tiny Ivy League bastion into a kind of Lovecraftian community college. While the original short story spanned roughly fifteen years from Wilbur’s birth through the Horror’s climactic rampage, the film compresses the tale’s events into what is apparently a single weekend. Most conspicuously, The Dunwich Horror initially centers the story’s action on a new character, guileless history student Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee). She serves as a tissue-thin clone of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse: a hapless, unholy Virgin Mary, whose primary purpose in the story is to be sexually terrorized by demonic forces.
The Dunwich Horror was the first Lovecraft adaptation in which a well-known horror character actor was not given top billing. In lieu of Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, the film offers quintessential girl-next-door Dee, who by 1970 was on the downslope of an acting career once characterized by All-American ingenue roles (Gidget, The Wild and the Innocent, A Summer Place). Opposite Dee is former child star Dean Stockwell, who had pulled off the tricky leap to well-regarded adult performances (Compulsion, Long Day’s Journey Into Night) before receding from acting and into the haze of 1960s counterculture. (He would, of course, eventually appear in David Lynch’s 1986 masterwork Blue Velvet and later in the beloved time-tripping television series Quantum Leap.)
In the film’s prelude, the bedridden Lavinia Whateley (Joanne Moore Jordan) writhes and wails through an agonizing childbirth, as her father (Sam Jaffe) and a pair of albino hags look on in cold-blooded anticipation. In case the “Not Quite Right” vibe of this scene wasn’t obvious, Lavinia’s sweaty brow is conspicuously marked with an esoteric symbol, which recurs throughout the film in association with the Whateleys and Yog-Sothoth. Following this unsettling opening scene, the film breaks into a splashy but unpolished animated credit sequence, in which the silhouettes of cloaked cultists and ravenous demons glower over their helpless victims.
The Dunwich Horror then fast-forwards roughly two decades, alighting at the buzzing, sun-dappled campus of the College of the Redwoods... er, Miskatonic University. There the viewer meets the tale’s principals: sweet blonde coed Nancy (Dee), her brunette and thus slightly more worldly friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala), and their mentor, the historian Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley). The professor tasks Nancy and Elizabeth with returning the grimoire known as the Necronomicon to its display case in the university library. Skulking about is dark, handsome, and exceedingly odd Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell), who is a little too eager to sneak a peek at the vile litanies inscribed in the notorious book. Dim-bulb Nancy gladly hands over the tome because... well, apparently because Wilbur says “please." (Setting aside the singular perils of the Necronomicon, Nancy’s willingness to pass a one-of-a-kind book to a total stranger would seem to make her a distinctly awful choice as a courier of historical artifacts.)
Fortunately, Dr. Armitage appears and quickly reclaims the book, interrupting the younger man’s recitation of one of the blasphemous invocations contained therein. However, Wilbur proves disarming and conciliatory, and when the professor discovers that the younger man is the great-grandson of the Necronomicon’s author, the foursome are soon discussing the book’s history over drinks at a local tavern. Armitage is intrigued by Wilbur’s lineage and his amateur scholarship, but the professor flatly refuses the young Whateley’s repeated requests to study the text in private. Charmed by Wilbur’s slick and soft-spoken manner, Nancy agrees to drive him home to the nearby village of Dunwich. Along the way, they encounter that most durable of horror movie characters, the ominous small-town gas station attendant, who becomes spooked when he overhears Wilbur’s surname.
The Whateleys, it turns out, are persona non grata in Dunwich. Wilbur’s great-grandfather was lynched for witchcraft in the town square, and bizarre rumors concerning the clan are still whispered around the coffee pot at the local general store. Wilbur conveniently neglects to mention his family’s unsavory reputation as he ushers the cheerfully oblivious Nancy into the Whateley homestead, a vast, draughty wooden house stuffed with gaudy nineteenth-century bric-a-brac and the odd mod furnishing.
Wilbur goes straight to the sexual predator playbook: small talk is exchanged, drugged tea is brewed, the car is secretly disabled, and before long Nancy is encouraged to slip into a black nightgown and spend the evening. She agrees, though whether due to monumental stupidity or an Outer God mind meld is an open question. Confoundingly, Nancy consents to the sleepover after she catches an earful of the strange thudding and gibbering that emanates from behind a locked door on an upper floor. Nor is she dissuaded by an encounter with Wilbur’s doddering, bug-eyed grandfather, who is still alive and apparently pursuing his passion for maniacal ranting on a full-time basis.
That night, Nancy’s dreams are filled with distorted visions of writhing, naked cultists who chase her through coastal meadows while cackling merrily and coaxing her to join their carnal rites. This sequence is unnerving in a kitschy sort of way, although the revelries more closely resemble a Rainbow Gathering than a Sabbat to the Outer Gods. Nancy’s hallucinations are essentially the worst nightmare of the era's so-called “silent majority”: a California wilderness swarming with free-spirited heathens, eagerly pursuing orgiastic delights while clad in little but dreadlocks and body paint. It’s easy to titter at the reactionary silliness of Yog-Sothoth-worshipping hippies, but Haller dribbles in just enough strangeness to lend the nightmare a feral edge. Between the aboriginal look of the mad cultists, the trippy soundtrack, and the lush green surroundings, the dream sequence faintly suggests an Italian cannibal film, with all the pitch-black moral ugliness that entails.
The next day, Wilbur gently reassures Nancy, speculating that her dreams are merely a symptom of Dunwich’s invigorating atmosphere and her own sexual hang-ups. Shortly thereafter, a concerned Dr. Armitage and Elizabeth arrive to fetch Nancy back to Miskatonic. Unfortunately, the girl is now completely under the spell of Wilbur’s sensitive male schtick, and likely some Outer God voodoo as well. She resists her friends’ urgings to leave the Whateley place, insisting that she is madly in love with Wilbur and his masculine facial hair.
It’s at this point that The Dunwich Horror settles into the somewhat bland shape it maintains for the rest of its running time. Dee’s top billing aside, any pretense that Nancy is the hero of the story is discarded, and she is essentially reduced to an addled victim who must be rescued from Wilbur’s clutches. Meanwhile, Dr. Armitage digs into the unseemly history of the Whateleys in Dunwich, in the hopes that his research will uncover some critical clue about the family’s motives and the extent of their supernatural power. The professor eventually meets with local physician Dr. Cory (Lloyd Bocher), who knows a Whateley family secret or two, including the current whereabouts of Wilbur’s unfortunate mother Lavinia. In the meantime, Wilbur makes a clandestine foray back to the Miskatonic library for the Necronomicon, which he needs in order to complete his dark designs for Nancy’s poor body and soul.
There's also the matter of that locked room and its prisoner. The film’s monster storyline lurches into motion once Dr. Armitage and Elizabeth split up. The latter unwisely returns to the Whateley house on her own, where she is attacked rather spectacularly by the Horror confined in the upstairs chamber. This is probably the most riveting sequence in the film, which abandons realism in favor of harrowing sensory terror. There are dim flashes of flailing pseudopods, stomach-churning noises, bursts of radioactive color, and endless screaming from Elizabeth, whose clothes vanish for no particular reason. It’s at once brazenly exploitative and desperately “arty”, but damn if it isn’t effective. Thereafter the Horror slithers through the rural landscape devouring anything in its path, including a posse of rifle-toting Yankee rednecks and an entire farmhouse complete with cowering family.
No specific reason is given for the Horror’s sudden escape, beyond its agitation at the proximity of Elizabeth’s vulnerable flesh. This is a shame, as the link between Wilbur’s death with the liberation of the Horror was one of the more ingenious and skin-crawling aspects of Lovecraft’s original story. In the film, Wilbur and the Horror seem to be moving on parallel tracks, and while the two come together at the end of the feature, the reunion feels tossed-off and almost incidental. This is merely one aspect of the film’s broader story problems in its second half, which is burdened with at least three subplots. Dr. Armitage works to discover the truth about the Whateleys, Wilbur presses forward with his fuzzy but plainly unwholesome ritual, and the Horror slouches through the woods in search of prey. In spite of all these moving parts, the film starts to feel weirdly inert once the Professor begins poking around Dunwich. Clearly, Wilbur and the Horror must be stopped, but this is about the extent of the film’s understanding of its own stakes. Even the threat that Wilbur’s ritual dagger poses to Nancy’s quivering virginal body doesn’t hold much drama—Dee’s character is just an erotic object on a sacrificial slab after a point.
As a creature feature, The Dunwich Horror is enjoyable stuff, although it’s not particularly frightening or shocking. If one is familiar with the monster movie form, it is obvious how things will unfold from the first shot of that locked door rattling ominously on its hinges. It’s not a matter of whether the imprisoned Horror will break free and munch its way through Dunwich, but when. There’s a kind of elemental pleasure in watching this sort of scenario unfold, but The Dunwich Horror is too unfocused to thrive as a pure monster-in-the-dark tale. The Horror doesn’t even appear until after the first act, and with the exception of its jarring and highly stylized assault on Elizabeth, the filmmakers don’t do anything especially imaginative with the creature. The film is also stingy about providing glimpses of the Horror, and the adaptation seems to retain the original story’s conceit that the abomination is naturally invisible. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a Bad Thing: when the creature design is weak and the visual effects are shoddy, as they are in The Dunwich Horror, the last thing that a film needs is more well-lit, lingering shots of its signature monster.
Director Daniel Haller oversaw AIP’s Die, Monster Die! and therein achieved a gratifying blend of gothic mustiness and Atomic Age weirdness. In The Dunwich Horror, however, Haller at times seems a bit lost. His go-to replacement for costly visual effects is vague, endless panning shot of windblown grass and trees, which are overlaid with the Horror’s moist growls and wheezes. These sequences are in turn punctuated with attention-grabbing point-of-view shots as the creature looms over its screaming, stumbling victims. It’s midnight drive-in stuff, and while there is a trashy charm to such methods, Haller employs them in manner that is ham-handed and a bit tedious. (Not until The Happening would rustling grass be employed to such an underwhelming effect.)
This is not to say that the The Dunwich Horror is a dull cinematic experience. While it is undeniably a cruder, less absorbing film than Die, Monster, Die!, there is an adolescent charisma in its modestly self-aware cheesiness and its weirdly glib expression of familiar Lovecraftian elements. Most distinctively, the film conjures an unsettling atmosphere of supernatural menace from an otherwise benign Pacific coast landscape. Intentionally or not, the soft-focus northern California setting clashes so strongly with the horror of blood sacrifices and other-dimensional entities that it actually amplifies the film’s uncanny aura. Summoning dread in a grey New England fishing village or mouldering English castle is one thing; plucking it from the art colonies and bed and breakfasts of Mendocino County is a different matter. The mood is enhanced immeasuably by the surreal Les Baxter score, which is a strangely transfixing blend of cosmic tones, quasi-exotic rhythms, and silly-then-sinister orchestral bombast.
The film’s dialogue is generally appalling, although at times it shades into such mesmerizing goofiness that it becomes borderline endearing. Occasionally, the script almost seems to be poking fun at AIP’s own catalog of mutant monster flicks, but The Dunwich Horror never quite saunters over the line into full-fledged satire. The actors generally seem to be having a grand old time, which is the primary reason the film manages to be so entertaining, despite its narrative flaws. Of all the performers, Dee is the least game or memorable: she just smiles demurely and sighs her lines in a dreamy, empty-headed way, although she can hardly be blamed for the shallowness of the character. The rest of the cast keenly appreciates that they’re making a Bad Movie, and although their approaches to the fundamentally ludicrous material vary, the sheer grab-bag quality to the performances is captivating.
Stockwell is essentially off in his own film, giving a mannered and hyptnotically insolent performance. He portrays Wilbur as a perfidious and unstable fanatic, magnetically mellow one minute and cartoonishly deranged the next. Eight years before Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers unearthed the nasty, sexist side of the oh-so-reasonable Leftish 1970s male, Stockwell had already figured out what could be unnerving about a quiet, liberal guy in a corduroy jacket and New Age jewelry. Begley goes comparatively low-key, conveying his character’s pompous earnestness while retaining a relaxed air as a performer. Jaffe plays to the rafters in the fine tradition of Bela Lugosi, with spittle flying and crooked, accusatory finger trembling. Bocher, in what is probably the most flat-out amusing turn in the film, aims for a distillation of every exposition-spouting doctor from every genre picture from the previous twenty years. It’s a guilty pleasure to watch him stride around the room, sonorously explicating backstory while ostentatiously puffing on his pipe.
Little touches like Lochner’s performance are what ultimately elevate The Dunwich Horror from a fumbled adaptation into a diverting B-movie pleasure in its own right. The film’s allure is one of outré fifty-cent spectacle, and while that places it light-years away from Lovercraft’s writing, it’s hard to dismiss any work of horror that is so eager and offbeat in its approach to genre conventions.