Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

Before AIP’s The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novella The Dunwich Horror from 1929, not a whole lot had been done yet to try and bring Lovecraft to the screen. The Haunted Palace from 1963 is partially based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; Die, Monster, Die! from 1965 is a loose adaptation of The Color out of Space; The Shuttered Room from 1967 is an adaptation of August Derleth's story of the same name that was inspired by Lovecraft, and The Crimson Cult from 1969 only takes mild inspiration from Dreams in the Witch House. As far as I can tell, The Dunwich Horror is the first film to be a faithful attempt at a direct title adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story. Not surprisingly some liberties were taken with this film, such as updating it for the late '60s, early '70s, but that’s always to be expected. I do think the The Dunwich Horror movie, for its era, does do Lovecraft justice, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the novella.

It was filmed in Mendocino California, a small coastal community that kind of passes for a New England looking town. I don’t think there was any kind of ocean near Dunwich in the original story, but the seaside connection is suitably Lovecraftian and serves the film well, as it’s usually filmed at night to look dark and ominous with unseen horrors.

The stylish occult and satanic animated intro credits set to the classical and catchy main theme by Les Baxter is a great start that gets you into both a ‘70s and a Lovecraft mood. It has a cartoony and imaginative way of painting the ceremonial birth of the main character Wilbur Whateley on Sentinel Hill. Even the film's detractors agree that this animated segment is terrific.

When I originally read the book, I imagined the Whateley house to be more of a worn-down farmhouse, but it is quite the colorful, stylized gothic mansion in the film, something I found to be very Bava-esque; in fact, The Dunwich Horror was originally slated to be a Mario Bava project in 1964, with Boris Karloff starring. It wasn't until around 1969 that the production finally moved forward, with director and lead actors revamped.

Apparently, several actors were in mind to play villain/protagonist Wilbur Whateley, such as David Carradine and Peter Fonda, who turned it down, but the role ultimately went to Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap). Directing ended up going to Daniel Haller, who also directed Die, Monster, Die! 

Sadly, Wilbur Whateley isn’t the physically half human, half creature here that he is in the book, but Stockwell, a Lovecraft fan, has an interesting ‘70s creeper occultist approach, and I really did sense his commitment to his take on the character; his heart is in it. I also love his shaggy, curly hairstyle (it kind of matches mine when I let it grow out).

Academic themes and settings usually abound in Lovecraft tales, and this film manages to touch upon that motif with a passable looking Miskatonic-like University and its library that houses the fabled Necronomicon under lock and key. The University’s visiting Ph.D, Dr. Henry Armitage, the appointed hero with enough of an understanding of the occult and the unsavory Whateley family history to be Wilbur’s foil, is ably played by Ed Begley, his last film before passing away shortly after. Somewhat ironically, Dean Stockwell played Dr. Henry Armitage in the 2009 version of The Dunwich Horror.

Nancy (Sandra Dee- Gidget 1959), a character not from the original story, fills the role of love interest for Wilbur Whateley in a classic Hollywood romance way, almost like a requisite to make The Dunwich Horror more watchable as a film to 1970s audiences.

Nancy is a coed trusted with watching over the Necronomicon at the University Library. One day, Wilbur shows up, politely asking if he could read the forbidden book for a while. Nancy's friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala) turns him down, but something about him makes Nancy trust him, so she lets him peruse it for a while. I like to think Wilbur hypnotized her with his eyes. When Nancy’s criticized for it by her friend, her reasoning is his great eyes, as if someone with such beautiful eyes can be trusted.

When Wilbur reads the text aloud (mildly paraphrased actual text from Lovecraft), looking mesmerized, about the Old Ones and Yog-Sothoth, I feel like it is stuff he should already know. Dr. Armitage interrupts Wilbur’s perusal, insisting he put it back, warning him of the great value of the book and the fate of one Oliver Whateley who was publicly hanged in the Dunwich town square. After Wilbur informs Dr. Armitage that he is a Whateley and Oliver is his Great Grandfather, Wilbur, Dr. Armitage, Elizabeth, and Nancy get together for a friendly dinner. Wilbur misses his bus (probably on purpose), and so Emily kindly offers to drive him a long way back to his house in Dunwich, where he invites her in for tea.

Wilbur and Nancy might have some sort of chemistry, and she does seem legitimately attracted to him. Too bad Wilbur turns out to be a toxic jackass. He acts sweet and kind to Nancy at first, and she finds him interesting, but Wilbur is a charming, manipulative sociopath with an ulterior motive, as indicated by the way he drugs her tea (which keeps her in a kind of lethargic state and gives her nightmares) and rips a part out of her car engine without her knowing to keep her stranded at his mansion with him. She’s fond of her captor, for a time, but I wouldn’t call it Stockholm Syndrome, since she doesn’t know she is captive. Elizabeth and Dr. Armitage come out to Dunwich to find Nancy, but she assures them she is enjoying her time spending the weekend with Wilbur.

Nancy and Wilbur enjoy pleasant walks in the Dunwich oceanside country and have deep conversations about her dreams, but Nancy is sometimes half-comatose and is plagued with nightmares of horrors from another dimension where she is menaced and chased by strange orgiastic hippie people who are most likely the Old Ones Wilbur is so fond of trying to bring back to our world.

Nancy is way too trusting, even when Wilbur gets creepy and starts taking her up to the ceremonial alter in the Devil’s hop-yard on Sentinel Hill. Of course, it is likely her drugged tea Wilbur keeps giving her that makes her partially unaware and submissive for the ceremony he wants to use her for. In something that feels like a dream sequence, she’s suddenly in an ancient ceremonial robe and in another hazy world surrounded by dark hooded figures. Wilbur disrobes revealing a full body of ancient alphabet symbol tattoos. There’s an ambiguity if she’s dreaming or not. Wilbur is sure he’ll succeed with the ritual this time, stating that the previous girl resisted and died, suggesting that the submissiveness of the sacrificed is key to the success of the ritual. I love that moment when Wilbur appears among the hooded cultists in Nancy’s ceremonial vision.

I ultimately decided that I did like the film's interpretation of the mountainous invisible monster featured in the book that escapes the Whateley Mansion to wreak death and destruction on Dunwich. Seeing that the monster in the original story was mostly invisible, since it existed between worlds, we did get vague descriptions from Lovecraft, and consequently the film does give vague glimpses of something tentacle-based with multiple heads. Instead of growing to take up the entire house though, the monster is only locked away upstairs in what I’m assuming is an attic room. Of course, the filmmakers are unable to achieve a monster of a visual horror that Lovecraft mostly hinted of, but it still works in a fun ‘70s B-monster movie way. When it first attacks, after Elizabeth unwittingly releases it, it’s an insane mess of unnerving sounds, edits, and tentacle slapping. 

The way the monster stalks and attacks in POV is acceptable, complete with heart beat, inhuman breathing, and film-negative vision to give it a more otherworldly perspective. When we do get somewhat of a look at the monster at the end, it reminded me of the Malboros from Final Fantasy.

To give the film even more Lovecraft flavor, a mental institution that houses Wilbur’s mother Lavinia (Joanne Moore Jordan) is included. Lavinia went insane five years after giving birth, and lives out her remaining days in a violent state, gibbering in her white padded room about her sons and opening a gate. Also, an interesting note, a pre-Adrian Talia Shire is here as a comely nurse and inevitable monster fodder. 

The presence and workings of the whippoorwills, the birds in the book that flock by night to catch the souls of the newly departed, are handled and executed nicely here when certain key characters pass away.

The Dunwich Horror hits a lot of the right notes for me, despite the usual pacing issues and what many consider to be a weak ending. I suppose I would agree in a way that the first half is a bit more intriguing and engaging until it gets more into the actual sacrificial ceremonial stuff towards the end that probably could’ve been more climactic. It does start to seem a little tired after it becomes pretty obvious what is going on, but the inclusion of the monster saves the second half a little. It’s still really cool stuff in my opinion, a nice ‘70s filmic materialization of Lovecraft. You can tell the scriptwriters researched the book thoroughly. It’s by no means a direct retelling, but it ends up being an interesting take on the novella. Despite its current 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I still feel it’s a classic in its own right and a graceful early attempt at adapting The Dunwich Horror to film. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. Very very evil story!
    Anyone who brushes this movie off as some casual scary movie is just a fool!
    I know far too much about the things in this film that are evil and I assure you, these Satanic practices are real and are practiced with evil intentions!

  2. A great review of an under-appreciated movie. Lovecraft is incredibly difficult to adapt and this is the most successful attempt so far.

  3. Very good review of the film and a good list of stills. I'd say Sandra could be suffering from the Stockwell Syndrome by the way. Sorry for that