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Schlock & Awe: THE DUNWICH HORROR

Fantasist H.P. Lovecraft is widely considered one of the forefathers of modern horror fiction and has inspired such luminaries as Stephen King, John Carpenter, and Sam Raimi with his Cthulu Mythos and invention of the ancient grimoire, the Necronomicon. This is all well and good, but, despite how great the ideas and general story are, I find most of his writings to be deeply boring. He thought of these horrible monsters, but then never described them in any real detail. Still, he is important to the genre, and his works have been adapted to screen over a hundred times in the last 50 years. One of the earliest and least interesting is the 1970 snoozer, The Dunwich Horror.

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Lovecraft seems like he’d be a perfect candidate for the Hollywood treatment; his work is imaginative and full of backstory, yet thin enough in the actual ploy department to be adapted in several different ways. By and large, though, film versions of his movies have fallen completely flat without someone with the love and understanding of the source material necessary to make it work. Broadly speaking, if Stuart Gordon doesn’t direct it, it probably isn’t going to be any good. Guillermo del Toro was poised to make a huge epic version of At the Mountains of Madness, but that fell through. Shame. Anyway, none of this has to do with American International Pictures’ The Dunwich Horror, their fourth adaptation of a Lovecraft short story. It’s not the best, it should be said.

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Starring Dean Stockwell and, of all people, Sandra Dee, The Dunwich Horror has a lot of the vestiges of a good Lovecraft adaptation, but, in order to compare with other drive-in movies of the day, had to put in a bunch of other things to make it more lurid and, well, exciting. The bulk of the short story of the same name involves a couple of scholars and townsfolk trying to stop a giant invisible monster. Invisible is the key word (again, Lovecraft was not big on describing things) and it makes for a very boring movie. People need to see the horror in Dunwich if they’re going to enjoy it.

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The film begins in Lovecraft’s fictional New England hamlet of Arkham, home to Miskatonic University, where Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley) has just finished giving a lecture on folklore and the occult. He tells his student Nancy (Dee) to return the Necronomicon to the library. She does so, and places the ancient and evil book in a glass case on which is the label, “The ‘Necronomicon.’” K, couple things about this: First; you don’t just casually ask someone to put the Necronomicon back in the library. The Necronomicon can raise the dead, awaken demons, and bring the “Old Ones” to our world from their other dimension. You can’t just give it to some blonde tart and trust that she does it right. Second; it’s on DISPLAY?!?! Right out in the open for people to see? Sure, it’s in a locked glass case, but it’s still glass and it still has the name of it right on it. I also like that the title is in quotes, as though that’s “allegedly” what the book’s called.

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It seems I was right to be wary of this frivolity, as a creepy man named Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), a seemingly 25-year old, intelligent man who inexplicably has frizzy hair and a pervy mustache arrives. He immediately tries to get his mitts on the Necronomicon, and for some reason (perhaps supernatural energy), Nancy allows this, much to Dr. Armitage’s dismay. Though Armitage is able to get the book back from Wilbur, the young Mark Twain impersonator is able to coax Nancy into giving him a ride back to Dunwich, a small town 40 miles away where everyone hates him and his family. Quaint, right? His home is massive and full of various Satanic emblems and tapestries. It is also home to his terrifying grandfather, known the world over as “Old Whateley,” and an unseen thing in an upstairs bedroom. Well, all of this is sufficiently off-putting to a naïve and pretty young lady, right? She probably shouldn’t stay and have tea with this man, allowing him the opportunity to drug her and then remove the coil from her car engine so that she can never leave. Too bad that’s exactly what does happen.

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Whilst she is knocked out, which happens a few times, Wilbur steals the Necronomicon and begins to read incantations from it, during which he puts his fists to his ears, I assume so he can look more like Yoda or a Big Horned Sheep. In fact, a good portion of the film (perhaps I should change that to read “a large portion of the film”) contains nothing but Wilbur doing spells and, apparently, impregnating Nancy with the seed of the Old Ones and the dreams Nancy has involving a bunch of weird, robed-and-face-painted hippies circling around her in a bed that’s outside which have been shot through pieces of cheesecloth using wide-angle lenses. Is this supposed to be scary? It certainly makes it seem like it’s supposed to be. Also, if you ever wanted to see Sandra Dee’s side boob (which I never once thought about ever in my life prior to watching this movie) then The Dunwich Horror is the film for you.

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We find out, through Dr. Armitage’s plot-furthering visits with Dunwich’s local physician Dr. Cory (Lloyd Bochner), that Old Whateley had Dr. Cory come up to the house 25 years ago to help deliver his daughter Lavinia’s baby. The townspeople chide Whateley for being alive, and he yells to them that they better HOPE this baby doesn’t resemble the father, perhaps the creepiest thing anyone has ever said. Dr. Cory arrives to find that one baby had already been stillborn, but its twin was still alive, but stuck. He helps deliver the child, Wilbur in fact, but Lavinia is out of her goddamned mind and afterwards needs to be locked in a mental ward. Wilbur looks like his mother, mostly, while his brother, the unseen thing in the room, takes after pop. When Old Whateley dies, no one is around to look after the thing, and it gets out and kills people by changing the color of the film in rapid succession like a strobe light.

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If this movie sounds like it doesn’t make any sense, you have correctly understood my description. It doesn’t make sense AND nothing happens – sort of like an H.P. Lovecraft story. If someone were to tell you about a Lovecraft story, with ancient demons and gods and monsters and stuff, you’d think “Boy, that’s cool!” But, unless Herbert West is reanimating dead people, it doesn’t translate very well to film for some reason. There’s creepy stuff in The Dunwich Horror, but there’s way too much not-creepy stuff, and Dean Stockwell just looks silly. If you want to do the Necronomicon, watch Evil Dead II; if you want to fall asleep, watch this movie.

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7 comments

  • Well said, RG. I don’t think your “Unrelated” fact is too terribly unrelated; it’s really unfortunate that a lot of brilliant creators (in any field) don’t get the monetary compensation or respect they deserve while they’re still breathing. That being said, others have proven that the minute their head gets just a tiny bit inflated, their work turns to sh*t, so maybe Lovecraft took one for the team on this one.

  • Yeah, it’s a bit useless to critique Lovecraft on technique. He’s what I would call a literary “specialist,” and for some reason, I think of him more as a dark impressionist painter. Almost like the literary version of the artists who painted those old smoke-damaged oil paintings of seascapes that you’d find in somebody’s grandparents’ house. Vivid, lurid words, but which built a frame around the essence of his creatures.

    Sure, I get criticizing an adaptation because it tends to emphasize the camp value, but not the stories themselves. Some writers transcend critique by going so gracefully out onto the farthest limbs. They can’t help but make an impression that way, not because they did alright at everything, but because they did so spectacularly well at one thing in particular.

    Unrelated: The fact that H.P. Lovecraft died such a poor man honestly makes me tear up every time I think about it.

  • One thing that I think informed this movie, and may account for some of the not-quite-Lovecraftian stuff going on there, is that it draws on the 1960’s & 70’s ‘occult revival.’ That thing Dean Stockwell is doing with his hands, for example- that’s straight out of Aleister Crowley. Unfortunately, ‘authentic’ occultism is just as hard to make good film out of as Lovecraft’s stuff is, so when you combine the two….well, you get this.

  • The whole point of Lovecraft not explaining his horrors is so the reader makes the horror their own. I understand most people these days are a little lacking in the imagination department (most of the people here will be exemptions to this rule I would guess), but it seems to me you missed the point around that. You’re definitely right about the movies though, as most of them are horrid (and not in a good way :P).

  • This is wickedly coincidental, since my husband and I just watched this film this morning. Well, half-watched. Eeegghh… It was on in the background while we worked. Ok, we only turned our heads when there were parts with moaning. (Which was actually quite a lot.)