The Bad Movie Report

The Dunwich Horror

I was really prepared to hate The Dunwich Horror. I remember I had hated it the first time I saw it. I hated it the second time I saw it. I put off seeing it a third time 'till now... and I even put it off again by subjecting myself to The Astro-Zombies last week. But my pal Dave wanted his tape back, and that copy of Jack Frost I wanted to rent was gone, so I eased myself into The Dunwich Horror a half-hour at a time. And you know what? It doesn't suck. Much.

You see, "The Dunwich Horror" was only the second H.P. Lovecraft story I had ever read (theHP Lovecraft first was "The Colour Out of Space"), and it creeped me out like few pieces of prose had before or since. As such, it still holds a special place in my heart. Briefly: Dunwich is one of those little, determinedly rural New England towns that Stephen King is so fond of, and it's haunted by a nearby hill called the Devil's Hopyard, and a family of sorcerers called the Whatelys. Wilbur Whately, the last of the breed, visits Miskatonic University to attempt to acquire the Necronomicon, a fabulously rare book about the Old Ones, a prehistoric race of god-like beings banished from Earth, but still attempting to return. After he is denied his request, Wilbur returns to steal the book, and is mortally savaged by guard dogs, revealing that, under his bulky clothing, Wilbur was not human at all. What no one suspects is that Wilbur has a twin brother, locked up at the old Whately place, and with no one to feed him, he gets hungry, busts out, and proceeds to chow down on the local populace. As the hero, Dr. Armitage reveals in the denouement: "It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did."

Dr. Armitage and his crack team of crackersThe radio series Suspense did an adaptation of "The Dunwich Horror" back in the 40's, with Ronald Coleman as Armitage. It was a fair adaptation, and they were quite brave to have attempted it at all * - but the point is, Suspense was a half-hour show, and they didn't leave much out, save Lovecraft's trademark purple prose - so..... how do you stretch it out to movie length, and do it with a Corman budget?

Oh, yes, Roger Corman is the Executive Producer, this time around, so it's no surprise that this The Devil's Hopyardadaptation uses his Poe films as a sort of model: We know the original story is in there, because we see little glints and glimmers of it, like flotsam sticking out of the sand at low tide. The original story occupies only the final 10-20 minutes of the flick. The bulk of the movie is taken up by a framing device, a variation on, or extrapolation of, the original story. that serves to get us to the pit with the pendulum, or the masquerade ball, or... the Devil's Hopyard.

Usually, the framing device concerns the arrival of an outsider of one kind or another, as in Fall of the House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, and even director Daniel Haller's first Lovecraft Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee, the Tracy and Hepburn of... oh, never for AIP, Die, Monster, Die! (based on the aforementioned "Colour Out of Space"). This time, however, the new scenario concerns a much more human Wilbur (Dean Stockwell), still trying to get the Necronomicon, but also spending a goodly portion of the picture seducing Miskatonic student Nancy (Sandra Dee) via love philtres and good old satanic Skullduggery afoot!know-how. Seems Wilbur wants to re-create the ritual that resulted in his birth, and this time do it right. Once again, it's up to Armitage and his knowledge of the Necronomicon to save the day.

Beyond that central conceit - the substituting of sex for Cosmic Horror - the story remains a reasonable facsimile of the source material. It is exactly that conceit, however, that I think turns off most Lovecraft fans. I get the impression Lovecraft very much wished to be a contemporary of Dickens; he would have been horrified by the naked breasts in the dream scenes (as it is a Corman movie, there must be a dream scene, and the Old Dark House must burst into flames) of this M-rated version of his tale.

To be sure, there's not much to recommend this movie - through most of it, you will be left with an uncanny feeling that you're watching an overly-long episode of Night Gallery. But there were some interesting choices made: the magic symbols seem based on Meso-American carvings, especially in the case of the Thunderbird on the staff that Old Whately (Sam Jaffe) carries; the ritual magic is consistent and appears quite convincing. The ocean is used throughout as shorthand for timelessness and eternity, and the Twin's presence is made known by a combination of the over-used heartbeat and the sound of water slushing The Horror trips out another victimabout. Later, as the Twin rampages about the countryside, what appears to be the backwash from a helicopter or a cleverly-placed wind machine rustles trees and disturbs the surface of ponds as the creature passes. In the original, the beastie was invisible; here, apparently people can see it, and, as it is 1969, the beastie also causes flashes of psychedelic color... possibly the best they do on the budget.

The use of wind and light is effective enough that one wishes there were more. A large part of the failure of Horror is that most of the first hour is taken up by the seduction and a few side-trips, such as Wilbur trying to bury Old Whately in the Dunwich graveyard, replete with Necronomicon-esque burial service, raising the ire of the locals. Why is that scene even there? Except to establish (although already established time and again) that the Dunwichites are not particularly sympathetic? This leaves the Beastie at Large only fifteen minutes or so to play out, leaving no time for building suspense or a sense of fear. Person strays from crowd, person gets eaten, another person strays from crowd. That Haller passed up this opportunity to make use of some of the dread that oozes from Lovecraft's story is suspect at worst, lamentable at best. resulting in one of the lamest climaxes in film history, as Wilbur and Armitage shout opposing curses in weird languages at each other, until Wilbur gets struck by lightning. The end.

Dean Stockwell!  Now that's scary!  AWOOOOOOOOOOOO!It's hard to take Dean Stockwell seriously as a Demonic Seducer, yet he does have his moments (I can't say that the original choice for this role, Peter Fonda, would've been any better). Sandra Dee is called upon to do nothing more but exude a sort of somnambulistic sultriness. Ed Begley, in his last role as Dr. Armitage, seems a bit lost amongst all this mumbo- jumbo, but he gamely works his way through the film with dignity intact. If you look closely, you'll notice that the nurse - Adrian!!!!Talia rehearsing for Prophecywho drives down the
wrong stretch of road at the wrong time and finds herself on the psychedelic supper dish - is none other than Talia Coppola, who would later become Talia Shire.


I'm sure a lot of my earlier hatred of this title was based on TV viewings - I was 12 years old when it came out, too young for the 'M' rating (ah, back when the ratings system was sane....) - and, as I recall, CBS ran it first, as an edited, muddled mess, even cutting out the final fade on a fetus growing within Nancy, letting us know that Wilbur was not entirely unsuccessful. They even cut out Wilbur's as-much-accident-as-anything murder of a library guard, rendering Armitage's grim remark, "You saw what he did to get that book!" a bit....reactionary?

Boo!  I am a cheap special effect!  BOO, I SAY!In short - not as bad as it could have been. Sadly, not as good as it could have been, either. It would have benefitted from a stronger script - say, from the Poe films' Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont. Or, better yet, the writers that were involved could have trusted the source material more.




The 'M' is for Mediocre.

- February 1, 1998

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