The Dunwich Horror (1970)

7 Oct

 

There is a lot of this business with the rings in "The Dunwich Horror." Also a lot of Sandra Dee's outer thighs.

 

I’ll admit it: I’ve got a soft spot for any bit of visual media involving those Lovecraftian Old Ones. It’s almost like since I know these movies, video games and what-have-you are sort of doomed to failure from the beginning, I don’t sweat the small stuff and just enjoy the ride. Roger Corman was one of the producers behind this particular adaptation of “The Dunwich Horror,” and it’s full of the same type of charm (or “charm” depending on how you feel about Corman) as his other features.

“The Dunwich Horror” tells the story of maligned Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) who has grown up as an outcast in his hometown of Dunwich. He was raised by his grandfather after his mother went insane shortly after his birth. Lavinia Whateley delivered twins, but one perished at birth — or so the story goes. Whateley’s family is also locally notorious for being mixed up in some sort of occult religion, and the Whateley name is well-known to philosopher, lecturer and “Necronomicon” owner Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley). Wilbur makes the trip from Dunwich to Miskatonic University in Arkham to meet the renowned professor and to ask for the use of the “Necronomicon” for his own studies. Armitage, naturally, refuses and is a little repulsed by the young man.

However, his student, Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee  in her final film role), seems hypnotically drawn to the young man and offers to drive him the 40 miles back to his home. Once there, Wilbur puts off her departure by first a night, then a weekend, all the while plying her with a mysterious drug which seems to be lowering her inhibitions for some shadowy purpose. As Armitage races against time to save his student, the forces of unspeakable horror grow ever stronger, and the little town of Dunwich becomes a battleground for the survival of the human race.

 

In the film, the Necronomicon is in this glass case that's locked with a regular old jewelry box key. Seems a little light on the security, no?

 

“The Dunwich Horror” isn’t a particularly good movie, but it has that old Roger Corman shoestring-budget charm that is either beloved or hated by audiences. The overall plot requires some significant leaps of faith, but it feels appropriately Lovecraftian and appears to be fairly true to the original source material, albeit the setting is modern. The idea of the horror so all-consuming that it defies description and causes instant insanity is kind of a problem with the mythos; it doesn’t give much to go on and inevitably disappoints when depicted on screen. But the filmmakers handle it fairly well here, turning in a few psychedelic scenes of terror before succumbing to the temptation and hinting at a single tentacled, eyeballed monstrosity trying to break through toward the end of the movie. Strangely, I believe this rather low-tech attitude toward the problem works in its benefit in a way. By only providing shadowy hints at what the monster looks like, the filmmakers succeed in making it much scarier than had they actually tried to build a monster for every scene.

I found the casting a bit odd for this one. Dean Stockwell is better known as a character actor. He is fairly young here but not entirely inexperienced. His mannerisms are exceedingly odd, and I wonder if that is the result of direction he received or if was a choice he made. Either way, the effect is somewhat unsettling. Hopefully the bizarre mustache he is outfitted with is a prop and not his own, but I have my doubts. Sandra Dee as the lead female role is another head-scratcher, as this role involves a good bit of wriggling around on an altar whilst not wearing much in the way of clothing. She’s distractingly pretty here, the stereotypical virginal offering to a dark god. She does passable work, but really not much is required of her other than drink tea, act groggy and writhe about.

The garish sets and theremin-heavy soundtrack, not to mention the acid-flashback horror sequences and orgiastic dream sequences belie the film’s era. I can’t imagine why, upon walking into the nightmarish Whateley home with its oppressive double staircases and menacing runes painted in bright red in the center of the living room floor, poor naive Nancy wouldn’t run straight away, but I suppose it was just a simpler time.

You likely already know if this type of movie is something you’ll enjoy. I can’t in good conscience give it a good review, but its inherent charm is undeniable, and it never gets old watching actors try to be all method while chanting “Yog-Sothoth” over and over. Two stars out of four.

The Dunwich Horror“: Rated R. Starring Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Sam Jaffe, Joanne Moore Jordan, Donna Baccala and Talia Shire. Directed by Daniel Haller. Screenplay by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky from the short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Cinematography by Richard C. Glouner. Original music by Les Baxter.

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  1. The Dunwich Horror (1970) | inroom609 - April 9, 2014

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