1970 | United States
Director: Daniel Haller
HP Lovecraft may not be one of the best writers in the world, but he’s certainly one of the most fun to read — not to mention imitate. However, I imagine that Lovecraft’s tendency to devote more words to telling his reader how scared he or she should be than to describing the thing to be feared posed a problem to those filmmakers initially assigned the task of bringing his work to the screen. After all, until the advent of modern J-Horror, the sensibility of which is pretty much right in line with Lovecraft’s, the common wisdom would have been that you were supposed to scare your audience by showing them something scary, rather than by just showing them a bunch of people being scared, or, even worse, showing a bunch of people talking about how potentially scary some vaguely defined thing might be. Furthermore, such filmmakers might understandably conclude that a film whose every character was in a constant state of near-wordless cowering for no clear reason might quickly forfeit audience interest.
It is this last conviction that might explain the casting choices made in connection with director Daniel Haller’s first Lovecraft adaptation for AIP, Die, Monster, Die! A veteran art director, Haller worked in that capacity on AIP’s initial Lovecraft outing, The Haunted Palace, directed by Roger Corman. While by no means a close adaptation of its source material, Die, Monster, Die! did an admirable job of achieving Lovecraft’s patented mood of mounting dread and creeping, formless horror. The only departure from that — and it’s a radical one — was the placement of American actor Nick Adams at its center, probably the most un-Lovecraftian protagonist imaginable, who would be much more likely to call the great Cthulhu “a real jerk” and punch him in the nose than to simply be driven mad by the impossibility of his existence.
When it came time for Haller to make his second Lovecraft adaptation, 1970’s The Dunwich Horror, he and screenwriter Curtis Hanson chose to add another very un-Lovecraftian element to their quintessentially Lovecraftian tale with the introduction into the mix of a sweaty dose of eroticism. Lovecraft’s stories, with all their references to tentacles and other undulating protuberances coming out of things at all angles were certainly sexual, if in a repressed/hysterical way, but they were far from sexy. In fact, judging from the man’s writings alone, I’d imagine that any attempt by him to describe any normal type of human sexual congress would be one of the most excruciatingly awkward, squirm-inducing things you could possibly read. Of course, the concept seems less strange when you consider that it was no doubt partly a result of AIP fulfilling their early 1970s mandate to serve up at least some sexploitation content with every offering. But the whole enterprise rockets back into the realm of the unnamable when you consider that the actors they chose to place at the center of all this heat and steam were Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell.
The Dunwich Horror was something of a landmark for Sandra Dee, in that the Gidget star was required by its action to spend much of her screen-time writhing and moaning orgasmically on a sacrificial altar while in a state of near undress. Dee was at an unavoidable crossroads in her career by this time. The wholesome, girl-next-door image that had propelled her to stardom in the early 1960s was not only hopelessly out of sync with the times, but also impossible to maintain now that she had undergone a very public divorce from her husband Bobby Darin.
On the other hand, Dean Stockwell’s transition from sweet-faced to unsavory had been accomplished long before he arrived on the Dunwich set, with any memories of the adorable child star he used to be forever tainted by roles such as that of the child murderer in 1959’s Compulsion. To say that Stockwell comes off as a “little” creepy in The Dunwich Horror would be the Mona Lisa of understatements. From the nervous sidelong glances to the unwavering hushed monotone, the speech riddled with odd pregnant pauses, and the intent, wild-eyed staring, his performance is, in fact, the whole creepiness package without one unsettling tick left behind. Given he was charged with portraying a character who, in the original story, was depicted as being a goat-like, preternaturally intelligent, prepubescent eight-foot giant who conceals beneath his garments a body that is part T. Rex, part pineapple, and part cat clock, you could forgive him for over-compensating.
Aside from being the movie that tried to generate sexual heat between Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell, The Dunwich Horror is notable for being one of the AIP Lovecraft adaptations that — like The Haunted Palace, but unlike Die, Monster, Die! — directly addresses the author’s much-vaunted Cthulhu Mythos. Granted, it may not do so with enough authenticity to satisfy fans of the author, but much lip service is indeed given to such touchstone concepts as “Yog-Sothoth”, “The Old Ones” and the “The Necronomicon”. However, as alluded to above, both the Old Ones — that ancient race of unimaginable non-human creatures who, according to Lovecraft, once ruled the Earth and are itching to return — and their followers are portrayed as being much hornier than in any of Lovecraft’s tales. Their most fully-formed emissary in the human world, the unnamed “thing” locked up in a mysterious upstairs room in the Whateley house, seems to be most concerned with first ripping off all of its victim’s clothes. Similarly, the rituals that Wilbur (Stockwell) must perform in order to summon the Old Ones back into our dimension seem to mostly involve him feeling up a drugged and prostrate Sandra Dee and reading incantations while standing between her spread legs.
There is a familiar feel of that smarmy, late-to-the-party ’70s version of hippie free love to all this, though in a much more overtly sinister form. It’s a tone that’s driven home even by Les Baxter’s main theme, a narcotically swooning swinger’s revelry with a decadent European sensibility that could just as easily have come from the mind of Serge Gainsbourg or Michel Legrand. Mind you, I don’t think this quality detracts from The Dunwich Horror. I think that an adaptation of Lovecraft’s work for a more permissive age would have no choice but to address the creepy sexuality that underlies it, and Haller’s take here is indeed suitably creepy. That this imperative was put in the hands of a studio like AIP, who was more than happy to deliver on the required nudity and implied sexual shenanigans, just represents a fortuitous dovetailing of interests.
The potent sex magic that Dean Stockwell wields in The Dunwich Horror — at least as it applies to Sandra Dee — is shown to be pretty much in full effect from the very opening moments of the film. It is at this point that we meet Dee’s character, Nancy Wagner, a student at venerable old Miskatonic University. Her professor, Dr. Armitage, has entrusted her with the between-classes errand of returning his surprisingly crisp-looking copy of the ancient book of forbidden knowledge, The Necronomicon, to the school’s library.
The mention of the book’s name attracts the twitchy attention of the proximately lurking Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell), a visitor to the university from the nearby town of Dunwich whose consummate creepiness is matched only by his single-mindedness. Wilbur follows Nancy to the library and asks her to let him see the book before she replaces it in its case. She resists at first, but it is only a matter of Wilbur making whammy eyes at her for a few seconds before she relents, despite the objections of her obviously unaffected friend, Elizabeth (Donna Baccala). Wilbur makes off to hungrily devour the tome’s contents, only to be intercepted by Dr. Armitage, who rents it from his grasp with a stern rebuke. This bit of awkwardness does not preclude the four of them from going out for a drink at the pub later, at which time Wilbur engages Dr. Armitage in a conversation that goes more or less like this:
Wilbur: Can I see the book?
Wilbur: Can I see the book?
Wilbur: Oh, Okay, but… can I see the book?
Dr. Armitage, by the way, is portrayed by the veteran character actor Ed Begley, a man who played supporting roles in almost as many classic film noirs as Elisha Cook Jr. He’s a great, if unusual, choice for the role, because, while he’s appropriately gray and distinguished, his history of playing tough guy roles gives him a two-fisted air decidedly at odds with the tremulous demeanor of the typical Lovecraftian academic. That may not make his character authentic to the text, but it certainly makes him a more credible opponent to the forces he’s up against, and when he and Wilbur face off to shout incantations at one another at the movie’s conclusion, you get the sense that you’re seeing a dramatic showdown between more or less equally matched adversaries — a markedly more satisfying and movie-like conclusion than if the makers had stuck with the finale as presented in the book, in which a bunch of frightened old men cower in the rain while shouting spells and praying that Yog-Sothoth doesn’t kill them.
Wilbur manipulates circumstances so that Nancy has to give him a ride back to his creepy old house in Dunwich. Once there, he sabotages her car so that she has no choice but to spend the night. Nancy is already falling increasingly under Wilbur’s sway by this point, so she raises little objection, but Wilbur still drugs her just to be on the safe side — possibly because, in her chemically-induced stupor, she will be less likely to notice the ominous gurgling sounds coming out of the locked room at the top of the stairs.
As she slumbers, Nancy dreams that she is being groped and chased by a bunch of hippie mud people who caper around and mug at the camera as if they were auditioning for the Broadway production of Yog-Sothoth: Superstar. This experience seems only to increase Wilbur’s hold over her, and the one night’s stay extends to a series of days, as, all the while, it becomes clearer that Wilbur is grooming her for a very specific purpose, a purpose that is more than hinted at when Wilbur shows Nancy the ancient sacrificial altar perched atop a desolate hilltop near his home.
Once Wilbur finally gets his mitts on the Necronomicon and set in motion the rituals necessary to bringing the Old Ones back into the world of men, The Dunwich Horror, like the story it’s based upon, sees out its final act as a pretty sweet little monster on the loose story. The film is helped greatly in this regard by the fact that Lovecraft described the unnamable thing locked up in the Whateley house, once freed, as being mostly invisible to human eyes. This enables the filmmakers to represent it through some effective shots of trees being thrashed about by unseen forces—an interesting use of negative effects, and reaction shots of the monster’s horrified victims. All in all, it’s a satisfyingly apocalyptic payoff to the slow-burn piling on of unease that makes up the film’s first hour, and even survives the fact that, once we do catch a fleeting glimpse of the beast, it appears to be Dean Stockwell wearing a mask made out of plastic snakes.
While the sleazy, swinger’s leer of The Dunwich Horror certainly dates the picture — and may go some way toward undermining its scare factor for modern audiences — the film in most respects still holds to the high standard set by AIP’s earlier gothic horrors drawn from the works of Poe and Lovecraft. As with those films, the modest budget is compensated for by both a handsome production design and studious attention to the creation of a pervasive atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Bolstering that is a range of reliable, if somewhat over-the-top, performances by a cast made up of stolid old troopers, among them Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s grandfather and Lloyd Bochner as Armitage’s ally, Dr. Cory. Only Sandra Dee, out of all the performers, seems to be holding back, but the fact that she comes off as a bit narcotized is in keeping with her character’s situation.
Pondering that image of Sandra Dee, lying prone and half-conscious while being the subject of all kinds of uninvited groping, I might be inspired to reconsider my previous statement about what might constitute The Dunwich Horror‘s true source of horror for modern audiences. After all, isn’t the thought of being groped by a leering, permed, and mustachioed Dean Stockwell really the definition of horror at its most profound and unnamable? More courageous souls than I have doubtless been prompted to tear off and eat their own faces at the mere thought. In fact, if that’s the only way to purge that image from one’s mind, I recommend that we all do that right now.
See you on the other side of madness!
More from Todd Stadtman >>