The Dunwich Horror directed by Daniel Haller
Having enjoyed great success with a string of some seven pictures based on the works of the writer who has been called the greatest horror author of the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe, American International Pictures (AIP) soon turned its attention to the horror author who has been called the greatest of the 20th, the so-called “Sage of Providence,” Howard Phillips Lovecraft. For their first Lovecraft attempt, the studio came out with the Boris Karloff outing Die, Monster, Die, loosely based on the author’s 1927 story “The Color Out of Space.” And five years later, the film in question, The Dunwich Horror, was released, in January 1970 (just weeks before the studio came out with the Peter Cushing/Vincent Price/Christopher Lee outing Scream and Scream Again), again rather loosely based on a classic Lovecraft horror tale, this one dating back to 1928. Roger Corman, who had helmed all those Poe adaptations, this time acted as executive producer only, handing the film’s reins to Daniel Haller, who had brought home the first Lovecraft adaptation. And once again, the film sported a respectable cast and impressive production values, resulting in a picture that just might please all fans of ol’ H.P., even though it is a far cry from the author’s original.
In the film, 69-year-old Ed Begley, here in his final screen role and refreshingly playing the good guy/hero for a change, is Dr. Henry Armitage, a professor of occult studies at a Massachusetts university. He is approached by a rather odd and soft-spoken young man, Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell, who would go on to appear in the epic disaster The Last Movie in the following year, as well as The Werewolf of Washington three years later), who asks to see and even borrow the incredibly rare book known as The Necronomicon. When his request is denied, Whateley uses his hypnotic power to coerce Armitage’s pretty blonde assistant, Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee, here 28 years old and a far cry more mature than in her Tammy films), to drive him to his home in Dunwich, a town of notorious repute.
Once there, the young man uses drugs to further control the young woman. Wilbur lives in the family abode with his creepy grandfather, Old Whateley (Sam Jaffe, 30+ years post-Gunga Din), while in the locked bedroom upstairs resides … something, which makes eerie noises and clamors for release. Eventually, Wilbur’s goals come into focus: He intends to use the virginal Nancy in an arcane rite, and once he steals The Necronomicon from the university library, use certain passages in that evil tome to effect the release of The Old Ones, a race that had once dwelt here on Earth and that is now confined in another dimension. But can Armitage and Dr. Cory, who had delivered Wilbur in childbirth, and played by the great character actor Lloyd Bochner, stop him in time, before The Old Ones manage to break through, along with the elder god Yog-Sothoth?
The Dunwich Horror, although only partially faithful to its source material, yet boasts any number of features that commend it mightily to even the casual viewer. For one thing, the film itself looks fantastic, with sumptuous sets (Wilbur’s house really is a colorful masterpiece of decor) and art direction (the Devil’s Hop Yard, high atop a cliff overlooking the ocean, where Wilbur conducts his ghastly rites, is really something to see). The film, though shot on a modest budget, yet boasts some impressive yet perforce restrained special effects, such as that rampaging creature that bursts out of the Whateleys’ upstairs; we see it largely from its own POV, thus only getting a sense of its tentacular monstrosity, but it is sufficient to stun and impress.
Perhaps most striking in the film is Haller’s ultrastylish direction, utilizing bizarre camera angles, colorful negative images (what Wilbur’s insane mother sees as she lies dying in an asylum), and surreal dream sequences (the one in which Nancy seems to engage in coitus with Wilbur might forcefully bring to mind the similar sequence in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby). In one extended sequence, we see Nancy’s drug-induced consciousness through what appears to be a burlap sacking covering the camera lens; in the scene in which the whatzit attacks Nancy’s galpal Elizabeth, the screen is aswarm with flashing colors, lights and … tentacles? It is a most psychedelic display! Throw in some unusual musical cues (courtesy of Les Baxter, the author of at least seven prior AIP film scores), some surprising toplessness, the inclusion of some interesting bit actors (such as Talia Coppola, later Shire, and A Bucket of Blood‘s Barboura Morris), and some pleasing touches (I love when Wilbur and Nancy drive into the Shell station outside of Dunwich, and the “S” of the Shell sign is obscured…), and you have a surprisingly winning entertainment.
True, the film’s ending is something of a mess — I still don’t know why Wilbur bursts into flames at the film’s tail end, or just what happened to that ravening monster — but overall, good fun. Too bad AIP never decided to tackle H.P.’s At the Mountains of Madness; now THAT might have really been something!