Directed by Daniel Haller
Starring Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee and Ed Begley
We’ve covered it elsewhere, so I’ll be brief: Whateley house holds invisible monster; Wilbur Whateley attempts evil plan; dog kills Wilbur; monster, unattended, goes on rampage; heroic academics banish monster; relative good triumphs; relative yay. You can read it here.
The film adaptation of “The Dunwich Horror” moves away from the background-heavy story with Henry Armitage (Begley) as the hero and focuses more on the relationship between sorcerer Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell) and a new character, Nancy Wagner (Dee). Whateley needs Wagner for his ritual because, in order to bring the Old Ones through into our world, he needs “the right girl” to lie on an altar and writhe around. The whole Dunwich cult aesthetic is blended with 60s images of witchcraft and Satanism.
This means that we spend a lot of time watching Whateley set up his … well, for want of a better word, rape … of Dee, which is every bit as creepy and distasteful as it sounds. Considering that what I’m watching is basically a moustached weirdo sexually abusing a 50s teen icon, it seems churlish to complain that this film has a really slow middle.
Director Daniel Haller (who also directed Die, Monster, Die!) wisely keeps the monster off stage until the very last minute, relying on psychedelic colours and camerawork and POV shots. The final confrontation is nicely atmospheric, but seems very rushed, involving paying off something that is basically not set up at all. The story gives us a lengthy sequence in which Armitage almost ruins his health puzzling out what the hell is going on and develops a countermeasure; movie-Armitage shows up and shouts at Wilbur a bit until he gets struck by lightning, bursts into flames and falls in the sea.
What’s wrong with it?
Once again we see the pattern of trying to force a Lovecraft story into a structure (here, a psychedelic black-magic story) that doesn’t really fit it very well. If Wilbur needs “the right girl,” it’s a hell of a coincidence that it turns out to be Nancy, who he meets entirely by chance while trying to get his hands on the Necronomicon. I sort of assumed he was trying to get into her pants so she’d help him steal it, but no — that plotline disappears for like an hour.
It’s not very tense if Armitage was able to just KO Wilbur so easily all along.
I think we’re sort of meant to find Dean Stockwell hairily compelling and attractive in a sort of sinister way. You would not normally associate those concepts with “Dean Stockwell.”
What’s right with it?
The psychedelic monster is reasonably effective, and some of the sets are quite nice, in a stagey kind of way.
How bad is it really?
It’s … mostly boring and derivative. Characters are plot-conveniently stupid. Wilbur has a suite of deus ex machina powers, but gets taken out with infinite preparation time on his home base by a visiting lecturer (I guess this is preferable to the story, where he is taken out by a particularly alert dog, but then he’s not the main antagonist of the story). And the mock-seriousness of the titillation just makes it so much creepier.
You know, the guy who wrote this screenplay, Curtis Hanson, went on to win an Oscar for LA Confidential.
Best bit (if such there is)?
The monster moving around Dunwich as represented by a low cloud of mist is actually quite good!
What’s up with…?
- The two mysterious old women in the first scene? It’s even pointed out that they are mysterious, but then nothing comes of it. In a way, I approve.
- The cackling hippie cultists in Nancy’s nightmare? They don’t … do … anything; everything else is meant to represent something, but this has shit to do with anything else.
- The other cultists in the big ritual scene? I thought the whole point was that the Whateleys were the local weirdoes and everyone hated them. Who are these people?
- Wilbur’s psychoanalysis? He says Nancy’s dream “sounds sexual.” Yeah, no shit, genius, it was a dream about naked people writhing all over each other. And then she laughs at him like that’s ridiculous!
- The cult robes? Hood that covers your whole head, face mask, long black robes … plunging V-neck.
- Wilbur’s plan? He’s trying to … make his half-brother physically manifest? Have I got that right?
- The sting at the end? OK, so Nancy is pregnant. Well, Wilbur and his brother were half Old One, and Armitage dealt with them pretty easily as soon as he figured out something was up. This kid’s only going to be a quarter Old One, and you think Armitage isn’t going to notice when he hears Nancy’s pregnant?
- The old Whateley place? It is pretty swanky!
- Sandra Dee’s coat/cape thing?
Production values Competent. Not one of your amateur labours of love, this is a professional job, even if not quite a Hollywood spectacular. 9.
Dialogue and performances Ed Begley (who already had an Oscar by this point) goes through the motions, Stockwell goggles at people, Dee looks confused. 12. No one is bad, but it doesn’t look like anyone is really trying.
Plot and execution The story being adapted actively fights the adaptation, but it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end. 13.
Randomness Hippie cultists, pointless witch-trial subplot, mysterious women, weird altar in the middle of nowhere … 15.
Waste of potential One of the most adaptable Lovecraft stories, two Oscar winners (OK, it’s Hanson’s first movie), clearly a certain amount of budget … 15.