Saturday, October 30, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Movie Report #82: The Dunwich Horror

Dunwich Horror poster and DVD link
When I put up DIE, MONSTER, DIE! I couldn’t help but notice that it’s sold as a double feature with THE DUNWICH HORROR, another surreal early H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. I’d actually seen it about a year previously, and it struck me as just odd and goofy enough to go through again. It’s sort of a monster story, and also an occult film, and also just plain shit that be freaky. As far as I can tell, AIP started producing versions of Lovecraft’s work because they ran out of Edgar Allan Poe stories, and this was before the received wisdom that the author’s work was unadaptable. This film may well be where the recieved wisdom got going, because as unusual as it is, it’s not really a successful horror picture by any measure. It is entertaining and a cultural artifact of sorts, which means it’s still worth writing about. And well, some of you might wanna see it.

Dean Stockwell is Wilbur Whateley, last son of a strange clan of folk on the outskirts of Dunwich, Massachusetts. For generations they’ve worshipped weird gods from outside our dimension, and Wilbur shows up at Miskatonic University in Arkham (now located back in the states) in hopes of looking over their copy of the Necronomicon, a book which deals with the Outer Gods and associated madness. He gets just a brief look at the book, but manages to charm the heck out of comely undergrad Nancy (Sandra Dee) and lure her back to his family’s crumbling estate. It seems he’s got her in mind for a kind of ritual to invoke the god Yog-Sothoth and open the gates between our world and that of the Outer Gods. Wilbur’s father (Sam Jaffe) tried this ritual some time ago, and it resulted in Wilbur’s birth, and also... something else getting through. Something in the attic. After Nancy’s been gone a while, Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley the elder) and an assistant (Donna Baccala) show up looking for her, and have to put the pieces together in time to prevent the ritual.

In updating Lovecraft’s story to the modern day, the filmmakers took an interesting approach, incorporating imagery from the then-current pagan and occult revival. The fusion of Wiccan and New Age lore with Lovecraft’s unique brand of cosmic nihilism creates an unusual atmosphere, heightened by some trippy dream/hallucination sequences an a memorable score composed by Les Baxter. (Firesign Theater fans will recognize the theme from its use in the “Mark Time” sketch.) On the one hand this dates the picture, on the other it makes for a ncie time capsule.

The decision to shift the focus of the story onto Wilbur also has some unusual effects; in the story, Wilbur dies fairly early in an attempt to steal the Necronomicon, which is what tips off the main characters that something is very wrong at Dunwich. Instead he’s made into a kind of antihero, with Nancy mostly being a passive target of his creepy advances while Armitage rumbles around Massachusetts trying to work out what’s going on. The character is almost made sympathetic at times, shown to be a target of religious prosecution within the community; the fact that he actually is trying to call down destructive monsters from beyond time and space kind of undercuts this, though, and it feels like a weird attempt to invoke counterculture sympathy without really thinking through all the ramifications. Still, this focus does allow Dean Stockwell to dominate the picture, and his presence is kind of hypnotic- you can see how Wilbur is both charismatic and off-putting. Nancy herself, as well as the whole love story/mating ritual subplot, is a late addition, but I have to say the new elements are better integrated into the original story than one would think.

The film’s major problem is one of pacing; there are a number of slack parts, several scenes in Dunwich where it seems that Nancy and her would-be rescuers are missing each other by pure coincidence, and the third act just kind of collapses due to all the padding. Of course, it doesn’t help that the final confrontation is one of the goofiest you could put on film, and with Armitage being such a minor presence it’s hard to really work out what the heck he’s doing or how he knows to do it.

Ultimately these issues do drag the film down, but it retains some historical value if nothing else. It’s a picture that really couldn’t have been made at any other time, and the inherent weirdness of the original story shines through enough to make this a unique viewing experience. I would recommend it for the curious, as well as people who like Lovecraft’s work but aren’t purists about it. I like the crazy pictures, even when they’re not really all that good.

Based on the story by H. P. Lovecraft
Screenplay by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, and Ronald Silkosky
Directed by Daniel Haller

Grade: C+

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