Lovecraft's mythos of the Old Ones — supernatural
beings from beyond time and space — receives perhaps
its most accurate treatment in The
Dunwich Horror, a low budget AIP effort
produced by B-movie king Roger Corman. That's
not to say that a lot of liberties aren't taken
with Lovecraft's original story, with nods to
sex (which the prim author would have disdained)
and the hippy counterculture of the late '60s
- early '70s. Dean
Stockwell (TV's Quantum Leap) stars as
Wilbur Whateley, a 25-year old sorcerer with a
natural perm and a far-off, otherworldly gaze.
He's come to Miskatonic University in Arkham,
Massachusetts to see the Necronomicon, a rare,
ancient book of spells and rituals on display
in the library. Esteemed occult expert Dr. Armitage
(Ed Begley) has loaned the tome to the school
while he conducts a series of guest lectures there.
Wilbur approaches Armitage about borrowing the
book for research but the academician refuses
— the grimoire is priceless. Still, Armitage is
intrigued by Wilbur since he knows much of the
Whateley family history. A lynch mob in the town
of Dunwich hanged Wilbur's great-grandfather,
who was thought to have possessed the only other
copy of the Necronomicon, in 1877. Rumored to
be a pagan sorcerer, Wilbur's great-granddad was
accused of murdering a girl during some kind of
and two university coeds, Nancy (Sandra Dee) and
Elizabeth (Donna Baccala), join Wilbur for dinner
and conversation, during which Wilbur again tries
to cajole Armitage into allowing him access to
the book. Turned down, Wilbur instead sets his
sights on Nancy, who seems interested in him.
When he claims to have missed his bus, Nancy offers
to drive him to his home in Dunwich some 40 miles
away. After a spot of (drugged) tea in Wilbur's
creepy, ramshackle mansion — and an encounter
with his strange, nutball grandfather (Sam Jaffe),
who lives with him — Nancy discovers that her
car won't start. "I'm afraid I don't know anything
about cars," Wilbur apologizes, though of course
it was he who sabotaged the vehicle.
house doesn't have a phone, Nancy has little choice
but to spend the night. Her slumber is interrupted
by a nightmare involving some kind of bizarre
ritual conducted by half-naked celebrants, all
body-painted Woodstock-style. In spite of this
disquieting dream, Nancy's stay stretches over
the whole weekend — she's falling under the malevolent
influence of Wilbur. Meanwhile, Nancy's friend
Elizabeth is worried enough about her to enlist
Dr. Armitage on a road trip to Dunwich. Unsuccessful
in getting her to leave Wilbur's side, she and
Armitage begin poking around the town to see what
they can learn about the Whateleys, who are hated
and feared by the locals. Consulting the town
doctor (TV veteran Lloyd Bochner), Armitage discovers
strange, hidden facts about the circumstances
of Wilbur's birth. It seems Wilbur had a paternal
twin who supposedly died when they were born.
But did it really? Who — or what — was
their real father? Why does Wilbur want the Necronomicon?
And what plans does he have for Nancy?
Scripted by Curtis Hansen, the Oscar-winning director/screenwriter
of L.A. Confidential,
The Dunwich Horror
is a weird enough tale to hold your interest despite
some repetitious scenes with a tendency to drag.
That it supplants the usual satanic cult themes
with the Lovecraft mythos is a definite boon.
Wilbur isn't a devil worshipper at all, but rather
an acolyte of the Old Ones —
beings who existed eons before Christianity, before
even Earth itself. He scoffs at the notion of
Satan. The Christian townsfolk are depicted as
a rather intolerant bunch, though given the Whateleys'
true nature their suspicion is not at all misplaced.
When the forces of darkness are set loose among
them in the form of Wilbur's inhuman sibling,
their faith avails them naught.
all the ritualistic mumbo-jumbo is supplemented
by some good old fashioned "monster on the rampage"
scenes, as Wilbur's brother is freed from his
(its?) attic prison to slaughter a good
number of the locals, to include a young Talia
Shire. Smartly — given the film's low budget —
the creature is realized almost totally with psychedelic
P.O.V. shots, or is shown as an invisible force
in accordance with Lovecraft's story. An exception
to this is Elizabeth's demise, when she brazenly
charges into Whateley Manor looking for her friend.
We get only fleeting, strobe light-style glimpses
of the creature, whose tentacle-like appendages
tear off her clothes before killing her. (This
scene, along with some brief nudity in Nancy's
nightmare, weren't included in the originally
PG-rated theatrical release.) The film shows conclusively
that, when one doesn't have the budget to fabricate
some elaborate monster, leaving most of it to
the viewer's imagination is always the best call.
So at least we get a fairly interesting beastie.
The cast is uniformly good — even Dee (who is,
after all, playing a dimwit); Sam Jaffe's crazy
grandpa is the real standout here despite all
the screen time devoted to Stockwell. Les Baxter's
score is simple yet catchy, with the main melody
arranged in a wide array of styles from rock to
the kind of theramin-driven weirdness you might
expect in such a film. An animated titles sequence
is also of note, using the simplest of silhouette
drawings to good effect. (See the example at the
top of the page.) Yet the needlessly drawn out
ritual scences really slow the movie
down. (Unless, that is, one were to perhaps fashion
a drinking game based on the number of times "Yog-Sothoth!"
is invoked.) A rushed, fumbled ending comes as
a real letdown, too, after all the buildup that
sum, Dunwich Horror
plays pretty much like an extended episode of
TV's Night Gallery —
an okay one.