Despite his immense cult popularity H. P. Lovecraft has tended to be avoided by horror film-makers. And for obvious reasons. Translating the horrors described so memorably in his gloriously purple prose into visual images entails an incredibly high risk that the results will look silly and unconvincing and will provoke laughter rather than chills.
A.I.P.’s 1970 Lovecraft flick The Dunwich Horror sounds at first like an incredibly bad idea. Combining Lovecraft with psychedelia in a contemporary setting will surely end up looking very very silly indeed. Even worse, they were going to try doing this on a very low budget, with Roger Corman as executive producer keeping a very tight hold on the purse-strings. In fact it not only works remarkably well, it’s probably the most satisfactory movie adaptation of Lovecraft ever made.
A rather disturbing young man wanders into the Miskatonic University library and announces that he’d like to borrow their most prized possession, the famed (or rather infamous) Necronomicon. The most evil and dangerous book ever written. His interest in the book seems even more worrying when it’s discovered that he is Wilbur Whately (Dean Stockwell), of the notorious (and feared) Whately family. His great-grandfather had been lynched, ostensibly for a murder but in fact he had been trying to bring back the Great Old Ones, ancient and malevolent creatures from another dimension who had ruled the Earth aeons ago.
Could Wilbur be planning something similar? And what of the stories of Wilbur’s mysterious birth, the alleged still-birth of his brother, the madness of his mother and the terrifying possibility that Wilbur’s father was not exactly human. The townspeople are very much afraid of Wilbur, and of his crazy grandfather (Sam Jaffe). No girl from the town would ever go out with Wilbur. So it comes as a surprise that pretty young student Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) should not only offer to drive Wilbur home to Dunwich, but that she should decide to stay for the weekend.
Dr Henry Armitage (Ed Begley) is the university’s resident expert on the Necronomicon. He knows all about the Great Old Ones, and he knows all about the Whatelys. He has his suspicions as to Wilbur’s intentions towards Nancy, and those suspicions don’t involve romantic walks on the beach. They involve sinister rituals and sexual congress with tentacled aliens.
Nancy has in fact been drugged by Wilbur, but even without this he appears to exert a strange hold over her. Other women find him creepy but she is oddly fascinated, a fascination that may well involve some kind of occult mind-control. She starts to have dreams, psychedelic dreams with sexual overtones (and Nancy is clearly not a girl who is especially comfortable with the subject of sex). Dreams of being pursued by hordes of half-naked hippies (and surely there can be no horror to equal the horror of half-naked hippies). Nancy’s friend Elizabeth, Dr Armitage and the town doctor are all determined to save her from a fate that will clearly be a good deal worse than death, but will they be too late? Can Wilbur be prevented from bringing back the gods of old?
The movie works to a large extent because director Daniel Haller had been Corman’s art director for years. He was accustomed to finding ways of producing striking visual images on the cheap. He had a fine sense of visual style. And he’d absorbed valuable lessons from working with Corman - he understood the importance of keeping things moving, of always having something interesting happening.
The effects at times rely too much on solarisation but mostly they are remarkably effective. The wind effects are especially good. And the truly frantic cutting not only provides the right level of disorientation, it also cleverly means we never see an image for long enough to notice how cheap it is or how unconvincing the monsters might be. Haller only ever allows us the briefest glimpses of the monsters so we can readily believe they’re a lot more terrifying than they actually are. This is always a sound method in low-budget films and Haller does it superbly.
The movie also benefits from a truly inspired piece of casting. Dean Stockwell’s absolutely flat delivery of his lines, the extreme creepiness he brings to the character, and the sense that he’s not really part of our universe at all, that his mind is off somewhere else, a long way off - all this adds up to a brilliantly effective performance.
Sandra Dee is quite good. This is a long way from Gidget but she comes across as a repressed virgin which makes it quite plausible that she’s exactly the type of woman Wilbur would be looking for. Ed Begley is great fun, and Sam Jaffe is wonderfully crazed.
Even the decision to add sex, which at first seems rather un-Lovecraftian, works surprisingly well. There might not be sex in Lovecraft but there’s certainly perversity and the sexual elements added to the story help in this regard. They make the townspeople’s horror of the Whately’s much more comprehensible. The movie definitely has a genuine Lovecraftian feel.
Modern audiences who expect CGI and gore won’t understand this movie at all. But if you value atmosphere and weirdness more than gore you’ll love this one. Lovecraft and psychedelia certainly works for me.