Friday, October 25, 2013

Lovecraft a Go-Go

The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror Lancer Paperback Cover

I first read The Dunwich Horror when I was fourteen, if I recall correctly. A haunter of used bookstores even then, I found the story in an awesome old Lancer paperback with the cover at the right. This wasn't the first Lovecraft I read--I had a collection of some of his lesser prose sketches and Lord Dunsany rip-offs, and those didn't really fire my imagination. This book, on the other hand, with stories like "Pickman's Model," "The Thing on the Doorstep," "The Haunter of the Dark," and the title story--this book kicked my ass hard.

I don't think I saw the movie version for another six years. I never caught it on TV, and finally found it at a mom and pop rental video store next to the door to the porn room. It was next to Jess Franco's Eugenie on the shelf, and a couple of tapes down from Die, Monster, Die, both of which ended up in the stack of tapes I rented along with The Dunwich Horror. Also on that stack was City of the Living Dead and Liquid Sky. I was in for a disappointing weekend. That's cinephilia for you, I guess. The Dunwich Horror (1970, directed by Daniel Haller) never comes anywhere near the weirdness of the short story, mostly because it's a monster movie with out a monster and a movie about sex without any sex and a horror movie without any horror. Looking back at this film from a vantage point in 2013, it seems absurd that the MPAA rated this "R", even in those days before the PG-13. There's a lot about this movie that's baffling.

This was one of the films that Roger Corman handed off to his assistants as he was moving more and more into producing. Corman retired from directing the next year. His last film until 1990 was Von Richtofen and Brown, which I've never seen, though Corman's fingerprints are often all over the films he produced. His fingers are all over this film. Corman was very encouraging of the techniques that became central to the American New Wave of the 1970s and some of that creeps into this movie. I mean, most of the film is pretty square, but its nightmare sequences use the rapid intermittent editing of Easy Rider (a film that Corman also had something to do with). The use of optical effects for the psychedelic freakout of this film's climax seem to come from Corman's drug films. Plus, there's a burning building at the end of the film, though on the whole, Haller avoids reusing Corman's well-traveled burning barn footage.

Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee in The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror is relatively faithful to the plot of Lovecraft's story, though it deviates in some significant ways. Those deviations are criticisms of Lovecraft after the fact, and they aren't undeserved. The story follows one Nancy Wagner, an assistant to Professor Henry Armitage, who is lecturing on the Necronomicon at Miskatonic University. Nancy has drawn the eye of Wilbur Whately, who covets the Necronmicon and the forbidden knowledge contained therein. Whately insinuates himself into Nancy's good graces and soon solicits a ride back to Dunwich. At the Whately family home, Nancy falls under his spell. Whately wants to restage a ritual originally attempted by his grandfather before the town strung him up, and he wants Nancy to be the center of it. Meanwhile, Armitage and Nancy's friend, Elizabeth, come looking for Nancy, and begin to investigate Wilbur. What they discover is disturbing. Wilbur, it seems, was the product of some unholy ritual himself, a twin whose sibling was allegedly stillborn, and who his father claimed would shake the world from the top of Sentinel Hill. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Wilbur's twin was not stillborn, and figures to open a rift in the fabric of reality in order to reunite with their father.

Sandra Dee in The Dunwich Horror

The most obvious deviation from Lovecraft is the number of women who figure in the plot of this movie. Nancy is a character that never would have appeared in one of his stories at all, let alone as a quasi-protagonist. Lovecraft's stories are curiously asexual, even though some of his gelid monstrosities seem like they're yonic symbols of some sort or another. Casting Sandra Dee and her fresh-scrubbed femininity in the lead of this film brings the horror of sex that's only in the subtext out into the foreground. There's not just a horror of sex, here, though. There's also a general horror of reproduction. This is a film that begins with a birth scene, and birth, as a source of horror, was a very new thing at the time. True, this is cribbed from Rosemary's Baby, but it's an unease that runs through a lot of the horror of the 1970s. Corman and his directors would take this to extremes later in the decade, with the living end of it being the climactic birth at the end of Humanoids from the Deep. This film is positively chaste in comparison, preferring to elide the birth of the Whately twins in a cleverly designed title sequence. This film mutes Lovecraft's usual racism by omitting any hint of degenerate half-breeds, though the central "horror" of miscegenation remains.

The Dunwich Horror

This is a film stocked with interesting faces. Dean Stockwell's Wilbur Whately is just charming enough to seduce Sandra Dee's Nancy, and just slimy enough to function as the film's villain. There's a hint of Charlie Manson in his depiction. He's certainly much different from the degenerate character in the original story. Ed Bagley played so few heroic characters in his career that it's kind of a shock seeing him here as Armitage. He's the Peter Cushing character, if you get my meaning, and he's surprisingly good at it. Sandra Dee carries the baggage of her screen image with her into this movie. She's almost too old for the part, but she still seems virginal enough. She's almost too virginal for the movie, though that image plays to the film's few strengths. Watching her grind against the Necronomicon after it's been placed between her legs is kind of a kick after all those Gidget movies. Sam Jaffe is the other big name in the cast, playing Old Man Whately. Jaffe was never good at playing crazy, but he's okay here, I guess. One almost wishes that Talia Shire (here billed as Talia Coppola) had been the lead instead of down the cast list in support. She's a better actress than anyone else in the film.

My main objection to The Dunwich Horror back when I first saw it hasn't really budged in the years since. This is a move that promises a monster and fails to deliver. We see hints of a monster in the light show that presages its attacks, but we only get a single shot of the thing near the end of the movie--in the middle of a light show, natch--and in that shot it doesn't actually do anything. The cheapness of the production doesn't quite excuse the failure of imagination involved.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 19

First Time Viewings: 15

Around the Web:

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The Celluloid Dreamer has ghosts on his mind, too. 13 Ghosts, to be precise.

Justin over at The Bloody Pit of Horror takes on a mathom from Mexico in La Dinastía de Dracula.

Scarecrow's Blog from the Dark Side hooks up with Daughters of Satan.

Anna at Bemused and Nonplussed waxes rhapsodic about the original Dawn of the Dead, and takes on Madhouse for the Vincent Price blogathon.

Tim at The Other Side views Mario Bava's Black Sunday though the eyes of a role-playing gamer.

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