I occasionally like a good pop culture debate with no real right or wrong answer, and a fine example of this is “when did modern horror start?” What do you mean by modern, what do you mean by horror, etc, but two front runners for this particular prize are “Night Of The Living Dead”, from 1968, and “Halloween”, from 1977. Pretty much everything before “Night…” could be classed as “old-fashioned”, everything after “Halloween” is modern. Obviously, there are exceptions, which is why it’s a fun argument, but there’s also some interesting movies made in the middle, and “The Dunwich Horror” is one of those.
Our HP Lovecraft review series rumbles on apace, after the really pretty good “Colour From The Dark”. I was in a good mood from the opening credits, which felt like Bond crossed with Morricone, and the names that came up left my cult-movie-loving brain in happy anticipation – AIP, Samuel Z Arkoff, James Nicholson, and Roger Corman – Corman, working for AIP, made the extraordinary run of Edgar Allan Poe-based horrors in the 60s. Add in a script from future Oscar-winner Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential), an early role for Dean Stockwell, and expectations are, for once with one of the movies we review on this site, moderately high.
Although this wasn’t directed by Corman – this one’s credited to Daniel Haller, who’d go on to direct loads of TV shows – it has that same feel, with the gorgeous super-bright technicolour in full effect (some beautiful purples in the Whateley house, for example). Our story kicks off with the Necronomicon, the “ancient” book of spells and demonic knowledge that Lovecraft made up and loads of people since have tried to prove is a real thing – Professor Armitage (Ed Begley) is giving a lecture about it and then just asks two of his students, Elizabeth (Donna Bacala) and Nancy (Sandra Dee, who got 5% of the profits from her participation) to just put it back in its locked box again. Ah, more casual times! In walks Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell), who wants to borrow the book; the Professor is all “no can do, random stranger”; there’s an attraction between Wilbur and Nancy; an extremely well written restaurant scene; and then Wilbur wangles a lift back to Dunwich as he’s missed his last bus.
Up to now, there’s been a bit of doubt, but Wilbur’s sabotaging her car lets us know for certain he’s up to no good. She’s forced to stay with him in his big old mansion, and then (thanks to a cup or two of magic tea) she’s in his power, forcing Elizabeth and the Professor to track her down. Because it’s Lovecraft, you know there’ll be some unusual family secrets, small towns and large dark forces; and because it’s Corman, you’ll know it’ll be quickly told and probably a little cheap. I’m being way unkind to Corman, though, who had a huge affinity for this sort of material and made some of the best horror of the 60s.
This might be the best of the Lovecraft films we’ve done so far. A lot of criticism at the time came from its psychedelic trappings (filmed in 1969, released in 1970, it’s safe to say that “2001” had a bit of an influence), but when you’re dealing with something which, as in the original story, is invisible, trying to give some visual cues to the audience, the way they did it works extremely well. If you’ve got no money to represent a mutated child of an Elder God, then give us a light show from the monster’s POV. Well done movie!
Also, a good portion of Lovecraft adaptations get to the point of the story where Christianity is irrelevant and the creatures of the Cthulhu mythos come into play, and just go “Satan is sort of the same as these guys, right?” Some of them work, most of them don’t, but they all miss something important with the reduction, that idea of men (it’s always men) looking further than they should, staring into the abyss and definitely having it stare back into them. “The Dunwich Horror” lets you know right from the off it’s going to be doing it the right way, with Yog-Sothoth mentioned by name in the first five minutes and worshipped thereafter. Which isn’t to say it’s an extremely close adaptation of the story, but it gets the important stuff right.
It’s perhaps a little creaky, erring more on the side of the early 60s Corman than the modern – with a few trims for hippie nudity, it could have easily been made 15 years earlier. And the ending’s a little bit rushed, with them perhaps battering you over the head with the similarities to “Rosemary’s Baby”. But it’s got a great atmosphere, well told, well directed, with some – okay – pretty ropey performances (Stockwell’s a bit mannered) and at least one really good one from Ed “dad of Ed Begley Jr” Begley; it was his last role as he died three months after finishing this.
Add this to the top of your hypothetical Lovecraft movie list, I say.
Rating: thumbs up