The Dunwich Horror, 1970.
Directed by Daniel Haller.
Starring Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Sam Jaffe, Talia Shire, and Donna Baccala.
A man seduces an innocent young woman in order to use her to bring back ancient entities in an occult ritual.
As we enter the year of 2023 and the world seems to be imploding, Arrow Video have seen fit to offer the chance to look into another dimension with a Blu-ray release of The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 horror movie based on the writings of one H.P. Lovecraft, he of Cthulu and other assorted tentacled creatures fame.
The town of Dunwich is a strange old place, as not only did Lucio Fulci set City of the Living Dead there, but there is a very weird family that live on its outskirts. That family are the Whateley’s, and Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), the youngest of them, is a wrong ‘un. We know this straight away because he has a neatly trimmed moustache, wears a brown corduroy jacket and speaks in a hypnotic, low-register monotone voice which he uses to hypnotise and seduce university student Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) after he tries to blag sacred text the Necronomicon from Nancy’s tutor Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley).
Armitage is adamant that the obviously sinister Wilbur must not get his hands on the book, for not only will Bruce Campbell need it in a decade’s time but Wilbur’s great-grandfather was also a bit of an odd character and the good doctor knows all about him.
Anyway, it turns out Wilbur is using the innocent Nancy as part of an occult ritual to bring back ‘The Old Ones’, the ancient gods that ruled the Earth before mankind decided that fast food and streaming was more worthy of worship. Unfortunately there are other malevolent forces at work as Nancy’s friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala) goes looking for her at Wilbur’s family home, where she not only meets his creepy old grandfather (Sam Jaffe) but something else that Wilbur keeps in the closet with his collection of corduroy jackets, which causes her no end of discomfort as it breaks for freedom when she goes snooping. And at no point does anyone vomit up their intestines or get a drill to the head, so things must have moved on before Fulci got there.
Treading the line between the cosmic weirdness of the late 1960s and the new age occultism that the 1970s was ushering in, The Dunwich Horror feels a little underwhelming when you consider all the elements that went into making it, for not only do we have Dean Stockwell’s lovingly groomed moustache but the film was made by American International Pictures, which usually meant that B-movie legend Roger Corman was involved somewhere behind the scenes.
Indeed, Corman served as Executive Producer – well, that’s what he is credited as but his fingerprints are everywhere – and the dream sequences he peppered throughout his run of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the 1960s are here also, populated by topless hippies seemingly on their way back from a Frank Zappa gig and getting excited by blonde haired sacrificial lamb Nancy spreading herself over a randomly placed altar. We know it is a dream sequence because the camera lens is smeared with Vaseline and, thanks to a clean HD print, the crew hand who rubbed the petroleum jelly-based lubricant on the lens could probably be identified by their fingerprints.
Regardless of Corman’s tips on cheap special effects, H.P. Lovecraft was not a writer who spiced up his stories with sex and in 1970 an occult horror movie without sex or nudity was like a Rocky movie that didn’t feature any boxing. Speaking of Rocky, Talia Shire shows up here in an early role as a nurse who works for the town doctor, the same doctor who delivered young Wilbur as a baby, or at least it is his name on the birth certificate – best check with old man Whateley about that one.
So yes, The Dunwich Horror is full of the fear and mystery of H.P. Lovecraft and contains just about enough ropey special effects and naked breasts for it to sit alongside other gothic occult movies of the era, and even some of the folk horror pictures that dabbled in mysticism, but this is definitely closer to Rosemary’s Baby than it is The Wicker Man, so don’t get too excited if the sight of naked young people jumping through fire refreshes you as there isn’t as much of that malarky going on in Dunwich as there is in Summerisle.
However, for added value Arrow Video have included a 130-minute video conversation between film historian Stephen R. Bissette and horror author Stephen Laws in which they discuss The Dunwich Horror, H.P. Lovecraft and their memories of seeing the movie for the first time, which is a fun featurette regardless on your knowledge of Lovecraft. There are also new interviews with science fiction and fantasy writer Ruthanna Emrys and music historian David Huckvale, who discusses composer Les Baxter’s score for the movie, as well as an audio commentary by Guy Adams and Alexandra Benedict, creators of the audio drama Arkham County.
The world that H.P. Lovecraft created is a strange one but very rich in mythology, and The Dunwich Horror serves as an accessible entry point for newbies and a bit of hokey nonsense for those more familiar with the source material. Coming in under 90 minutes there is a bit of a lag going into the third act, and The Dunwich Horror may not be the assault on the senses in the same way that the (loose) movie adaptations of Re-animator or From Beyond are, but there is enough going on to keep you invested, as long as your standards for 1970s occult shenanigans aren’t too high.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★