Sunday 2 November 2008

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

Being a huge fan of the Weird Tales pulp magazine and it many writers, I've worked through Lovecraft's bibliography more than once and when I think of a film adaptation of one of his stories, I don't think of people like Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell and Ed Begley. Then again, this is an American International picture, so they were presumably spanning out from their success as adapters of Poe. More understandable names include Roger Corman as executive producer and exotica legend Les Baxter as the composer of the soundtrack.

Stockwell is Wilbur Whateley, a student of the occult with a horrendous moustache and a denizen of the Dunwich of the title, a town in Massachusetts. He travels to the Miskatonic University in Arkham to read the Necronomicon, the prize of their collection. For those who haven't read Lovecraft, the Necronomicon is a priceless volume of occult lore written by the mad Arab Abd al-Hazred that holds the keys to elder gods exiled to other dimensions. Whateley wants to bring them back and the Necronomicon is the heart of that attempt.

Also in Arkham though is Dr Henry Armitage, who refuses to let him take it away for study. Armitage is a pathetic imitation of a Lovecraftian occult scholar: he doesn't believe all this stuff about elder gods, merely admitting that he 'knows enough about strange things not to laugh at them.' Quite why he's at the Miskatonic to lecture on the subject over a period of a few weeks, I really don't know. Perhaps this disdain is the excuse for why the Miskatonic really doesn't seem to value such a unique work to the degree that you might expect. It's kept on public view, in a flimsy little case and handed around without much care. There's no alarm, only a single guard on duty at night.

While Whateley doesn't get the Necronomicon, at least at first, he does get Nancy Wagner, played by Sandra Dee. While she appears to go with him willingly, even voluntarily, the suggestion is some sort of occult power was invoked to persuade her. She's precisely what he's been looking for for his nefarious occult purposes, though beyond being a virgin we aren't made privy to his reasoning. Whateley is a strange bird, wandering around in something close to a trance state and talking in a continual monotone. No wonder the locals shun him, to the degree that a gas station attendant literally quits halfway through cleaning their windshield when he realises that Whateley is in the car.

His family have a unsavoury history in Dunwich, most notably his great-grandfather who was hanged from a tree which his accusers then burned down with his corpse still hanging from it. Nowadays his mother Lavinia has been in a padded cell for the last twenty years and his grandfather is a wild eyed Sam Jaffe, who apparently delivered him, along with an allegedly stillborn twin a quarter of a century before, in his own attempt to bring back the elder gods.

It doesn't take a genius to see where this is going, but you'd be missing all the weird late sixties psychedelia. Once in Dunwich, Nancy becomes even more hypnotised than before, and she dreams of painted native sex orgies. It's all a far cry from Gidget, but then that was presumably the point. She doesn't seem remotely comfortable in the role and I wouldn't be surprised if the more sensual scenes (that include no nudity whatsoever) were courtesy of a body double.

While there are a number of pretty creepy scenes of approaching menace, mostly as evidenced by nature's reaction to it, much of Lovecraft's cosmic horror is translated to cameraman playing around with whatever filters they could find to put on their lenses, none of which are particularly effective in the slightest. Perhaps they were trying to evoke the colour out of space, but they ended up with a bad acid trip. I doubt they really had much of a clue though, because of the use of other completely non-Lovecraftian devices that apparently just seemed like a good idea at the time. Then again this is hardly an accurate screen translation of Lovecraft's work, which is notably difficult to film anyway.

In the end, Begley proved mildly effective as Dr Henry Armitage, though Armitage himself is a waste of space. Dee and Stockwell are there but surely don't want to be. Jaffe can do wild eyed very well but he doesn't get much else to do here, and neither does Lloyd Bochner who's credited along with the top three. Further down the cast are people like Corman regular Beach Dickerson, professional wrestler and stuntman Michael Haynes, and Michael Fox, who is no relation to Michael J Fox but the reason that he acquired his middle initial, given that the Screen Actors Guild require professional names to be unique.

There's also Talia Shire, credited here as Talia Coppola. Beyond being twice nominated for an Oscar and thrice for a Razzie, she's the sister of Francis Ford Coppola and so got to appear in a few Corman movies, Coppola being yet another now famous graduate from the Corman school. Coppola's first credit as a director was for a Corman film, Dementia 13 (though there are a couple of intriguing nudie cutie titles that predate it), and Shire's first few credits were Corman films too, this being her second role, the first with a name. She was merely 1st Girlfriend in The Wild Racers two years earlier.

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