Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Haller’

The default position a lot of people writing about the horror genre tend to take is that H. P. Lovecraft is (obviously) a massively influential figure in that genre’s development, but one whose own works have not been well or frequently adapted into other media – not until quite recently, at least (you could argue that the appearance of things like The Color Out of Space and Lovecraft Investigations mark a change in this).

Nevertheless, there are a few Lovecraft movies from yesteryear still kicking around, some of them featuring unlikely people. Most of them predate the recent boom in Lovecraft’s profile and thus widespread ideas about what the term ‘Lovecraftian’ actually means, which if nothing else makes them interesting; they are also prone to try and find a way to make Lovecraft’s stories work in the style of horror movies of the time when they were made, which can also have interesting and curious results.

Two of these movies were directed by Daniel Haller. The first of them, Die, Monster, Die! (another swing at Color Out of Space) we have already discussed; the second came along a few years later, being made in 1969 and released in 1970. This time the film retained the title of the source material, and is called The Dunwich Horror.

Certain terms and names are so loaded with significance for the seasoned follower of Lovecraftiana that it can be a shock when something comes along and starts using them in (what seems like) a shockingly off-hand manner. So it is at the start of this film, which – after a fairly lurid and gothic opening sequence featuring an, erm, unusually challenging delivery for a pregnant mother – takes place on an American college campus somewhere in New England. One would naturally expect this to be the famed Miskatonic University, and indeed it may be so, but – so far as I can tell – it’s not actually named as such on-screen. Everyone seems to assume it is, quite understandably.

Anyway, here at maybe-Miskatonic U, esteemed academic Dr Armitage (Ed Begley) has just finished lecturing, using as a visual aid a copy of the dreaded Necronomicon (in the literature: an incredibly dangerous, sanity-blasting tome packed with awful secrets of the true nature of the cosmos, in this film: a handy old spellbook). He sends university secretary Nancy (Sandra Dee) off to pop it back in its display case, but she and her friend encounter a strangely intense young man intent on having a look at the Necronomicon for himself. He turns out to be the weird and unearthly Wilbur Whately (played by Dean Stockwell in a weird and unearthly moustache), descendant of a long line of occultists and wizards.

Despite the fact that Wilbur’s ancestors apparently tried to blow up the world by summoning the ancient and powerful Old Ones back into being (they are malevolent residents of another dimension), Wilbur and Armitage get on quite well, but a peek at the grimoire is not on the cards. So Wilbur winds up being driven home to the town of Dunwich by Nancy, who seems rather taken with him.

Scholars of the Lovecraftian canon would be justified in suggesting that so far this only bears a vague resemblance to the original text of the story. In the end, though, it’s more a case of the pieces having been shuffled around a little bit, largely for emphasis, than this being an entirely different game. Stockwell’s version of Wilbur isn’t a repulsive, satyr-like aberration with extra eye sockets in alarming places, but he is still the product of inter-dimensional intercourse and has an inhuman twin who is kept locked up in the old Whately house. His aim is still to use the Necronomicon to open the gate to the realm of the Old Ones.

What makes the film perhaps seem very divergent from Lovecraft is in the way that it is so obviously a product of its time and context. This is another American-International Pictures movie; perhaps inevitably, Roger Corman is credited as Executive Producer. Under Corman, not to mention credited producers James H Nicholson and Samuel Z Arkoff, AIP were by this point in the business of making exploitation movies aimed at a youthful audience – the Hammer-adjacent stylings of their earlier movies (including The Haunted Palace, which was based on another Lovecraft story but marketed as a Poe adaptation) had largely dissipated into something a little more lurid and freewheeling. In many ways, AIP’s audience in 1969 was members of the counter-culture, and this is reflected by the film.

There is, for example, something very psychedelic about the drug-induced visions than Nancy experiences after being slipped some drugged tea by Wilbur – there’s a lot of writhing flesh and body paint, although the effect is less one of incipient cosmic horror and more of an am-dram reconstruction of people who took the wrong acid at Woodstock. It is also somewhat entertaining to consider what the appalled reaction of an 80-year-old Lovecraft might have been, had he lived, to the emphasis on matters sexual in this movie – it’s not especially graphic, but neither is it particularly subtle. The producers admitted to having one eye on Rosemary’s Baby when making this movie, but it feels like more of a general aspiration than a specific attempt at being derivative.

The thing is that, while the film is schlock, it’s functional schlock – it’s a melodrama and not remotely scary, but it moves along and stays entertaining while it does so. It even manages the occasional moment when it’s rather better than you might expect – veteran watchers of vintage horror may be inwardly bracing themselves for the moment when Wilbur’s inhuman twin is finally revealed, the expectation being that it’s going to be some dude in ropey make-up. But no: when Nancy’s friend unwisely ventures up to the attic to see what lies within, the results are, if not exactly shocking, genuinely startling: the screen is transmuted into flashes of garish primary colours, tinting what happens, as the girl staggers back, shrieking – an amorphous mass, glimpsed so briefly it barely registers, entangles and engulfs her; her screams continue as the clothes are flayed from her body. Her final fate is left to the viewer’s imagination. The film sticks with this effect – with admittedly diminishing returns – as the dark twin marauds its way across town (one of its victims is Tally Coppola, aka Talia Shire, who went on from AIP to a fairly respectable career in more mainstream cinema).

In the end the film abandons any attempt at getting down with the kids, as the story is resolved in the traditional, conservative style – rebellious young Wilbur (and it must be said that Dean Stockwell’s performance is nicely underplayed and reasonably effective) is defeated by the intervention of an older and wiser authority figure. The climax isn’t the film’s strongest moment, but it just about does the job, and the final twist, such as it is, could have been handled worse.

I’ve found myself being much kinder to The Dunwich Horror than I expected to be, given this is a low-budget AIP movie that takes quite a few liberties with the original story. But the bones and heart of the story are still there under the surface, and the brooding mood of the story does feel like it comes from Lovecraft – it’s not Lovecraft dressed up as Poe, like The Haunted Palace, or Lovecraft crossed with B-movie sci-fi, like Die, Monster, Die! It may not be a terribly good film but it still feels unexpectedly authentic, which is uncommon enough when dealing with adaptations of this particular author and his work.

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If you have any experience of the work of the director Daniel Haller – which, if you are of a certain vintage, may not be unlikely – it is most likely to have something to do with his association with Glen A Larson, the TV impressario responsible for Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Knight Rider, amongst others. Haller did a handful of episodes of all these shows, but sci-fi appears to have not been his thing – he appears to have enjoyed working on the more down-to-earth pleasures of The Fall Guy far more, directing dozens of episodes.

I find this a bit surprising, as it is certainly not what one would expect from a man who started his movie career as the art director and production designer on a whole range of baroque and generally good-looking American International movies: he did one or other of these jobs on virtually all of the Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Whatever else you want to say about these films, they do look good, and you could see why the company decided to give Haller a go at directing a movie himself. The fact that Haller spent the last few years of his career directing episodes of The Fall Guy may lead you to suspect that his career as a movie director did not really work out – and this suspicion would not be unfounded, certainly not based on the evidence of his debut.

This is Die, Monster, Die!, released in 1965. I know – that’s a hell of a title for a movie, isn’t it? If perhaps not one that promises the utmost level of subtlety and refinement. There are a number of other hellacious things about this movie, which we shall come to in the fullness of time, but just bear in mind – lurking in the director’s future is the refrain ‘I’m the unknown stunt-man that makes Eastwood look so fine‘.

The movie opens with one of those not-quite-psychedelic title sequences of swirly colours which were briefly fashionable for budget-conscious genre movies in the 1960s (cf. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD). Is that the name of legendary horror author H. P. Lovecraft we espy in the credits? It is! No wonder this film came out in a double bill with The Haunted Palace, likewise based on one of his short stories.

Hang on, though: rather than being set in Lovecraft’s traditional New England milieu, Die, Monster, Die! is just set in – well, England. A train pulls into the quiet village of Arkham (which must have amused punters at the double bill: The Haunted Palace is set in Arkham, too, just an entirely different one) and disgorges our first imported American star, Nick Adams. Unlike Haller, Adams did his TV work at the start of his career, before switching to playing the American lead in genre films – in the same year as this movie, he went over to Japan, where (billed as Nikku Adamsu) he co-starred in Frankenstein Conquers the World and Invasion of Astro-Monster.

Here, Adams is playing Steve Reinhart, who has come to Arkham to see his love-interest, a young lady named Susan Witley. Reinhart wants to get out to the old Witley place (as most people seem to refer to it), but there is a problem. None of the surly local yokels will go anywhere near the place. The taxi driver gets positively aggressive at the suggestion. The owner of the local bicycle shop refuses to even contemplate renting him a bike. Subtle stuff this is not – and, to be honest, there is something slightly awkward about this whole sequence, which is set in the present day (the mid 60s) but plays like something that should really be taking place the best part of a century earlier. But that’s low budgets for you.

But where did all the budget go? Well, when Reinhart yomps out to the old Witley place, he meets his girlfriend’s father, Nahum Witley (there’s a typical English name for you), who is played by Boris Karloff. I never really know what to make of Boris Karloff, to be honest: he’s not obviously a brilliant actor who somehow ended up typed in horror movies in the same way as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee or Vincent Price. I mean, he’s very good in the Frankenstein movies he made, obviously, but he just seems to have traded on that fact for the next three decades or so: I always find him just a bit hammy, and this film is no exception.

All is obviously not well at the old Witley place: Mrs Witley (Freda Jackson) appears to have become bedridden and very light-sensitive, and the servants aren’t looking well either. Still making an effort, however, is the girl Reinhart has come to see: Susan Witley, played by Suzan Farmer in her film debut (Farmer is perhaps best known for the films she made for Hammer the following year). But what is afoot? Why is everyone so scared of the place? What odd affliction has befallen the Witleys? And what’s making all those weird noises that are coming out of the greenhouse…?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you may be scratching your head and wondering which H. P. Lovecraft story this film is actually based on, because so far it sounds like any one of half a dozen of them. A fair point, and I should probably make it clear at this point that this film is based on a Lovecraft story in the sense that it really bears very little relation to it. In theory, and I only really say this because it’s what’s in the credits, Die, Monster, Die! is based on The Colour Out of Space (the same story recently brought to the screen by Richard Stanley, with Nicolas Cage). The story is about the ghastly fate suffered by a decent family of farming folk, after a strange meteorite falls on their land. You can just about make out the vestiges of that tale here, but it has had all manner of other story elements piled on top of it until it is almost unrecognisable: a romance, the spooky old mansion, a family with a history of trafficking with the powers of darkness, and so on.

Even so, there is still probably potential here for something engaging and vivid, and certainly meeting the usual criteria for being Lovecraftian: there is the terrible influence of heritage and pedigree, not to mention some reasonably well-realised octopus-monsters at one point (can’t be proper Lovecraft without tentacles, or so the consensus would have you believe). The octopus-monsters are certainly better than the jug-eared mannequin that Karloff transforms into at the climax.

The problem is that the film is just too slow: there are differing reports as to what the exact duration is (the US version seems to have been 10% shorter than the UK release), but none of the suggestions are that long, and the film plods along in all of them. There’s a lot of atmospheric walking about with not much else going on: if only the cycle shop had rented Reinhart a bike, the whole business could have been finished in under an hour. Even when things are happening, they’re often just re-stressing points that have already been made – filler, basically.

It’s a shame, because as I have alluded, the film has an interesting cast and is based on a classic short story, to say nothing of being directed by a man with an intriguing visual sense. But none of these things make it into the film wholly intact, somehow. If you’re a serious fan of Lovecraft you will probably find this film of interest, but for everyone else, AIP were making better films in the UK around this time, to say nothing of outfits like Hammer and Amicus. Die, Monster Die! is a fascinating curiosity, but just not a very good film.

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