Posts Tagged ‘Dean Stockwell’

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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