Only Ye Cheesiest Awfulness

by Arthur B

The AIP adaptation of The Dunwich Horror favours psychedelic titillation over cosmic horror.
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American International Pictures never quite made themselves as dependent on horror as Hammer Studios were, but you could make an argument that their horror output ended up cornering the same market in the US that Hammer had taken over in the UK - namely, low-to-mid-budget supernatural horror of a colourful, campy variety. Although their most famous horror output was the series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, they actually made three attempts to adapt the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Die, Monster, Die! was a nigh-unrecognisable adaptation of The Colour Out of Space notable mostly for the involvement of an elderly Boris Karloff. The Haunted Palace, one of the Price-Corman Poe movies, actually only took its title from the Poe poem, being in substance an adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Both were more or less typical AIP fare.

And then there's The Dunwich Horror.

Directed by Daniel Haller, the movie comes across as an attempt to refresh the AIP horror formula, which was beginning to look a little staid and juvenile next to offerings like Rosemary's Baby, whilst at the same time not only retaining the campy, colourful aspects of the AIP back catalogue but also taking them in an overtly psychedelic direction in order to appeal to the hippy trippy youth of today ("today” being 1970). The end result is a unique cinematic disaster which will please neither fans of the AIP house style or Lovecraft purists.

After treating the audience to a brief prologue and an animated title credits sequence (the latter of which seems more appropriate for a sequence depicting Bilbo and Gandalf going on a day trip to Rivendell than a Lovecraft adaptation), the action proper starts in the wake of one of a lecture given at Miskatonic University by Dr Henry Armitage (Ed Begley, in his final film appearance), who apparently has been using the Necronomicon as a teaching aid. Casually passing it off to his student Nancy (Sandra Dee) to be safely put away, Armitage swings by the library a few minutes later to discover that Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) has charmed Nancy into letting him have a quick skim of the book. Thrilled to meet a scion of the infamous Whateleys of Dunwich, Armitage offers Wilbur dinner, but Wilbur becomes offended by Armitage's refusal to lend the most expensive, rare, and dangerous book in the Miskatonic collection to a total stranger with no academic credentials.

Having missed the last bus, Wilbur is more than glad to accept a lift home to Dunwich offered by Nancy, at which point she decides to stay the weekend despite Wilbur being the biggest creep who ever creeped. Nancy's friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala) and Armitage are convinced that there's more going on than meets the eye, and in classic Lovecraft style it turns out that Wilbur has some decidedly eldritch and non-Euclidian plans relating to Nancy, the return of the Old Ones, Wilbur's occult heritage from his otherdimensional father Yog-Sothoth, and Wilbur's monstrous twin brother.

An early scene of Wilbur mumbling extracts from the Necronomicon, along with a clumsy flashback sequence or two, underscore how badly the original story lends itself to direct translation to cinema. Aside from the clunkiness of Lovecraft's prose (which invariably sounds ridiculously wooden when quoted here), there's the issue of style. Lovecraft's mature works, of which The Dunwich Horror was an example, were (in Creepy Howie's own words) "devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax": written up in a quasi-journalistic fashion, with quotes from supporting documents slipped in here and there and conversations and incidents reported as though they'd been reconstructed through witness interviews, in that respect they're kind of precursors to the whole creepypasta phenomenon, sharing with stories like If You See Her, Turn Off the Game and Marble Hornets a presentation reminiscent of someone attempting to document what they believe to be fact.

The upshot of this is that the story has little in the way of actual conversations or detailed scenes or the other ingredients from which a conventional horror movie script can be produced. This being the case, it's obvious that any attempt to adapt the story which didn't go the mockumentary route would need to take substantial liberties with the source material and invent a lot of material of its own if it is to be complete.

The big problem with this particular adaptation is its approach to sex and the supernatural. The two are intrinsically bound up together; Yog-Sothoth, Wilbur, and Wilbur's mutant brother all lust after human women, Nancy is subjected to erotic visions inspired by the Old Ones, who manifest as nude hippies daubed in various colours of body paint. Presenting much more overt nudity and titillation than prior adaptations offered is, of course, bound to upset Lovecraft purists, because although his stories had a lot of implied sexual activity (such as Yog-Sothoth copulating with Lavinia Whateley in The Dunwich Horror, or the Deep Ones getting fresh with an entire town in The Shadow Over Innsmouth), at the time there's nothing remotely sensual or erotic about Lovecraft's actual writing. Reproduction is addressed as necessary for the plot, but beyond that Lovecraft doesn't really live up to his surname.

At the same time, even if you aren't a purist, the sexual titillation offered up in the film isn't really conducive to helping you take it seriously - in fact, it's downright laughable. There's nothing scary about the Old Ones if they're just horny devils who want to bring back the Summer of Love, but that's what most of the supernatural sequences in the film amount to. Other parts simply fail to scare - for instance, the heavy use of colour filters when Wilbur's brother rapes, kills, and otherwise attacks Elizabeth doesn't quite disguise the fact that the production doesn't actually have a coherent design for the monster and Elizabeth is just being pelted with floppy rubber snakes - but the Old One Woodstock frolics flashback sections don't even seem to be actively trying to scare, which makes the film's heavy emphasis on them downright odd.

The script also suffers from not really being too bothered with little things like "continuity” or "motivation”. Nancy, for instance, doesn't seem to have any capability to take actions on her own behalf, but simply allows herself to be steered around for the entire movie by Wilbur. It's never clear how much of this is Wilbur hypnotising her and how much is her genuinely finding him attractive, and I'm not 100% convinced the filmmakers had a really clear idea of which of those two were meant to be motivating her, but either way she spends the second half or so of the film as a will-less zombie. In particular, she doesn't appear to even react when she and Wilbur find Elizabeth's car outside the house (Elizabeth having met a bad end at the ugly twin's hand), and considering that this is supposed to be her best friend it doesn't make sense for her to have no reaction at all - even if that reaction were instantaneously overcome by her lust for Wilbur or Wilbur's hypnotic coercion (whichever is actually operating here), it would at least be a sign that she's still a character rather than a limp puppet who can't even bring herself to react when Wilbur kills his own grandfather before her very eyes.

The special effects in the film - or rather, the lack thereof - are also an issue. When the monster leaves the house and goes on its rampage there's constant continuity errors when it comes to daytime/nighttime shots, which is just plain sloppy. (Actually, this seems to be an AIP house thing where they're just plain not very good at establishing the difference between daytime shots and day-for-night shots.) What is supposed to be the exciting conclusion of the film degenerates into massively excessive use of colour filters, which neatly obscure the action and saves AIP the bother of actually filming a proper ending. (The overuse of colour filters also comes in for Lavinia Whateley's death scene, which I guess might be intended to represent her appreciation of otherdimensional realms, but it just comes across as the director fiddling about with his cool toys too much and being trippy for the sake of trippy.)

The final conflict involves Wilbur and the professor shouting gibberish at each other until one of them loses, a confrontation almost as anticlimactic as the "I kill you by throwing a rock at you!" ending to Hammer's To the Devil a Daughter. What you are left with is a disappointing story about how bad things happened to the whole community of Dunwich, just because Nancy wanted to have extramarital sex with that Whateley boy.
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Comments (go to latest)
Sister Magpie at 03:56 on 2014-10-26
I've seen this movie more than once and could never make sense of it--I'm glad to know that this was not actually my fault.
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