May 20, 2007

THE DUNWICH HORROR (1969) a psychedelic Lovecraft movie

(1969, US)

Last in my coverage of early H.P. Lovecraft adaptions. This is recommended as a 'mad movie' - it's hokey horror, but works better as sixties 'trippy' nightmare. Good and bad, but always enjoyable.

Reviewed on US region 1 DVD (MGM Midnite Movies)

I mentioned in the review of The Haunted Palace that director Daniel Haller seems to have been inspired to concentrate and expand on that story of the warlock ‘bringing through’ the older gods. Giant demons called the Old Ones, were summoned to rule over the Earth again. To do this, you need the book, the Necronomicon, and a willing young lady…

Once again we’re in jolly old Arkham in New England (well, California actually), and warlock Wilbur Whately finds the only copy of the Necronomicon in the library, where else? There too he finds a pretty young librarian and his plan starts to come together. A local Professor who knows a little about the power of the book is curious as to why Wilbur is curious in it.

Dean Stockwell (destined for a show-stopping cameo in Blue Velvet and a long-running stint on TV's Quantum Leap) is excellent as the intense young Wilbur, using subtle hand gestures and an over-attentive stare. He may be secretly influencing her actions, much in the way black magic is actually supposed to work. I’m not sure, but much of the ritual performed in the film could also be based on satanism, which was very popular with the counter-culture at the time. According to the magazine Castle of Frankenstein (in 1969), Peter Fonda was the first choice for the role, indicating the ‘type’ the producers were looking for.

Pre-publicity - different title and leading man
(from Films and Filming, March 1969)

Sandra Dee is surprisingly good as Nancy – innocent but not stupid, looking virginal, but sexy. But I know her casting here is a hurdle for American audiences who were exposed to her many movies as the teenage Tammy and Gidget. In the UK, we didn't get to see much of those films, even on TV, so for us, her casting is fine.

Professor Armitage of the Arkham University is played by Ed Begley in one of his last roles. I loved him as the monstrous power-hungry General in Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967). It's a stretch for me to warm to him as one of the good guys.

Lower down the cast, there’s one Talia Coppola (actually Francis Ford’s sister) before she married, became Talia Shire, and played Sylvester Stallone’s long-suffering girlfriend in Rocky! (and the other Rockies). There are so many stars who start and end their careers in low-budget horror films.

Although this story fits into the hackneyed ‘old spooky house’ genre, an effort is made to modernise the experience. With subliminal editing, trippy (wide-angled) nightmare sequences and luridly psychedelic optical effects for the demons.

The opening animation under the title sequences, seems to skew the story towards a battle between heaven and hell, while the music underlines this with an almost hymn-like theme. But Les Baxter’s memorable score also mixes in otherworldly electronic sound effects, more in line with the transdimensional conflict in the story. Though the mysterioso electronic shriek that announces Whately’s mansion is way over the top! OK, OK, danger, danger – we get it.

Of course the old house also has a shuttered room upstairs with someone (or something) very angry inside trying to get out. There’s also mad old codger Wilbur’s dad, played by Sam Jaffe. Most of the cast were more usually spotted on TV, especially Lloyd Bochner (The Night Walker) who often played slimy lawyers – the kind Lieutenant Columbo would take one look at and know ‘he done it’.

The ‘old age’ make-up, necessary for one flashback, is truly awful and wouldn’t even convince on stage if you were at the back of the theatre. Bochner has grey stuff smeared in his hair and a white moustache that simply isn’t convincing. Similarly, the old woman in the asylum has a terrible stuck-on grey wig that makes the line “it’s hard to believe she’s only 45” all the funnier.

The flat lighting and cramped sets also give this the feel of a TV movie, but with the nudity, trippy tea leaves, black magic and sustained sensual atmosphere, it can’t have been. Presumably, it’s old Roger Corman saving nickels and dimes as the Executive Producer.

Sandra Dee is obviously trying to detonate her good girl Gidget image, with extended scenes of near orgasm on the ritual altar, though I suspect that many of the visible buttock-clenching is done by a double, as we never see her face. Again, this is possibly an influence of the overtly sexual content of Rosemary’s Baby from the year before, (the copyright on Dunwich Horror is 1969).

For its age, this DVD presentation has used a good print with strong colours, but with slightly rough audio – there is some background hiss in some scenes – something you don’t often hear in this digital world nowadays. I also suffered a period of loose lip-synch 55 minutes into the film – the scene in the cemetary, and the fight in the museum – which were mistimed by over a second. That’s possibly my set-up, but look out for it.

The crisp DVD picture makes the traditional Corman clifftop matte painting look unconvincing, but thankfully many of the film’s other special effects are so ‘way out’ that you can’t fault them. The psychedelic, fast editing of the demon attacks is a barrage of montage, so that you can’t spot whether the effects make-up is ropey or not. It’s very effective. Together with the demon’s birds-eye view as it flies over the countryside, blowing trees around violently and invisibly disturbing the surface of a lake. This all adds to the atmosphere of the climax.

This movie always worked for me, but I’m now aware there’s too much in it for a new audience to take seriously. I think the story is solid, the central cast are fine and technically it’s very interesting. But dampers include the poor dialogue, complete lack of gore and a special effects climax that’s almost over before it gets going. It's flawed but there's never a dull moment, with some memorable and unique elements and even shocks!

The DVD was available as a single film, or as a double-bill with the also recommended Lovecraft movie Die, Monster, Die. As double-bills go, that’s almost perfect!

The movie soundtrack floated around in a ‘grey’ (is this a bootleg?) edition on CD, but was definitely originally released on vinyl (pictured), and occasionally surfaces on eBay.

That’s the last of the early Lovecraft films. Now it’s time to return to Japan for a bit…

Do you want to know more?
Eccentric Cinema has another review and some great DVD frame grabs worth a thousand words...

For my reviews of the other early H.P. Lovecraft movies, click here.


  1. Does anyone know when this will be released as a region 2 dvd?

  2. I have always liked The Dunwich Horror as a styilized gothic despite the sexist and date rape subtext, but I was disappointed that the print source used is missing the crucial and expository scene, introduced from a high angle shot as Nancy's car drives along the coast into Dunwich, where Nancy tells Wilbur that he said he didn't know anything about cars (having ripped out her distributor)and he replies that he must have hit just the right thing. This scene is in the TV prints aired (in Australia- released by Roadshow)in the late 70s and early 80s.I first noticed this exclusion in the VHS release version. Therefore I assume this version could not have been struck from the original negative and as no one seems to love this little gem as much as I do, no one seems to care!

  3. Wow. Sounds familiar - I now have to check if I have that scene anywhere!