DUNWICH HORROR, THE(director: Daniel Haller; screenwriters: from a story by H.P. Lovecraft/Curtis Hanson/Henry Rosenbaum/Ronald Silkosky; cinematographer: Richard C. Glouner; editors: Fred R. Feitshans, Jr./Christopher Holmes; cast: Sandra Dee (Nancy Walker), Dean Stockwell (Wilbur Whateley), Ed Begley, Sr. (Dr. Henry Armitage), Sam Jaffe (Old Whateley), Donna Baccala (Elizabeth Hamilton), Joanne Moore Jordan (Lavinia Whateley), Lloyd Bochner (Dr. Cory), Talia Shire (Cora); Runtime: 90; American International Pictures; 1970)
“The film should be more interesting for Lovecraft fans than to the general audience.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A Roger Corman produced film that is a bookish adaptation from an H. P. Lovecraft antiquarian occult work. It maintains its eerie atmosphere by getting into the strange rituals and manifestations required for such a look at the dark side, but fails to prove enlightening. It is uneven in its presentation. The ending allows the film to go up in a puff of hokey smoke (Stockwell and Begley oppose each other offering up their curses in an undecipherable language, until the evil Stockwell gets struck by lightning). But this version by director Daniel Haller (Monster of Terror) is much better at getting at the freakish meaning of Lovecraft than other attempts. That doesn’t mean this film is good, just that it’s better than the other versions.
Sandra Dee was ineffective in her role as the victim of a fertility sacrifice. She brought no depth or spark to a role she was miscast for. While the brooding Dean Stockwell seemed right at home with all the weirdness of his warlock role, yet he gave a boring performance as if he was drugged and reduced to speak in a monotone voice throughout. The strength of the film is that it brings in the so-called ‘normal’ people in the sleepy country town as a contrast to Stockwell’s creepy family and their strange lifestyle, allowing the film to build on its tension before Begley saves the world.
A young man, Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), enters the university library and requests reading the rare and valuable occult book, Necronomicon (Book of the Dead), just placed under a locked case and not allowed to be removed by the public. One of the student librarians, Elizabeth Hamilton (Baccala), refuses his request, but the other librarian, Nancy Walker (Sandra Dee), allows him to read the book. Liz calls up a philosophy professor and an expert on the occult, an opposer of the warlock Whateley family, Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley Sr., his final role), to come and retrieve the tome. Armitage wrote a treatise exposing the dark aims of Wilbur’s great-grandfather Oliver.
Oliver was lynched by the New England town because of his strange beliefs that an earlier race of man, the “Old Ones,” were superior beings from a different dimension and by using the right chants and going through a fertility rite, he hopes to conjure up that race to return and destroy present mankind. In his attempt to do that he picked the wrong woman, Lavinia (Wilbur’s mom), as she resisted and ended up in a mental ward.
Armitage meets with Wilbur and refuses to allow him to borrow the book, but Nancy is attracted to him and gives him a ride back to the small-town of Dunwich that is hostile to his eccentric family. Here she meets Wilbur’s strange looking grandfather (Jaffe), who wants her to leave because there have never been guests in the house before. The grandfather carries around with him a staff with magical symbols on it. There’s also a secret room kept locked where Wilbur’s twin brother, who was supposed to be dead, is kept as an evil spirit since he is caught in the world between the living and the dead. The father of the twins was never listed, but is supposed to be not of this earth, with Wilbur’s twin resembling the father.
When Nancy arrives at the grandfather’s creepy home, he disables her car so she can’t leave and spikes her tea with a drug so she has psychedelic dreams. The next day he talks to her about sex and plans to use her in an occult fertility rite at a nearby hill called the Devil’s Hopyard. He believes he can accomplish what Oliver couldn’t because he has chosen the right woman. But the evil twin gets out of his locked room when a visitor looking for Nancy makes the deadly mistake of opening it and gets eaten by the hungry spirit, who escapes to chow down on some of the other locals who were hostile to the Whateleys.
All the chills come from the sounds of an evil wind, the curdling sound of birds eerily singing at the sign of death, the sounds of water splashing, thumping hearts, and of the earth darkening as a shadow covers it. What failed to work, was when Haller tried to reduce the visions to some chaotically contrived psychedelic effects. The film should be more interesting for Lovecraft fans than to the general audience. I found it, for the most part, to be dull and uninspiring.
REVIEWED ON 9/19/2001 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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