H.P. Lovecraft is the kind of hor­ror author whose work is vir­tu­al­ly adap­ta­tion-proof: his sur­re­al, unnerv­ing and anti­quar­i­an approach to the gen­re is best cap­tured in prose, where read­ers can use their own imag­i­na­tions to depict the unspeak­able hor­rors he describes.  Thus, film­mak­ers usu­al­ly end up throw­ing out a lot of the text and DunHor-postry­ing to cre­ate their ver­sion of a Lovecraftian mood.  This is exact­ly the case with The Dunwich Horror, a loose adap­ta­tion of a famous Lovecraft short sto­ry that plays like a psy­che­deli­cized dri­ve-in hor­ror pro­gram­mer.

The script, cred­it­ed to a trio of authors includ­ing a young Curtis Hanson, plays fast and loose with Lovecraft’s text to cre­ate a pot­boil­er that mix­es the story’s ele­ments with more famil­iar hor­ror arche­types.  Town out­cast Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) turns up at the local col­lege and bewitch­es Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee), the vir­ginal assis­tant of Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley).  Armitage owns a copy of the rare dark arts text The Necronomicon and Wilbur wants to take it.  That’s not all that Wilbur has in mind: he is also plot­ting a bit a rit­u­al mag­ic that will involve Nancy as well as a mys­te­ri­ous thing locked up in a room in his crum­bling fam­i­ly man­sion.

DunHor-01The result­ing film teas­es out a few bits of Lovecraft lore — the Necronomicon, Yog Sothoth, the Old Ones — but basi­cal­ly grafts them to a com­bi­na­tion of a witch­craft movie and an “old dark house” flick.  The Dunwich Horror also freely cribs from oth­er, then-cur­rent sources: a night­mare sequence is heav­i­ly rem­i­nis­cent of a sim­i­lar scene in Rosemary’s Baby and there are lyser­gic visions that look like the bad trip imagery in anoth­er A.I.P. pro­duc­tion, Psych-Out.  It’s more than a lit­tle self-con­scious in its attempts at weird­ness and relies on stock tac­tics for its scares.

That said, if you can get past the dumb­ed-down approach to Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror is a fit­ful­ly amus­ing time cap­sule of dri­ve-in film­mak­ing at the turn of the ‘70s.  Director Daniel Haller, a vet­er­an of Roger Corman’s Poe film pro­duc­tion crew, gives the film an atmos­pher­ic DunHor-02look with lots of col­ored light­ing and a suit­ably bom­bas­tic score by Les Baxter, anoth­er Poe film alum, that mix­es tra­di­tion­al orches­tra­tion with some nifty analog syn­th.  The opti­cal tricks used to real­ize the “thing in the room” throw out all the stops and Stockwell has a ball play­ing his Lovecraftian anti­hero as an Easy Rider-style mystic/rebel.  There’s also the illic­it thrill of see­ing America’s sweet­heart Sandra Dee writhing orgas­mi­cal­ly in a black diapho­nous gown dur­ing a dark mag­ic rit­u­al.

In short, The Dunwich Horror is more inter­est­ed in cheap thrills than oth­er­word­ly hor­ror but its col­or­ful­ly goofy dri­ve-in take on cos­mic hor­ror make it worth a view for cult movie types with a yen MurR-DunH-blufor the psy­che­delic.

Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory just gave this film its U.S. blu-ray debut as half of a one-disc dou­ble bill with Murders In The Rue Morgue.  The MGM-sourced trans­fer does well by the film’s use of col­ored light­ing and offers a crisp image with a few traces of age-relat­ed debris.  The loss­less pre­sen­ta­tion of the mono audio mix sounds good, par­tic­u­lar­ly in how it han­dles Baxter’s Moog-laced score.

The main extra for this film is a com­men­tary from his­to­ri­an Steve Haberman.  He does a fine, typ­i­cal­ly well-researched job as he goes into the influ­ences on Lovecraft’s writ­ing, the his­to­ry of A.I.P.‘s adap­ta­tions of Lovecraft’s work and plen­ti­ful bio­graph­i­cal details on key cast and crew.  The one oth­er extra for this title is a the­atri­cal trail­er.