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 trying 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.
The 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 look 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 for 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.