Friday, September 5, 2014

The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror
Daniel Haller

Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) is lurking around Miskatonic University. He has hopes of reading the fabled Nerconomicon. He gets the opportunity when he meets Nancy (Sandra Dee) who is returning the book to the library for Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley). Dr. Armitage doesn’t want Wilbur anywhere near that book. Agreeing to drive him home, Nancy soon learns Wilbur's entire family is quite unpopular. It probably has something to do with Wilbur’s dad and whatever is up in the second floor of his disheveled home.

Despite H.P. Lovecraft’s enduring popularity, his writing has proven difficult to adapt to the screen. Much of his work relies on looming dread and the suggestion of horror, no easy task for even a skilled film maker. Many movies took another path, to make the story as lurid and ghastly as possible.  Stuart Gordon’s films, Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) were particularly successful, if not that faithful to their source material. The Dunwich Horror is an earlier adaption that tries to split the difference with limited results.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Dunwich Horror is that it is has close ties to the proto-New Age occult revival of the 1970s. The supernatural elements drip in psychedelic imagery. I think that approach works well. It creates an unease and obfuscation that compliments what Lovecraft was trying to achieve. Perhaps just as important, it helps hide the fact that the film’s budget doesn’t allow for grandiose cosmic horror.

What doesn’t work so well is the attempt to make Wilbur Whateley into a romantic and tragic figure.  The story tries it's hardest to sell his conflicting feelings. His romance with Nancy collides with the sacrifices he’s compelled to do. It never feels organic. Dean Stockwell is an excellent actor, but every attempt to portray Wilbur as quirky and charming just feels off.

Perhaps it is just knowing how different he is from the novella, but I can never understand why Nancy would go anywhere near this lunatic and his awful family. At first, it feels like Sandra Dee is a bit of stunt casting. The producers bettring that an  audience would show up to see Gidget get groped by cultists. Sandra is believable and sympathetic throughout, and ends up being a solid emotional center for the film.

My dorm room c.1992
The music by Les Baxter is another strength. It’s melodic and haunting without feeling overbearing. The theme is downright catchy too, I still find myself humming it weeks after watching the movie.

Despite the drastic changes to Wilbur, the story is by and large intact. It was pleasing to see that the writers didn’t feel the need to downplay Lovecraft’s cosmic horror for something more domestic. If you allow The Dunwich Horror to exist as a product of the early 70s, I think you can come away with a quirky but above average adaption of Lovecraft’s story. In the days before people demanded rote retelling of adapted works it is fun to see a film bring a little weirdness of it's own.

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