From my collection of disappointing film adaptations, I recently selected The Dunwich Horror to watch. This movie I would rate better than average. Not great, but fun. At least it is a recognizable version of Lovecraft’s well known story. Dean Stockwell plays the scheming Wilbur Whately, Sam Jaffe is his troubled grandfather, Ed Begley is the heroic Dr. Armitage of Arkham University, and Sandra Dee is the unbelievably passive female victim impregnated by the inter-dimensional spawn of Yog-Sothoth.
The influence of late 60s psychedelia is evident throughout the film, which was made in 1970. Wilbur Whately uses a hallucinogenic powder to seduce and convert the character played by Sandra Dee, a college student named Nancy Wagner. He slips the powder into her tea—tea drinking is excessive in the movie—and this is followed by weird stroboscopic images of pagan revelers engaged in peculiar and lascivious rituals. In dramatic scenes the view is overexposed with bright washes of strong color—think of the album cover of Freak Out, by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
The quivering tones of a Theremin musically announce the presence of supernatural evil. This device was a staple of 60s science fiction and horror entertainments. The disturbing sound usually signaled the approach of a monster or space alien, or arrival at some eerie location. In The Dunwich Horror, the Theremin is combined with harpsichord and other instruments for an unusual and sometimes annoying soundtrack. (Examples of music and sound effects featuring the Theremin can be found at http://www.thereminworld.com/.)
With his special powder, soft hypnotic voice and mysterious eyes, Wilbur is able to seduce Nancy and lead her to the stone altar at the top of Sentinel Hill. Here in this uncomfortable location he hopes through rather tepid sexual intercourse to call down Yog-Sothoth—“Yog-Sothoth is the gate!” If he can do that, Yog-Sothoth will let the terrible Old Ones through so they can destroy humanity.
Meanwhile his twin brother, who more closely resembles his unearthly father, is tearing up the townspeople on his way up the hill to rendezvous with Wilbur and Nancy at the altar. Dr. Armitage and the town’s doctor get there first, and in a shouting match with Wilbur, the good professor is able to break his concentration and keep Yog-Sothoth from materializing. Armitage is successful, but so is Wilbur’s twin brother, who manages to impregnate Nancy before dissolving into the ether. So the Whately line will continue.
There is some silliness in this movie, but also some fairly effective scenes. From the outside, the Whately house appears to be a decrepit old shack, as it is described in the original story. It even has a live owl perched on the front porch railing in broad daylight! But inside, the house is a small mansion done up in late 19th century occult parlor style, with strange figures and symbols on the floor and various wizard paraphernalia lying about. A mysterious stone, reminiscent of the ‘shining trapezohedron’ in The Haunter of the Dark, glows and hums ominously—but it is kept on the coffee table in the living room. The stone gives Nancy weird visions, and later on, when knocked to the floor by the escaping twin brother, sets the Whatley home on fire.
The dreaded Necronomicon, filled with the knowledge of how to bring the old ones back and destroy the world, is kept in full view in a flimsy glass case in the middle of a college library. Steal this book! Sandra Dee is chased by half naked hippies through a pastoral scene that includes an outdoor stone altar. Wilbur Whately and Dr. Armitage scream eldritch gibberish at each other in the climactic scene, hoping to shout each other down as Yog-Sothoth approaches. Ridiculous.
There is some disturbing, gratuitous violence towards two women in the film. There are two rape scenes, one of them physically violent. The scenes are more suggestive than graphic, but it is not clear that they were necessary to support the plot.
There are some powerfully moving scenes, one in particular: the death of Lavinia, the mother of Wilbur and his twin brother, in a psychiatric ward. She has been incarcerated for twenty years following the birth of her sons, and becomes strangely agitated as her sons begin the process of calling their father back to earth. She sees Dr. Armitage and the town’s doctor hovering over her through a psychedelic haze, but in fading monochromatic tones as she dies. The Whip-poor-wills outside the hospital time their calls to the rhythm of her breathing, and grow silent as she passes. Her vision fades to black.
True to the original story, Wilbur’s mysterious twin brother is kept invisible till the very end, but is represented effectively through menacing movements of windblown dust, water and grass. Remarkable for a Lovecraft story, the once evil grandfather has second thoughts, regrets the harm he caused Lavinia in offering her to Yog-sothoth decades ago, and tries to prevent Wilbur from doing the same with Nancy. I like the setting of the “Devil’s Hop Yard” at the top of Sentinel Hill. The altar and aged ruins around it have a very Edward Goreyesque look to them.
Has anyone heard if Guillermo del Toro is any closer to making At the Mountains of Madness?