Welcome to Cult Corner where we dive through the bargain bins to determine if a movie is trash or treasure. Today’s pick…Daniel Haller’s The Dunwich Horror.
H.P. Lovecraft is a tough author to properly adapt into film. Sure, movies like ReAnimator and From Beyond do well, but both of those take some serious liberties and those particular stories don’t really capture the pure eldritch horror that the author is know for. The Dunwich Horror is one of his more famous works, contributing directly to his Cthulhu Mythos and introducing the world to the creature of Yog-Sothoth. This film version follows the story in broad strokes, though the details are shifted and stretched out a bit. We follow Wilbur Whateley, a strange man with an obsession with the Necronomicon as he courts Nancy, a student of Miskatonic University. Back at his house a strange creature inhabits a locked off room upstairs and secrets lie in every corner.
The Dunwich Horror is a strange concoction, and definitely a product of its’ time. Things start out promising enough with the initial trip to Whateley’s house being rather tense and uncomfortable. There’s a good sense of dread and mystery going on, but the tone is quickly led astray. If you’re looking for a great Lovecraft adaptation then it just misses the mark, despite containing quite a few of the elements one would expect. It has a writhing formless monster that drives people mad, the Necronomicon, old world superstition clashing with more modern religions, and a fear of the unknown, but the execution doesn’t quite take advantage of this. Rather than directing with any of that in mind, it was done as a pretty run of the mill 70s Satanic cult film (just replacing Satan with squid monsters from another dimension). It has a tone far more similar to something like Alucarda than to the actual source material. If that’s your thing then maybe this will be up your alley, but as a fan of the original story I was definitely a bit disappointed.Dean Stockwell plays Wilbur Whateley and is the highlight of the film. He doesn’t show any of the physical deformities that the character has in the story, but he’s so strange and acts in this absolutely alien and bizarre way. He’s clearly out of his mind and hiding something, and this gets across beautifully, even if it’s played somewhat over the top. The downside of this however is with how odd he acts it becomes difficult to believe that Sandra Dee’s Nancy Wagner would find any interest in him. She’s far too trusting and far too infatuated with him right off the bat for how sinister he comes off. She appears to be along for the ride with no rhyme or reason to her decisions. Sure, after he gets her to his home there are supernatural effects at work, but that doesn’t explain why she gave him a ride and went into his house in the first place.
Like I mentioned before, the movie has a strong opening. When Nancy is in Whateley’s home there’s a sinister and mysterious quality to the film, and it works quite well. He clearly has her trapped and is manipulating her which creates an aura of dread. Throw in a completely tripped out dream sequence and I was definitely on board. The film also has a pretty fun ending, with everything really hitting the fan and the movie going totally off the deep end. There’s a bit of a twist (which was in the original story), but as presented in the film is incredibly obvious. Still, watching all hell break loose is entertaining. Unfortunately there’s a good stretch in the middle where nothing happens. It’s not quite enough to turn me off completely to the film, but it’s easy to see how they took a rather simple story and stretched it too far. The movie is only 90 minutes, but I left feeling like they needed to trim it down by a good 15 to 20.
The film does look rather well, albeit in a cheesy way. The Lovecraftian monster is handled smartly, being presented as a writhing mass shown only in quick glimpses and flashing colors. They go really psychedelic and surreal in certain moments, and given the maddening nature of these eldritch horrors I find that quite appropriate. The movie is actually very colorful, with bright green fields and rooms painted totally purple making up the sets and locations. The score matches this aesthetic as well, being strangely bright and overblown. Like I said, the film is a product of its’ time, and given that it was directed by Daniel Haller, who designed the sets of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films it makes sense that it was presented in this way. I can’t say the presentation is always appropriate though, and the music is quite distracting on a number of occasions.
The Dunwich Horror isn’t a bad film, but its’ biggest crime is being generic. H.P. Lovecraft is one of those authors that’s notoriously tough to translate to a visual medium due to his monsters usually being described as “indescribable horrors,” but ironically that was one of the areas where this film handled it well. The overall tone is just too bland and the film too forgettable, despite some high points and one really good performance. If you like 70s cheese then maybe check this out, but there are better films in that same lane that have way more going for them. I am curious to see what the 2009 version is like, though.
Here at Cult Corner we cover the weird and obscure. Given the low budget that these movies often have we feel the need to recognize that entertainment value and quality aren’t always synonymous. That’s why we have opted for the “trash or treasure” approach in lieu of a typical rating system. After all, Troll 2 is incredibly entertaining but it’s no 8 out of 10.