Skip to main content

The Old Ones are coming back, and I’m going to let them through.

The Dunwich Horror
(1970)

H.P. Lovecraft purists might understandably object to the liberties taken by this cheapie Roger Corman adaptation, and no one is going to reach the end credits utterly unnerved, but it isn’t a complete wash-out. As clumsy as the direction and storytelling often are, The Dunwich Horror is anchored by a smoothly creepy performance from one Dean Stockwell. Appropriately, he sports a diabolical perm to match his dark dealings.


Stockwell is Wilbur Whateley, a “student of the occult” who wishes to “borrow” a rare copy of the Necronomicon belonging to Dr Armitage (Ed Begley, in his last film role). His plan is to unlock the gates to another dimension, where the Old Ones reside. Nancy (Sandra Dee), a student of Armitage, falls under Whateley’s spell and returns with him to his family pile in the town of Dunwich. She learns of the family’s dark past, including the lynching of Wilbur’s great grandfather for beliefs Wilbur also espouses. Wilbur’s mother resides in the local asylum (“It’s hard to believe she’s only 45 years old”) and something lurks upstairs behind lock and key. And just what does Wilbur have planned for Nancy? Not romance, that’s for sure.


Corman’s American International Pictures had long since left behind the grudging respect garnered by his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. At the time The Dunwich Horror was released, AIP’s repertoire had extended to counterculture exploitation romps like The Trip and Psych-Out. Corman had dabbled in Lovecraft before, 1965’s Die, Monster, Die! (if nothing else, a more arresting title than that of the original story, The Colour Out of Space). That picture received criticism from Lovercraftites that it was attempting to channel Corman’s Poe pictures rather than render the necrotic spirit of Lovecraft (Corman being so cheerfully rip-off minded, this is probable rather than possible). Certainly, while I haven’t seen Monster, Dunwich’s cinematography immediately evokes the lurid decay of the Corman Poe movies. 


Daniel Haller directed both these Lovecrafts, suggesting Corman wanted something tonally similar unless he was just being loyal. Haller was a set designer on the Poe adaptations and Monster was his first directing gig, followed by a couple of AIP motorcycle pictures.  He didn’t take long to settle into TV work, though, subsequently tackling the likes of Kojak, Battlestar Galactica, The Fall Guy and Knight Rider (and Manimal, lets not forget Manimal). He doesn’t bring much to Dunwich, short of the bleeding obvious; this is a plodding affair, and what atmosphere there is comes from the production design rather than the staging and editing (an unobtrusive owl sits quietly on the veranda at the Dunwich residence, unmentioned; the glass “ornaments” Wilbur communicates with are suitably odd). The climactic events go on an on without building up to anything very exciting, and then the picture just sort of peters out with an obligatory nod to Rosemary’s Baby. 


While Dunwich employs prolific sound effects, the creature side is sorely lacking. Haller lacks the imagination to lift the unseen horror to a level exerting any kind of resonance or unease. There's a thing in a cupboard than can magic off Dee's girlfriend's (Donna Baccala’s) clothes before doing unspeakable things to her. Dee has a triptastic dream resembling a bad day at Glastonbury Festival. Even an (much cheaper) episode of Doctor Who (Image of the Fendahl, which has certain Lovecraftian elements) is able to deliver more lurking menace (and a rubber monster!)


The camera effects aren’t especially inspired, although Sam Raimi and friends must surely have seen and loved the movie; there’s the point-of-view of the “thing” in the woods at the end, surely an influence on Evil Dead. And with an opening line like "And now, if you would take the Necronomicon and return it to the library" one almost expects Bruce Campbell to enter screen left at any moment. There’s a matte shot temple on the cliffs that looks great (The Devil’s Hop Yard) but on the debit side the old age make-up is atrocious (in particular, Lloyd Bochner’s local doctor; his presence in this state is mystifying until all becomes clear during a flashback scene).


This kind of picture needs a strong lead to keep the most attentive viewer from drifting off. Fortunately Stockwell delivers with his special moustache, wicked sideburns, hypno-eyes and quietly persuasive tones. A former child actor who was among the the Corman thing ranks with Nicholson and Hopper (well, those two had just moved on) by this point, Stockwell might be better compared to Roddy McDowall in terms of career (another former child star).  Both have made their main mark in TV, with Stockwell’s greatest claim to fame being as the interesting one in Quantum Leap. But since the ‘80s he has also made in-roads with smallish but memorable supporting roles in a broad church of movies, working with everyone from David Lynch to Wim Wenders to Jonathan Demme. One thing that is rare on his CV post-Corman is that of movie lead, so Dunwich should be savoured in that regard (especially as he isn’t playing a biker or a werewolf).  Stockwell also appeared in the Begley role in a (roundly slated) 2009 TV version.


As for Stockwell’s co-stars, this appears to have been an attempt by Sandra Dee to muss up her squeaky clean image. Unfortunately, it’s really only rather mild in that regard. The closest she gets to provoking a frisson is when Wilbur wedges the Necronomicon between Nancy’s legs. Sam Jaffe is amusingly fraught as the elderly Whateley. He even gets to deliver the immortal “Now get orf moy land”. Begley is more the mad minister than a man of science, but at least he has presence.


One aspect deserving unqualified praise is the opening titles. Sandy Dvore’s arresting design has a welcome sense of humour, and plays as if Saul Bass was set loose doing a full-on animation. Les Baxter’s score, which becomes annoyingly intrusive during the film itself, is the perfect accompaniment.


It isn’t only Haller who should shoulder the blame for The Dunwich Horror not being all that. Where it falls down is in making so little of the concept. There’s no doubt the original story would have needed reworking to succeed on screen but, aside from the reimagining of Wilbur, most of the choices are rather lacking. There’s the occasional great scene; Stockwell attempting to bury his unconsecrated grandfather on church ground, and being met by a storm of angry townsfolk, is great. There’s also a kind of ramshackle post-Manson '70s vibe to the picture that is a curiously good fit for Lovecraft. But as a whole this never gets under the skin, which is surely the key to a good H.P. Altogether now "Yog-Sothoth…"


***



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.