Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Dunwich Horror (1969)

When AIP started running out of Edgar Allan Poe stories to base their pulp horror movies on, it seemed only natural that they should turn their attentions to that other American cult favourite, H P Lovecraft, for inspiration.  They'd already tried mixing the two authors together in The Haunted Palace, which took its title and little else from Poe and most of its plot and characters from Lovecraft's The Case Charles Ward Dexter.  Passed off as part of their ongoing Poe series, and directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, it was actually a reasonable attempt to bring Lovecraft to the screen.  It was followed by two more Lovecraft adaptations, the UK shot Die, Monster, Die in 1965 and The Dunwich Horror in 1969, (another UK-based adaptation, The Shuttered Room in 1967 was made by Warner-Seven Arts).  The Dunwich Horror is undoubtedly the best of these sixties adaptations.although taking some liberties with the original story and updating it to the late sixties, it nonetheless captures something of Lovecraft's obsessive mythology - all the key elements are present: the ancient evil text of the Necronomicon, musty libraries, the creepy old back woods house with something nasty in the attic and its associated isolated rural community gripped by old superstitions,and the invocation of old gods like Cthulu and Yog Sothoth.

The main changes included making the main protagonist, played by Dean Stockwell a relatively normal human being (In the story he turns out to be, well, something else) with a fiance in the shape of Sandra Dee.  A long way from the wholesomeness of the Gidget films, Dee provides both a touch of glamour and a sympathetic character for the audience to identify with. Assuming, correctly, that general film audiences wouldn't be familiar with the works of Lovecraft, Dee's character, thrust into the strange back woods world of the Whately familyas a result of her engagement to Stockwell, acts as a proxy for them as she is gradually introduced to the various weird goings on there.  The other key character from the original story, Professor Armitage, is translated to the screen reasonably faithfully, in the form of Ed Begley Sr.

For Lovecraft purists, though, the film is fatally flawed by its infusions of swinging sixties psychedelia in the strange and disturbing dreams experienced by Dee's character, (not to mention some of the hair styles and costumes), and the implication of sex inherent in her relationship with Stockwell's character.  Whilst such things might, at first glance, seem at odds with the dank, patriarchal and deeply conservative world of HP Lovecraft's horror stories, in the context of the film, they provide a counterpoint to the ancient horrors being invoked by Stockwell.  The introduction of the possibility of actual sex into Lovecraft's notoriously repressed universe (sexual symbols, especially tentacles, abound, but actual sex is never contemplated) helps drag the often abstract nature of Lovecraft's horrors into the real world, confronting them with a tangible reality.  The fact is that Lovecraft is an exceedingly difficult author to translate to the screen - his stories are simply not visual, steeped in arcane and archaic language, frequently lacking any characters for the reader to identify with. Their pace is often deathly slow and their horrors obscure.  Yet there is no doubt that often they are genuinely disturbing, hinting at  cosmic horrors beyond the full comprehension of mere mortals, with darkness and madness lurking just below the surface of human civilisation.

Translating this to the screen is no easy thing, but, as directed by Daniel Haller (a former art director on the Corman Poe series who had previously directed the aforementioned Die, Monster, Die) The Dunwich Horror does a reasonable job.  The film certainly looks good, with, not surprisingly, excellent art direction, and moves at a good pace.  There are decent performances from the main cast and the thing in the attic is surprisingly well realised. Despite the modernisation of the story, the film follows the original's plot reasonably closely, with all of the key scenes included.  It is also reasonably atmospheric, conjuring up a feeling of underlying evil in the New England back woods community of Dunwich, this rural community, essentially unchanged for decades, contrasting sharply with the more sophisticated world of the Miskatonic University in Arkham, not to mention the big city glamour represented by Dee's character.  The general sense of unease is stoked up by Les Baxter's musical score and a rather creepy animated title sequence.  

Following this brief cinematic interest in Lovecraft during the sixties, there wouldn't be another film adaptation until 1985 and the release of Re-Animator.  Since then there has been a steady trickle of other movies either adapted from or inspired by Lovecraft, of greatly varying quality.  None of those that I've seen have managed to overcome the problems of adapting the source material to the screen any better than The Dunwich Horror.  Indeed, most have ended up straying much further from their source material than the AIP film.  For a while a late night TV regular, The Dunwich Horror is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray. 



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