Saturday, June 29, 2024

#2,962. The Dunwich Horror (1970) - H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival


Roger Corman directed a number of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the 1960s, bringing a gothic sensibility to such films as The House of Usher, The Pit and The Pendulum, and The Masque of the Red Death. For 1970’s The Dunwich Horror, which was adapted from a 1928 short story by H.P. Lovecraft, Corman served as Executive Producer, turning the directorial reins over to his longtime art director, Daniel Haller.

Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts is home to an incredibly rare book: the Necronomicon, also known as the Book of the Dead. Anxious to get a look at it, Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), a visitor from the town of Dunwich, convinces Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee), a student at Miskatonic and a library volunteer, to let him read the Necronomicon for a few minutes. His time is cut short, however, by Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley), who insists the book be returned to its display case.

Familiar with the history of the Whateley family, including the public execution of Wilbur’s great grandfather by the townsfolk of Dunwich, Dr. Armitage invites Wilbur to join him, Nancy, and Elizabeth Hamilton (Donna Baccala), also a student and Nancy’s best friend, for dinner.

Nancy quickly develops a crush on Wilbur, and agrees to drive him home when he misses the last bus to Dunwich. As thanks for her generosity, Wilbur invites Nancy into the house for some tea. But Wilbur has his reasons for wanting to keep Nancy around, and despite the protests of his grandfather (Sam Jaffe), Wilbur hopes to perform a ritual that no Whateley has successfully completed, a ceremony that will unleash an ancient evil capable of destroying not only Dunwich, but the entire world.

Stockwell delivers a mannered performance as the enigmatic Wilbur Whateley, a guy who, from the get-go, is clearly up to something. Early on, we have no idea what that “something” is, though it’s obvious Nancy is a key component of his plans (he sabotages her car to ensure it won’t start, and plies her time and again with tea that has been drugged). Sandra Dee is also quite good as the pretty student who falls under Wilbur’s spell, while Begley, Jaffe, Baccala, Lloyd Bochner (as Dr. Cory, Dunwich’s resident physician who teams up with Armitage to save Nancy), and a young Talia Shire (as Dr. Cory’s nurse) are solid in support.

Yet it’s the style that director Daniel Haller brings to the film that really blew me away, from the early close-ups of Wilbur (of his eyes, or of him twisting a ring on one of his fingers) to the strangely erotic imagery of Nancy’s dream sequences, which grow increasingly more bizarre as the film progresses. Haller, who handled the art direction for a handful of Corman’s Poe films (including The Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven), proves throughout The Dunwich Horror that he has a keen eye for visuals, bringing an impressive panache to Lovecraft’s tale of an ancient evil unleashed.

In unison with its strong cast and solid direction, The Dunwich Horror benefits from the “Corman Touch”. It is ever present and unmistakable, ensuring that this cinematic take on H.P. Lovecraft’s classic story would be just as much fun as his Poe films. Stylish and mysterious, The Dunwich Horror is a very entertaining motion picture.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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