Next up in our mini-round-up (we’ve got one more to go) of films based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft in honor of his 125th birthday we come to 1970’s The Dunwich Horror, a reasonably faithful take on its “source material” filtered through a distinctly late-’60s/early-’70s psychedelic lens that hard-core Lovecraft fans might view as little more than a “Cliff’s Notes” version of the original story but that nevertheless manages to capture at least some small frisson of New England Gothic horror in between all the dated (but in a fun way, I assure you) trappings and references.
A lot of that is down to the superbly OTT creepy job Dean Stockwell does as Wilbur Whateley, the villain of the piece — we all know he’s the master of cut-rate disturbed characters, and he’s certainly in fine form here, chewing up the entire screen whether he’s positioned in long range from the camera or staring right the fuck into it with his narrow-but-somehow-still-beady eyes. Modern audiences aren’t likely to take him as much of a serious “threat,” of course, but so what? This is a guy who knows his gig and does it well, never moreso than here. He’s worth the price of admission (which these days is free, given that this flick is streaming on Netflix — it’s also available on DVD from MGM should you wish to go that route) alone, and if you can’t have any fun watching him work his “occult lothario” bit, well — maybe you just can’t have any fun, period.
This Roger Corman production isn’t simply a one-man show, however, and the rest of the cast do a pretty nice job with the admittedly limited jobs they’re tasked to perform, as well, whether we’re talking about Sandra Dee as mesmerized college girl Nancy Wagner, Donna Baccala as concerned best friend Elizabeth, Ed Begley (Sr.) as professor of ancient lore Dr. Armitage ( the only guy who might be able to piece together why Wilbur has taken Nacy under his wing), Lloyd Bochner as kindly country doctor Cory (who apparently has no concept of doctor-patient confidentiality, but whatever), or Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s ailing grandfather, everybody comes up trumps. And be on the lookout for a pre-The Godfather and Rocky Talia Shire (credited here under her actual last name of, as I’m sure you already know, Coppola) as Dr. Cory’s nurse.
Oh, and since playing the game of “scanning the credits for names before they became famous” is a key component of any Corman movie, it’s probably worth noting that future “A-list” director Curtis Hanson (of L.A. Confidential and The Wonder Boys fame) is among the gaggle of screenwriters whose job it was to bring Lovecraft’s other-worldly vision in line with his paymaster’s always-slim budget. I’m sure he did what he could.
The same can also be said for director Daniel Haller — yeah, the Cthulhu monster looks like something out of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, and the dialogue can get a bit clunky and expository, and we won’t even talk about the thoroughly unconvincing “thunderstorm” at the end, but in addition to coaxing some fine (if occasionally camp) performances from his cast, Haller’s film also has some genuinely impressive set designs and does a splendid job of capturing the “town trapped in time” setting that the story requires to be (admittedly only partially) successful. All in all, it’s a job well done from a guy who probably couldn’t even be too sure that his paycheck would clear the bank.
Obviously, The Dunwich Horror is far from a masterpiece, but given who was backing the project, that was never in the cards, anyway. All you can ask of some films is that they do more or less the best they can with what they’ve got, and measured by that scale, Haller and company deserve, as Roger Ebert would have said, a fairly enthusiastic “thumbs up.” The entire production feels more like a 90-minute episode of Night Gallery than anything else, I suppose, but around these parts that’s definitely a compliment.