Dear Dunwich Horror,
One of the reasons that H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction has remained relevant and popular throughout the 80+ years since it was written is due to the fact that it relied on primal, unchanging modes of terror. There were no tropes or cliches attached to the goings-ons in those stories that could attach them to any specific era. Math and science and the very existence of the cosmos acted as the bridge by which the dimensional and celestial terrors of Lovecraft’s imagination entered out world to wreak havoc.
So it is disappointing, then, that you decided to attach so many superfluous, era-specific frills to a story that was so simple and elementally timeless. In general, you and Lovecraft’s story are the tale of a young man, Wilbur Whateley, who seeks to open a gate to another world so that he might draw through the Elder Gods who used to inhabit the earth. In Lovecraft’s version of the story, Wilbur is a malformed abomination who is tutored by his grandfather in the ways of black magic. They harbor a deep secret in their ancient farm house, and after his grandfather dies Wilbur attempts to complete the rites. From there, the situation spins out of control and leads to a vicious rampage through the countryside surrounding the town of Dunwich.
In your version, however, Wilbur is a disturbed but nominally normal young man and his grandfather is an enfeebled old man who is powerless to stop his grandson from doing something terrible. Not only that, but rites of common math and science are replaced by talk of pagan fertility rites and the sacrificing of a virgin coed on a pagan altar. Sure the oddity in the house and the whippoorwills and the idea of the Old Ones remains, but their trappings are altered to the point that all of their power is sapped. The ancient, elemental horror of the story is dressed in the goofy, 1970s style hokum.
But alright, we all know that certain compromises have to be made in the adaptation from page to screen. These kind of alterations are unfortunate, but expected. But putting my disappointment with your story changes aside, how are you as a film? Well, like many B-style monster movies from the ’60s and and ’70s, you haven’t aged well. Luckily, though, that modern tone-deafness turns you in to a pretty fun throwback to bad movies.
Where to begin. Well let’s start with the bad and work our way backwards so we can end on a high note that proves your slim, ironic worth. First, your special effects. I have to admit that before the advent of computer effects the idea of creating a Lovecraftian monster must have been daunting. You attempt to sidestep this failing by simply changing the screen color repeated whenever the monster appears in addition to showing stock footage of wind blowing. It’s… innovative? I don’t even know how to describe it, but it doesn’t work. Though it is better than when we see the monster, and it seems like a series of vacuum hoses flailing around.
Still, to a person who knows your era and can adjust their expectations, that can be part of the fun. Much like your script! Oh your script. So much open exposition and ridiculous speechifying. Your attempts to work in “modern” ideas related to sexuality works about as well as using a chainsaw to whittle a wooden doll. Your lifting of passages from Lovecraft makes the Psychology 101 level platitudes regarding sex all the more weird.
Your actors, though, make a game attempt at delivering their lines, and their broad delivery and odd sort of investment in the material really helps. Dean Stockwell is the best of the bunch, and his Wilbur Whateley is the kind of kooky, obviously evil stereotype one would hope for in a movie like you. Between his fantastic mustache and his randomly widening eyes you get the sense he really is of another world. Sandra Dee is not a convincing college student, but she does a good job of writhing on a stone slab for countless minutes and she plays up her demure naivete well. Ed Begley brings determination to his role of Professor Armitage, the only man who knows and can counteract the evil that Wilbur hopes to unleash. He says strange things with such lackadaisical ease that it is easy to buy him as an expert on the occult… or just bored by it.
But what I love most is your music. You are the perfect example of showy, telegraphing B-Movie monster music. I would watch you all over again just to hear your soundtrack.
So all in all I don’t know how to feel about you. As an adaptation of a story I love you are really quite a letdown. As a film you are something of a farce. As an experience, though, you’re a bit of guilty pleasure fun that I would recommend watching with like-minded friends.
It’s been strange,
Brian J. Roan