The Dunwich Horror (film)
The Dunwich Horror is a 1970 American supernatural horror film directed by Daniel Haller, and starring Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, and Ed Begley. A loose adaptation of the short story of the same name by H.P. Lovecraft, the film focuses on a young female graduate student who is targeted by a man attempting to use her in an occult ritual with the Necronomicon. The screenplay was co-written by Curtis Hanson, while Roger Corman served as an executive producer on the film.
|The Dunwich Horror|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Daniel Haller|
|Based on||"The Dunwich Horror"|
by H.P. Lovecraft
|Music by||Les Baxter|
|Cinematography||Richard C. Glouner|
|Edited by||Christopher Holmes|
Alta Vista Films
|Distributed by||American International Pictures|
|Box office||$1 million|
The film's distributor, American International Pictures, had tentatively planned an adaptation of the Lovecraft story in 1963. Executive producer Corman hired Haller to direct, as he had previously directed several features for him, including Devil's Angels (1967). Though set in the fiction town of Arkham, Massachusetts, principal photography of The Dunwich Horror took place in and around Mendocino, California in the spring of 1969. The film marked Sandra Dee's first adult role, following the break in her contract with Universal Pictures, and she envisioned the picture as a major departure from the wholesome image she had cultivated as a child actor.
The Dunwich Horror premiered in Chicago in January 1970, and screened throughout the country that year, as well as internationally. Critical response was divided, with some critics praising the film's technical elements and adaptation of the source material, while others felt the performances were ineffective, and the film generally mediocre. Despite this, some contemporary film scholars, such as Alain Silver, have championed the film as one of the best film adaptations of a Lovecraft literary work. Film historian Rob Craig similarly deemed it "one of the most overall successful adaptations of a Lovecraft source work ever committed to film." Aesthetically, the film has been noted for its psychedelic imagery.
A woman groans and writhes with the pain of childbirth in a bedroom from a bygone era as two elderly women - who appear to be twins - and an elderly man watch. She is then led out of the room by the elderly man.
At the Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, Dr. Henry Armitage has just finished a lecture on the local history and the very rare and priceless book known as the Necronomicon. He gives the book to his student Nancy Wagner to return to the library. She is followed by a stranger, who later introduces himself as Wilbur Whateley. Wilbur asks to see the book, and though it is closing time and the book is reputedly the only copy in existence, Nancy allows it under the influence of his hypnotic gaze.
Wilbur's perusal of the book is cut short by Henry, who has researched Wilbur's family's sordid past. His warnings about the Whateley's go unheeded by Nancy, who decides to give Wilbur a ride back to Dunwich after he misses his bus, perhaps purposely. At a gas station on the outskirts of town, Nancy first encounters the ill-esteem in which the locals hold Wilbur.
Once back at the Whateley house, she meets Old Whateley, Wilbur's grandfather. Her car is then disabled and she is drugged by Wilbur. She decides under the influence of hypnosis and drugs to spend the weekend, and does not change her mind when Henry and Nancy's classmate Elizabeth arrive from Arkham the next morning. The duo does not abandon Nancy, however. They investigate further and discover that Wilbur's mother, Lavinia, is still alive and in an asylum. The town doctor, Dr. Cory informs Henry that Lavinia delivered twins when Wilbur was born, but one was stillborn, though he was not there for the delivery and never saw the body. The childbirth was very traumatic and Lavinia "lost her mind" during it, and nearly died.
In the meantime, on the advice of the locals, Elizabeth enters the Whateley house looking for Nancy. She opens a locked door, and releases a creature which appears to be Wilbur's monstrous twin, who kills her and escapes. Upon Wilbur and Nancy's return, Old Whateley confronts them about the presence of Nancy's car, and in the ensuing argument, falls down the stairs and dies. Wilbur takes him to the local cemetery for a decidedly non-Christian burial, but the local townsfolk vociferously stop him.
Wilbur's twin runs amok in Dunwich, killing several people. Lavinia dies in the asylum, looking much older than her 45 years. The Whateley estate burns down in a conflagration that may have to do with a pagan ritual. At the top of a coastal cliff, Wilbur prepares Nancy for sacrifice to bring back what he calls "The Old Ones." Confronted by Armitage, Wilbur chants and calls down his demon father as his adversary chants reverse spells. Wilbur is struck by lightning in the ritual and falls in a ball of fire into the sea.
Finally, the physically unharmed Nancy is escorted off the sacrificial altar by Armitage and Cory, who calm her by stating that the Whateley line has ended. Nancy is pregnant, presumably with Wilbur's ill-conceived child.
Film scholar Alain Silver considers The Dunwich Horror "the first geographical and architecturally apt transliteration of Lovecraft," and "more appropriate to the source material and not just a revamping of olds designs from Poe films." Silver identifies one significant difference in the portrayal of Wilbur, who appears sensual and seductive in the film, whereas he is described in the story as "goatish" and uncharismatic. Scholar Rob Craig similarly notes that, in remaining true to the "spirit of the source work," the film "may be, ironically, one of the most overall successful adaptations of a Lovecraft source work ever committed to film."
American International Pictures (AIP) originally announced a film version of Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" in 1963. Originally, AIP had conceived an international co-production of the film between the United States and Italy. Daniel Haller, who was hired to direct, had previously directed several films for executive producer Roger Corman, including the motorcycle film Devil's Angels (1967).
Commenting on the production, Haller noted that the production was partly inspired by the success of Rosemary's Baby (1968), but added: "We are not making a Gothic horror story. We want a much more contemporary image—one that will bring witchcraft and necromancy into an area of credibility, at least to some extent."
Sandra Dee was cast in the lead role of Nancy in April 1969, and paid $65,000 plus 5% of the profits. The role was Dee's first major part after the lapse of her years-long contract with Universal Pictures, and she saw it as a notable change of pace in her career. Dissatisfied with her previous work (Dee referred to her past 25 films with Universal as "all rotten"), she stated: "The reason I decided to do Dunwich was because I couldn't put the script down once I started reading it. I had read so many that I had to plow through, just because I promised someone. Even if this movie turns out be a complete disaster, I guarantee it will change my image." However, Dee refused to be nude in the film's final sequence, which was written in the screenplay.
Originally, Peter Fonda was cast in the role of Wilbur Whateley, but he backed out of the project and was replaced by Dean Stockwell. Both Stockwell and Dee were former child actors. This was the last film of actor Ed Begley, who died three months after its theatrical release.
The Dunwich Horror premiered in Chicago at the McVicker's Theater on January 14, 1970. During its first week, it grossed $30,000. The following week, on January 21, it opened in Los Angeles before premiering in New York City on July 8 of that year. It premiered in London on September 20, 1970 as a double bill with The Oblong Box (1969). The film grossed $478,900 in 1970, per a May 12, 1971 report; however, a report in Variety from January 1971 indicated a total of $1,043,000 in U.S. and Canadian rentals.
Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times praised the film significantly, describing it as a "truly engrossing film of the supernatural that has been made with sensitivity and skill," further commending its mood and atmosphere, as well as the performances of Dee and Stockwell. John Duvoli of Cinefantastique noted that the film "is not Lovecraftian, but it is good technical film-making," also praising the special effects and score, but lambasting Dee's performances as ineffective. Ann Guarino of the New York Daily News awarded the film a favorable two-and-a-half stars out of four, noting that "Director Daniel Haller keeps interest high in the proceedings, but cannot avoid a letdown for, after all, he is dealing with the unbelievable."
Vincent Canby of The New York Times was less praiseful, writing that the film "has all the faults of Corman's various Poe adaptations (House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death), and very few of the virtues, with the exception of a beautifully Victorian interior set." A reviewer for the Syracuse Post-Standard was similarly unimpressed, writing that "aside from being a good old-fashioned B-horror film, The Dunwich Horror has nothing startling to offer and will likely find its way to the late, late show." The Tampa Tribune's Sharon Cohen felt the film's special effects were unremarkable, and commented that all of the principal cast seemed out of place: "Ed Begley looks uncomfortable in his role... Sandra Dee, as the virgin, looks like a chubby coed whom someone found on a Hollywood movie lot. And Dean Stockwell, with his curly long hair, looks vaguely like a warlock, but never manages to exude enough scary charm to be a convincing villain."
Dennis Schwartz from Ozus' World Movie Reviews gave the film a grade C, commending the film's eerie atmosphere, but criticized its uneven presentation, and found the film to be "dull and uninspiring." Patrick Legare of AllMovie gave the film a mixed review, stating "Everything about the film -- the performers, the hair styles, the psychedelic imagery, the music -- has late-'60s tackiness written all over it, which leaves it very dated and not very Lovecraftian." TV Guide awarded the film 2/4 stars, calling it "[a] fairly successful attempt at adapting H.P. Lovecraft for the screen." Ain't It Cool News gave the film a mixed review, commending the film's first half and Stockwell's performance, but criticized the second half being cheesy, and not well written, with the final confrontation being particularly silly. On his website Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings, Dave Sindelar stated that he disliked the changes to the film that departed from the original story, and criticized the performances, and underdeveloped characters. Sindelar also highlighted the handling of the film's monster as being effective and the only aspect he liked about the film.
The film was released on DVD by MGM on August 28, 2001. It was re-released again by the company as a part of a multi-disk set on September 11, 2001 and as a double feature with Die, Monster, Die! on September 20, 2005.
Another film version, produced by Active Entertainment Finance and Bullet Films, was released in 2009.
- Craig 2019, p. 138.
- "Big Rental Films of 1970". Variety. January 6, 1971. p. 11.
- Silver 1994, p. 68.
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- Smith 2013, p. 208.
- Craig 2019, p. 122.
- Miller, Jeanne (April 18, 1969). "Rosemary Is Expecting Again, in Mendocino". The San Francisco Examiner. San Francisco, California. p. 26 – via Newspapers.com.
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- McGee 1996, p. 268.
- Archerd, Army (June 25, 1969). "Look!–Can This Be Our Sandra Dee?". The Daily Notes. Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. p. 8 – via Newspapers.com.
- Duvoli, John R. (Fall 1970). "The Dunwich Horror". Cinefantastique. Vol. 1 no. 1. p. 28. ISSN 0145-6032.
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- "Starts Sunday". The Guardian. London, England. September 19, 1970. p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.
- "The Dunwich Horror (1970) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 12, 2019.
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- Canby, Vincent (August 2, 1970). "'Dunwich Horror' No Dream Film". Sunday News. Lancaster, Pennsylvania. p. 19 – via Newspapers.com.
- "'Dunwich Horror' Nothing Startling". The Post-Standard. Syracuse, New York. April 20, 1970. p. 26 – via Newspapers.com.
- Cohen, Sharon (February 14, 1970). "Devils Dance, Sing, Take Falls in Horror Movie". The Tampa Tribune. Tampa, Florida. p. 4-B – via Newspapers.com.
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- McGee, Mark (1996). Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-40137-6.
- Silver, Alain (1994). More Things Than are Dreamt of: Masterpieces of Supernatural Horror, from Mary Shelley to Stephen King, in Literature and Film. New York City, New York: Limelight Ed. ISBN 978-0-879-10177-0.
- Smith, Gary A. (2013). American International Pictures: The Golden Years. Albany, Georgia: Bear Manor Media. ISBN 978-1-593-93750-8.
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