The township of Dunwich, Massachusetts, lies on the rugged coast forty miles away from more prosperous Arkham where Doctor Henry Armitage is visiting the University as a guest lecturer; a respected authority on ancient lore and tomes such as the Necronomicon, the only known copy of which is held within the library, his presence has brought the reclusive Wilbur Whateley to Arkham in hopes of borrowing the precious volume.
An intelligent and not unattractive man in his mid-twenties, raised in isolation by his eccentric grandfather, Wilbur’s great-grandfather was hanged as a heathen, his father was unknown, and his mother Lavinia was committed to an insane asylum shortly after his birth, but Arkham student Nancy Wagner is sympathetic to this soft-spoken stranger, offering him a lift home when he misses his bus and choosing to spend the weekend with him
An opportunity to see the lonely outpost associated with such a dark history, The Dunwich Horror was the second adaptation of the works of H P Lovecraft directed by Daniel Haller following 1965’s Die, Monster, Die! which was based on The Colour Out of Space but perhaps ironically shot in monochrome in Britain where it was released as Monster of Terror, though Haller’s later offering was filmed in psychedelic colour as befitted the time, shot in the spring of 1969 and released the following January, the free love and liberation of the sixties giving way to something more sinister.
The Dunwich Horror originally published in Weird Tales in April 1929, Lovecraft already well-established as a writer though largely eluded by fame or success in his lifetime, it continued the themes of the cosmic horror of the Great Old Ones he had woven through many of his stories such as Dagon, Nyarlathotep and Azathoth before presenting their pinnacle in the submerged city of R’lyeh in The Call of Cthulhu in 1928.
Haller having served as art director and production designer under legendary directors Roger Corman and Jacques Tourneur across many projects including The Haunted Palace, itself inspired by Lovecraft, The Comedy of Terrors, The Tomb of Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death, the northern Californian scenery of Mendocino stands in for Dunwich, enhanced by matte shots and the elaborate set of the Whateley mansion interior, the action driven by the tribal rhythms of Les Baxter’s score, the ubiquitous mystery sometimes shifting to a surprisingly plaintive melancholy.
Mesmeric and driven though his solicitous company swiftly becomes creepy, Wilbur is played by Dean Stockwell, a former child actor who had transitioned smoothly to adult roles, something Sandra Dee hoped to do as Nancy, though spending most of the film drugged and pliant she is largely passive; more interesting is the casting of formerly blacklisted actor Sam Jaffe as “Old Whateley,” an outcast of society who refuses to capitulate, and special note should be made of Nurse Cora, later Oscar nominee Talia Shire, making no effort to hide that she is apparently reading her lines from her desk.
The taut narrative of the first two acts somewhat unravelling in the third as angry townsfolk predictably rise up, at its best The Dunwich Horror is unique and often beautiful, presenting the ideas of Lovecraft for the first time and faithfully, glimpses of robed acolytes performing rituals in sunshine, embracing nature and the universe, opening doors to unknown realms beyond occupied by primal, elemental beings of unimaginable shape and power, ideas encapsulated in Sandy Dvore’s animated title sequence of tiny beings dwarfed and menaced by that which they worship, so vast it becomes the very landscape upon which they walk.
With Stockwell’s death in 2021 meaning all the principal cast are gone and Haller now aged 93 and long retired, while Arrow’s new restoration from the original negative means The Dunwich Horror has never looked better there are unfortunately but understandably no contributions from anyone directly involved in the production though the disc does not lack supplementary material, with Stephen R Bissette and Stephen Laws extended discussion of the history of their favourite film and Guy Adams and Alexandra Benedict’s commentary in addition to an appreciation by Ruthanna Emrys and David Huckvale’s examination of Baxter’s hypnotic score.