I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
If not for two inspired casting choices, The Dunwich Horror would be a completely forgettable film. I don’t mean to imply that the film is improved by the cast to the point that it’s worth seeking out, but if you stumble across it on cable or a free streaming service, there are worse ways to spend ninety minutes.
Drawing from the H.P. Lovecraft story, the film starts with Professor Armitage (Ed Begley) finishing a lecture on the occult at Miskatonic University. He hands off the Necronomicon—basically the Bible for the occult in the Lovecraft universe—to Nancy (Sandra Dee), a student assistant, to return to the library. The Necronomicon is incredibly rare, but instead of putting it back in its case, Nancy allows Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), a strange young man in the library, to read it. As Wilbur is studying the tome, he is interrupted by Professor Armitage who is fascinated to learn that Wilbur is the great-grandson of a man who was lynched by the townspeople of Dunwich—a small town an hour from the university—for allegedly practicing black magic.
When he misses his bus, the smitten Nancy drives Wilbur back to Dunwich. Once there, Wilbur sabotages Nancy’s car so that it won’t start. He then drugs her tea so that she is susceptible to his suggestions that she not only stay the night, but also spend the weekend with him. Of course, Wilbur’s not right in the head, but he’s not all Nancy has to fear. He lives with his grandfather (Sam Jaffe) who seems to exist in a constant state of heightened agitation and an unseen…something that stays in a locked room upstairs.
Most of the film is as cheesy and sloppy as you would expect from a Roger Corman production of the era (not counting the films that Corman actually directed), but in the numerous scenes between just Wilbur and Nancy, there is a spark of life and sense of humor.
The casting of Dee was a masterstroke. It quickly becomes obvious that Wilbur is setting Nancy up to be some sort of sacrifice in a ritual. Eventually, it’s revealed that he chose Nancy because she is a virgin. At this point, Dee’s chaste screen persona provides an instant tongue-in-cheek tone to the film. It also helps that she’s surprisingly natural and sympathetic for much of the film. She underplays her role nicely, allowing everyone else around her to go over-the-top.
This brings us to Stockwell’s loopy performance. From the first moment he appears on screen, Stockwell gives Wilbur a thousand-yard stare of madness that he undercuts with a soft, insistent voice. He’s at once menacing and sympathetic—even after it’s been revealed that he is the villain of the film. In several scenes, the local townspeople treat Wilbur with outright contempt and hatred without any provocation other than his family name and he takes the abuse with as much sad dignity as he can muster. Stockwell’s performance goes a long way toward keeping Wilbur from just being a raving lunatic and resembling something akin to an actual three-dimensional character. Simply put, his motives, no matter how diabolical, are understandable.
It’s just too bad that the film around the two leads is such a jumble of cheap effects work and incoherent storytelling. Too many scenes are given over to reams of exposition as supporting characters sit around and explain the Whateley family’s past tragedies. Instead of keeping the film moving forward and clarifying exactly what Wilbur’s plan is, the script keeps looking back, explaining everything it thinks the audience needs to know about the set up. Even worse, the script does a bad job of explaining the events that it does try to shine a light upon. Even with a roster of talented character actors (Begley, Jaffe, Lloyd Bochner, Talia Shire) being used as delivery systems for the convoluted backstory, the film is unable to overcome the problematic screenplay.
The Dunwich Horror was never going to be a masterpiece, but it could have been a decent little supernatural tale. Stockwell and Dee keep it watchable, but that’s the best thing I can say about it.
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