Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
The last two weeks, I’ve looked at pulpy takes on the works of horror author H. P. Lovecraft, both directed by Stuart Gordon and both, unfortunately, pretty bad. I was skeptical when I heard of another B-movie Lovecraft adaptation called The Dunwich Horror (1970), based on Lovecraft’s story of the same name, largely because the poster reminds me too much of the problematic scenes in Re-Animator (see link above) and From Beyond (see above). That concern was not abated much when I saw that Roger Corman produced the movie, since the last thing I saw by Roger Corman was The Wild Angels (1966), which has a—surprise!—distasteful rape scene.
This series is starting to feel like a consideration of misogyny in Lovecraft adaptations, but these past few movies have warranted this consideration because they are lazy. Still, that won’t be all I’ll talk about, here. So, if you can’t stand the women-in-film talk, just skip a bit ahead.
Carrying on: I can’t say for sure whether The Dunwich Horror is better or worse in regard to its entire disregard for women—you know, spare as eye candy and sexual prey for antagonists. I will credit it with not having an overtly awful scene as both Re-Animator and From Beyond do. Unfortunately, a bulk of the plot concerns a creepy dude named Wilbur Whately (Dean Stockwell) drugging, hypnotizing, and generally being scuzzy to the protagonist, Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee). There are also strangely ambiguous profile close-ups of her ass when she’s tied to an altar for some reason.
But ignoring the problem that is the entire basis of the plot, how about the rest of the movie? I will say that it has its moments; the first few scenes introduce the characters well, and Nancy actually reminded me a lot of the oft times dopey protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories since she can’t tell that Wilbur is the sketchiest dude in a universe where Lovecraft characters exist. This adaptation diverts significantly from Lovecraft’s story, ultimately unsuccessfully, but it does have some idea of how to construct a horror plot.
The weaknesses come from just generally poor storytelling. The characters quickly become stagnant and instead the drama is driven by an older professor, Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley), who figures out random bits about the Whateley family whenever it conveniences the plot. The other scenes tend to follow around Wilbur offering Nancy tea that he has drugged, in really not-subtle ways that ultimately make the story less creepy—in a horror sense, more creepy in a rapey sense—and more hilarious. But this is a B-movie, I guess, so maybe this is to be expected?
Even then, though, I would expect a B-movie to be exciting. I’m not a connoisseur like SciFridays author Sarah, but my general impression is that they’re meant to be delightfully cheesy, exciting in simple ways. Re-Animator has that going for it a lot of the time. But The Dunwich Horror is plodding. There are some scenes where the horror is built up, with the upcoming monstrosities implied, but overall it’s a lot of 70s-style, trippy sequences and inane dialogue that ultimately add nothing. The director, Daniel Haller, decides to focus for way too long on fruitless sequences, and even during the climax he has the monster floating about and not exciting or frightening us.
I did enjoy some aspects of this movie, but looking back on it, there isn’t all that much to praise. Even when there are individual pieces that succeed, the whole is uninteresting. I would like to be able to illuminate some aspects of it through a Lovecraft lens like I did with In the Mouth of Madness (Part 3), but there’s almost no connection other than the most basic plot similarities. The protagonist of the original story, Dr. Armitage, goes from being an interesting older dude and instead becomes a plot detective of no real value. Wilbur isn’t terrifying. The monstrosities themselves are pretty boring.
Most importantly, though, the director and writers missed an opportunity to film the best scene in the original story: three old dudes taking up arms and fighting a giant monster. Seriously, I’d have sat through more than The Dunwich Horror to watch that. But alas, instead we get this movie, which doesn’t fail terribly in any respect but certainly doesn’t succeed. No, instead we have something entirely middle of the road, as seems to be the general case with Lovecraft adaptations, and in many ways that’s the most disappointing part.