Child of Dunwich rise
You have your fathers’ eyes
Child of Dunwich rise
End the world that you despise
-Electric Wizard, “Dunwich,” Witchcult Today
RETURN TO DUNWICH
One of the most looked-forward-to horror movies of 2020 was Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space. It was Stanley’s return to directing after 1992’s Dust Devil. There was much excitement about what the talented filmmaker would do with a work based on one of horror’s most beloved, and problematic authors – Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Upon release, the movie quickly was lauded as one of the year’s best movies. The reasons for its success are many, but Stanley’s unique envisioning of the story and his reverence for the source material was among the largest. Not surprisingly, the movie-going public is anxiously anticipating what he will do next.
Early in 2020, Stanley announced plans to make a Lovecraft trilogy. He had begun writing a script for The Dunwich Horror, based on Lovecraft’s story, first published in Weird Tales magazine in April 1929. This was exciting news for me because watching Daniel Haller’s The Dunwich Horror (1970) on late-night television was my introduction to Lovecraft’s eldritch New England with its caches of forbidden knowledge, occult practitioners, and transdimensional monsters. I had been thinking about watching it again and now had a reason. With a new version coming soon, it was time to revisit spooky, aged Dunwich, Massachusetts, to refresh myself on what devilry the Whateley clan did to earn their place in the hallowed halls of horror.
THE PAST IS AN ILLUSION THAT EXISTS IN THE PRESENT
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an American author of “weird” fiction. His stories were a mixture of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Many of his stories hinge on humanity’s frailty in the face of cosmic terrors. Madness and death often accompanied such encounters as if the true reality of creation and humanity’s insignificance would unhinge all our minds and lead to our demise as a species. Many of his stories take place around the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, the home of Miskatonic University with its copy of The Necronomicon. The Necronomicon is a powerful book of the most profane knowledge, including descriptions of a pantheon of god-like beings slumbering in another dimension. These beings became known as The Cthulhu Mythos. Yog-Sothoth, one of the Great Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos, plays a large role in The Dunwich Horror.
While relatively unknown during his lifetime, Lovecraft’s work has increased in popularity and influence after his death. Miskatonic University, the Cthulhu Mythos, and The Necronomicon have taken on lives of their own becoming part of popular culture’s horror universe. Writers, filmmakers, musicians, and game designers incorporate them into their own works. His work has become so influential he even has a subgenre named after him.
In the original The Dunwich Horror, antagonist Wilbur Whateley seeks to open a doorway to wake the Old Ones and allow them to return to our dimension. A hybrid human, he hopes to serve them and gain their favor to access their knowledge. In the 1970 film version, Wilbur (Dean Stockwell), fully human, seeks the same but hopes the Old Ones will obliterate the townspeople who have been so cruel to his family. With their desire to mix with the Old Ones to bring about the end of humanity, both characters carry more than a whiff of Lovecraft’s xenophobia.
A HISTORY OF DEVILRY
Filmmakers have discovered translating Lovecraft’s stories to film can be challenging due to Lovecraft’s writing style. To stimulate the reader’s imaginations, he would supply the bare minimum description of his otherworldly monsters and let the readers fill in the blanks with their own vision. While this device is an excellent literary tool, re-creating the ineffable for the film is difficult. This hasn’t stopped filmmakers from making great films based on or inspired by his large body of work. Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space is only the latest of many great Lovecraftian horror movies. Making an exhaustive list is beyond this article’s scope, but many of the films of Stuart Gordon, The Void, The Cabin in the Woods, and The Mist are all considered excellent Lovecraftian films.
Thus far, Daniel Haller is the only director to bring both The Colour Out of Space and The Dunwich Horror to the big screen. Haller was one of many directors who got their start working for American International Pictures in the 1960s. Before jumping to directing, he was an art director and production designer for AIP. He created the distinctive sets for Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe movies The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death. His directorial debut was 1965’s Die, Monster, Die!, a loose adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, starring a 78-year-old Boris Karloff. Haller’s and Stanley’s versions share the same story of a family’s disintegration under the effect of cosmic rays emitting from a meteor.
Haller returned to Lovecraft five years later with The Dunwich Horror (1970). With a bigger budget and larger cast, including established stars Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, and Ed Begley, the goal was to bring horror out of the past and into the modern world, an idea inspired by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Haller said, “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…(1, 2)” Screenwriting trio Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, and Ronald Silkosky expanded Lovecraft’s story to include both college students and townspeople. They also added several trippy and sensual dream sequences and fleshed out Whateley’s story.
The Dunwich Horror begins with the birth of Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell), attended by his grandfather (Sam Jaffe) at The Devil’s Hop Yard, an ancient stone altar on a nearby cliff. Twenty-five years later, Wilbur approaches Miskatonic University student Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) to gain access to a copy of the Necronomicon from the library. He needs both to open a bridge that will allow the Old Ones to return. Professor Henry Armitage (Ed Begley), an occult scholar, rushes to Dunwich to rescue Nancy and stop Wilbur. As Armitage and Whateley battle, hurling spells and lightning bolts at each other over the altar, Wilbur’s twin brother, an invisible, malevolent being that is half-human, half Old One, approaches, wreaking havoc on the Whateley’s house and many citizens of Dunwich.
Released in January 1970, The Dunwich Horror was lukewarmly received. The response was divided among the critics. Some praised the movie’s atmosphere, eerie’s visual quality, psychedelic sequences, and adherence to the source material. Other critics complained the story lacked coherence and the performances were of poor quality. Some critics singled out Sandra Dee’s performance as being subpar on many superficial levels.
The Dunwich Horror was Sandra Dee’s first role in three years. Born in the early 1940s, her childhood was marred by years of sexual abuse from her step-father. She began her career as a child model then graduated to films in the 1950s. She was praised for her beauty and acting ability, winning the Golden Globe Award for New Star for her screen debut in 1957’s Until they Sail. Next followed several films where her youth and good looks caught the public’s eye and imagination. Her popularity as an actor rose. Dee’s most iconic roles was of Gidget in the 1959 beach-comedy of the same name. She became the epitome of the adorably sexy yet untouchable teen girl. At the height of her popularity, she was obsessively spied upon by the public who wanted to know all about her private life. By the mid-1960s, after a career built on playing similar ingenues for Universal Pictures and a whirlwind marriage to crooner Bobby Darren that ended in divorce, she began to lose her box office appeal. When her contract with Universal ended in 1967, they did not renew it.
Based on reading the script, Dee was enthusiastic about making The Dunwich Horror. She hoped the daring role would change her image in the public’s eye. However, the viewing public seemed uncomfortable seeing such a beloved, childlike naif cast in a horror film and undergoing such extreme treatment. Nancy is kidnapped, drugged, raped, and impregnated with a half-human child. She was criticized for everything from her weight to the flat effect of her performance (This latter is especially unfair since her character spends several scenes in a drug-induced, hypnotic trance). Sadly, The Dunwich Horror did not restart Sandra Dee’s career. It was her last feature film until Al Adamson’s 1983, low budget drama Lost. She spent the rest of her life sporadically appearing on television and struggling with illnesses related to her anorexia and alcoholism. She died in 2005 while in her early 60s.
INTO THE FUTURE
Besides signaling the end of Sandra Dee’s career, other cast and crew members experienced major changes after The Dunwich Horror. Veteran actor Ed Begley died of a heart attack just three months after its release. Director Daniel Haller would stop making feature films to begin a long career in television.
Like Daniel Haller’s 41-year-old film, Richard Stanley has teased that his version of The Dunwich Horror will also be a contemporary story. Donald Trump and COVID may not make direct appearances, but their presence will be felt. What else from 2020 will get the Stanley- Lovecraft treatment? I am confident that he will expose us to the cosmic horror of the old ones, and, while we will survive, we will not remain unscathed.