The Dunwich Horror is a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1929 short story of the same name, which was first published in Weird Tales. The film is kind of a spin-off of from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle of films: Corman served as executive producer here, and also directed The Haunted Palace, which was sold as a Poe film but was actually based Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. AIP had also done a another Lovecraft adaptation, Die, Monster, Die!, which was a lousy take on The Colour Out of Space. Richard Stanley may be a drug-addled, abusive piece of shit, but his version was far superior. Both Die, Monster, Die! and The Dunwich Horror were directed by Daniel Haller, who also served as production designer on some of the Poe films.
The film takes shape using bits of Lovecraft’s story. At times it is surprisingly faithful to the source material, but it is very much a post-Manson family era take. Dean Stockwell is pure hippiedom in his role as Wilbur Whateley, who starts off at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts looking for The Necronomicon. His search is cut short by one of the lecturers, who knows about his family’s sordid history. Whateley then becomes friendly with the lecturer’s student, Nancy (Sandra Dee), who offers to drive him back to Dunwich after he misses his bus… perhaps deliberately.
Dean Stockwell is very memorable as this Mansonesque stranger. The film was made after he dove headfirst into the ’60s counterculture and, in his own words, “did some drugs and went to some love-ins.” He found himself working with Dennis Hopper on Hopper’s woefully underrated The Last Movie, and also had a memorable turn in Psych-Out. Stockwell had starred years earlier in The Boy with Green Hair, which was an allegorical anti-war film that gave him some cred in countercultural circles.
Dee, who had started her career similarly young, was pretty much out of the industry at this point. She is quite good as the innocent who gets corrupted by Stockwell. She said: “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.” She would only do some TV work in the ’70s and one low-budget film in 1983 before retiring completely, except for one voice part on Frasier. She was married to Bobby Darin in the ’60s, and after they divorced in 1967, this was pretty much her last film of note.
Les Baxter, the exotica maestro, does a fantastic score that borders almost on psychedelia at times. Baxter did over 60 scores for cinema, and this is one of his most memorable. The very of its time psychedelic imagery meshes well with the score, which has expert use of the theremin. The film ended up being a bit of cash-grab, riding on the surprise smash success of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby. The Lovecraftian bit near the end, while cheesy, is certainly not the worst attempt at the author’s unpronounceable interdimensional tentacle monsters. If you are a fan of Corman’s Poe films and want a slightly more post-60s take, this is the film to see.
The Blu-Ray release from Arrow Video contains a new audio commentary by Guy Adams and Alexandra Benedict, creators of the audio drama Arkham Count; a new conversation between film historian Stephen R. Bissette and horror author Stephen Laws, in which they talk about The Dunwich Horror, Lovecraft and their memories of seeing the film on release; a new interview with science fiction and fantasy writer Ruthanna Emrys, author of the Cthulhu-adjacent The Innsmouth Legacy series; a new interview with music historian David Huckvale, in which he takes a closer look at Les Baxter’s score; theatrical trailer and an image gallery. The booklet contains new writing by film critic Johnny Mains and the great Jack Sargeant.