Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Grave Reviews #12

THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)

Director: Daniel Haller

Starring: Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee, Ed Begley, Sam Jaffe.

Based on the story by H.P Lovecraft

This film is one of the better Lovecraftian adaptations that happened to not be filmed by Stuart Gordon, Lovecraft's unsung cinematic hero.

The movie is set in Lovecraft's fiction Massachusetts towns of Arkham and Dunwich. The film starts a few decades earlier in the Old Wheatley House in Dunwich with Lavinia Wheatley bed-ridden giving birth to twins whose father is unknown.

At Miskatonic University in Arkham, Dr Henry Armitage (Begley) had just finished his lecture on the Necronomicon and ancient Cults, and asks one of his assistants Nancy Wagner (Dee) to return the Tome to the Library. She is followed there by Wilbur Wheatley who in a charming fashion asks if he can read the book. She relents, and Wilbur sits at a table with glee to read about Yog-Sothoth and his role as gate-keeper to R'lyeh that will release the Great Old Ones from their watery prison.

Wilbur's investigations are interrupted by Armitage who demands the book back at first, and then is delighted to meet a decendant of the Wheatley family and asks him out for drinks so they can trade information. Wilbur asks to borrow the Necronomicon (the only one in existence) and Armitage refuses shaking hands and leaving. Using guile Wilbur tells Nancy he has missed his last bus back to Dunwich, tricking Nancy into driving him home.

On the way there she experiences discrimination towards Wilbur and grows more sympathetic to him. While showing her his house, he disables her car and drugs her tea to make her stay the weekend, and she decides to continue her stay in his mysterious home when her friend Elizabeth and Armitage come check up on her. They all meet Wilbur's crazy grandfather who is shocked to learn Wilbur is seeking the Necronomicon, and while staying there Nancy hears strange alien sounds coming from upstairs that Wilbur explains as the creaking of an old house from ocean winds.

Meanwhile, suspicious of the Wheatley family, Armitage discovers the Doctor responsible for delivering Wilbur, and after explaining about the Alien cult, Dr Cory professes that he didn't deliver Wilbur, it was Old Wheatley, and that Livinia gave birth to twins, one reputedly stillborn. She was damaged inside from the violent birth and later moved to Arkham Asylum.


Wilbur and Nancy spend the weekend getting to know each other, and he shows her around the town and the tour finally ends on Sentinel Hill, an old ancient altar of worship to the Old Ones. Knowing she is a virgin, Wilburs uses chants and hypnosis and rapes her, while she has crazy visions of cultists and otherworldly horrors.

Elizabeth comes back to The Wheatley House to check on Nancy, and rudely pushing past the grandfather, walks through the strange house of alien design, and entering the wrong room releases Wilbur's rumoured dead brother, who is a tentacled monstrosity. Elizabeth is quickly despatched with ravenous hunger, with Old Wheatley barely managing to trap it back in the room.

Wibur and Nancy return to the house, noticed Elizabeth's car. Old Wheatley reprimands Wilbur after he explains Nancy's friend 'went up those stairs!' and blames him for what is about to happen. Wibur is sickened by his Grandfather's weakness in letting the town get to him with shunning his cultish heritage, and trying to attack his grandson in a rage falls down the stairs and dies. Wilbur holds an unsanctioned funeral for him using the old rituals of Yog-Sothoth, and as Nancy looks on the paranoid townsfolk rock up to put a stop to the intended blasphemy burying a cultist in a Christian cemetery.

Armitage gets a phone call from Dr Cory explaining that Livinia is dying at the asylum. Meeting him there, they arrive just in time to see her pass on while muttering a strange chant that Armitage recognises from the Necromnicon and urges Dr Cory to drive back to the University with him post-haste.

Having enough of everyone's BS, Wilbur drives back to Miskatonic University with a spaced out Nancy, and in the act of stealing the Necronomicon kills a guard. He returns to Sentinel Hill with Nancy and the book and plans to sacrifice her to open the gate to release the Old Ones. Now under Wilbur's influence she begans to chant for Yog-Sothoth (Wilbur's real father) to come forth. The ritual also releases his more-alien brother from his bedroom prison killing some Christians (The Coles) that provoked Wilbur.

Wilbur declares to Nancy that she is now a Wheatley as a storm brews in the distance. Armitage discovers the dead guard and en-route to Dunwich the two men see the remains of The Coles and the growing mob mentality of the townsfolk. They arrive at the Wheatley House to find it burning down, and from across the river a gnarling alien sounds tearing towards Sentinel Hill. Armitage arrives near the end of the ritual and they initiate a magical duel, and first with Wilbur proving his dominance. Armitage repeats a chant to confuse Wilbur's mind, which causes him to be struck by lightning and fall off the cliff in a screaming ball of flame.

Nancy comes out of her magical reverie for Armitage to explain what is going on, and that the last of the Wheatleys is dead. The film ends with a shot of an alien baby growing inside Nancy at a rapid rate.

***

The best parts of these Lovecraft adaptations is the creepy New England Massachusetts setting made famous in his work. What I was also impressed with was the use of ritual in the film on Sentinel Hill, the director put a lot of effort to make them seem creepy, alien and authentic with regards to the Cthulhu Mythos. Roger Corman was a producer on the film, so I assume since he had a hand in adapting Poe and Lovecraft stories in the past he might have been responsible for it level of authenticity.

The acting was good for the most part, with Stockwell's Wilbur cold, charming yet sinister, and though the set decorations were sublime, the SFX of Wilbur's 'brother' left a lot to be desired, but it was the start of the 70s so these type of effects were still in their infancy, so therefore could be forgiven for they didn't really tarnish a great atmospheric film.

My Grade is B+

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