The irony of adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s writings for film is that they’re by their very design unadaptable. No movie can match what our active imaginations can conjure, so the best we can hope for is something that hints at those realms of madness man dare not explore. The Dunwich Horror is on the right track, though. It’s an early example of Lovecraft on the big screen that insinuates an imminent, apocalyptic evil much better than those that preceded it. But the flick is still a frustratingly mixed bag, stepping forward with some mood-enhancing goodies before plot holes and hammy acting knock it a few steps back again.
The Necronomicon. Book of the dead, gateway to worlds beyond ours, everlasting pain in Bruce Campbell’s heinder. It’s also an object of morbid desire for one Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell). Fixated on possessing the supposedly mystical tome, Wilbur nevertheless fails to weasel it away from its current owner, Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley). Undettered, our unabashedly skeezy friend instead lures Armitage’s assistant (Sandra Dee) to his old homestead in Dunwich, where the locals regard him with about as much affection as torch-wielding mobs have for Frankenstein. It seems that Wilbur comes from a long line of meddlers in the dark arts, and as he places his fetching captive under a deep spell, he schemes to nab the Necronomicon and deliver unto earth the most unfathomable evils ever spawned.
The Dunwich Horror was part of American International’s experiment to bring some Lovecraft stories to life the same way Roger Corman did with Edgar Allan Poe’s work. They’re all similar in style and loose in loyalty to their source material, but the Lovecraft pictures just had a harder time coming together well. The Haunted Palace was damned good (even if oddly sold as a Poe movie), Die, Monster, Die! had a big green rock that turned Boris Karloff into Destro, and perched just about in the middle is The Dunwich Horror. On the one hand, you can really sense a sinister shift in tone from earlier Lovecraft adaptations. Following the ominous (and just damned cool) opening credits sequence, you can tell that there’ll be no guy in a dumb monster costume around to tarnish the dread-inducing atmosphere.
But if The Dunwich Horror is dead sure about the vibe it wants to give off, it’s twice as clueless about how to keep it going for more than a scene or two at a time. A lot of this has to do with Stockwell as Wilbur — between Begley not being around much and Dee busy writhing about in her skivvies, this is the guy you’re best buddies with for the bulk of the picture. Stockwell’s performance isn’t ineffective or awful in any way; it’s just that he belongs in another movie, one in which he’s not required to seduce doe-eyed girls while feeling moments away from wringing his hands in every single scene. It’s just one nit in a simmering brew of inconsistencies that includes Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s grandpa — who used to be in a cult but isn’t now, for whatever reason — and some thing locked in the Whateley estate that sure pounds on the door a lot for a creature that even the characters say doesn’t really exist in our world.
The Dunwich Horror has a few moments of choice, harpsichord-accompanied creepiness to its name. With its oppressive atmosphere and religious element, the film made a mature advance in the horror genre that The Exorcist and The Wicker Man would run with in a big way just a few years later. It’s no cheese log a la Lurking Fear, but with its pants-wetting visuals and its rib-tickling script, The Dunwich Horror is left looking like a monster all of its own.