Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

The Dunwich Horror is another movie adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story (this time one with the same title). The original story, boiled down to its most basic form, is a tale of the antichrist trying to open a gateway and summon hell on earth. But this is not your typical tale of Satanism - we're dealing with H.P. Lovecraft here. It's not the Christian devil, but Yog-Sothoth, whose minions are other-dimensional creatures of imperceptible horror. The movie takes a few liberties with the story - largely in creating a female protagonist (Sandra Dee), and extending the male antagonist's life, since imperceptible horror has trouble carrying a film.

That antagonist, one Wilbur Whateley - descendant of dubious birth origin of a family with long ties to the occult, in the superstitious town of Dunwich - is played magnificently by Dean Stockwell, who is mesmerizing as an eccentric with a haunting charm. The Necronomicon - one of Lovecraft's enduring contributions to pop horror culture - makes an appearance in this story (and I don't doubt that Sam Raimi must have taken some inspiration from this movie). Also there is a pretty exciting demonic ritual, that is probably the best one I've seen since Rosemary's Baby.

As for the alleged scene of "tentacle rape": it's not quite what you'd expect if you've watched a lot of hentai, but it's still a very startling scene. It is the first in which we get a "look" at the rampaging colossus that stars in the second half of the story. Some of the effects are a bit dated, but the overall impression is very effective, and is so far the best film representation of the sort of cosmic horror - that even a glimpse of will drive a human insane - that is characteristic of Lovecraft's style.

It is unfortunate, then, that it has a hard time carrying the film, especially when it's wandering about, and you can't tell if it's supposed to be invisible (as it was in the written story), or if the camera is just being coy to maintain the mystery. The whole end of the film kind of struggles - the final ritual drags on a bit, and the conclusion doesn't offer much in the way of explanation, and the big reveal is maybe not as exciting as one would hope for (again with the mystery and the imperceptible horror).

Still, the film constructs an unsettling atmosphere, and even though not a strictly literal interpretation of the source material, does justice (I think) to the original story. Dean Stockwell is unmissable in one of the lead roles, and the cosmic horror is worth the price of admission alone. It's not a flawless film, nor a flawless adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft, but I would rate it one of the better ones I've seen so far.

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