When I first saw that there was a Roger Corman movie that starred Sandra Dee, I knew I HAD to see it. Sadly, like most pairings that go against God’s will (Billy Joel & Christie Brinkley, Truman & Stalin, The Weinsteins & Disney), “The Dunwich Horror” just wasn’t meant to be. It is also another flick to add to the list of disappointing H.P. Lovecraft adaptations.
The movie begin with a long, slow shot across a room where we find two crazed looking old women, a crazed looking old man and a rather hot (both in looks & temperature) woman laying on a bed, apparently getting ready to give birth. Then, just as it looks like something is about to happen, we cut to the opening credits. You will find that this happens a lot in this movie. Not opening credits, but cutting away just as something interesting is going to happen. It was as if the director only had knowledge on how to build to a climax, but with no idea on how to pay it off.
We then find ourselves in a college looking at two cute, young co-eds, one of which is Sandra Dee…a few years past playing cute, young co-eds, but what the hell, she’s still adorable. Even more adorable is her little friend, but I digress. They are talking with a Professor played by Oscar winner Ed Begley, who either needed to pay off his boat or simply needed to eat that month. He gives Sandra an old book and tells her to put away the Necronomicon. Yeah, nothing bad could possibly happen here! As she places it in the glass case brilliantly secured by a latch (apparently the most rare and dangerous book in the collection has no needs of locks) we meet Dean Stockwell.
Now, I must say I dig Dean Stockwell. Among other roles, his Ben from “Blue Velvet” is one of the greatest characters in the history of cinema. However, if this had been the first time I’d seen him…not sure I would have ever checked out another movie he was in. First off, he looks like the kind of guy who could only have been found attractive in the ‘70s, with his John Holmes-ian perm & mustache. Second, at no point does he even approach showing anything that resembles an emotion. Seriously, saying his performance was one note would be assuming he used even that one note. There was a point near the end when it seemed like he was actually kicking things up a notch, but no, he simply raised his voice above a whisper briefly. And, while this isn’t Dean’s fault, I’m sorry but I just can’t look at a guy with a mixture of awe and terror when his name is Wilbur Whateley. So, of course, Sandra is instantly infatuated with him.
Wilbur (giggle) wants to look at the book. Professor Ed doesn’t want him to. Sandra wants him to. Sandra’s Friend wonders what her purpose in this movie is. Wilbur (snort) uses his powers of persuasion/charm/hypnotism to look at the book where he instantly starts reading the passages on how to bring about the return of “The Old Ones” ™. Professor Ed knows Wilbur’s family history, Wilbur knows of Mr. Ed’s (hee hee, “Wilbur & Mr. Ed”) writings on his family. All of this seemed to be of vital importance, especially relating to the opening scene…but I was having trouble building up a desire to care.
Wilbur talks Sandra into driving him home, where he proceeds to disable her car and spike her tea. Wow, wish I had learned earlier this was how to get chicks to sleep over! Anyway, she falls asleep in his guest room and proceeds to dream of weird looking people covered in rags & body paint having an orgy. While it was nowhere near as unappealing as the orgy scene form “Zabriskie Point,” it sure as hell did not cause me at any point want to join in. They chase her, she wakes up, blah blah blah. As with so much else in this flick, a lot occurs without anything really happening.
This movie fell into many of the traps of ‘70s cinema. Random and quick jump cuts that made me wish “Easy Rider” had never happened. Hazy looking dream sequences coupled with slightly fish-eyed lens that amazingly never look even remotely like any dream anyone has ever had. Then there is my least favorite effect in the movie. It really over-used the whole positive/negative-primary colors effect that was so en vogue in the ‘70s and is so blissfully dated now. It did nothing to add to the scenes, especially as it wasn’t always specifically from a characters point of view, and tended to only make it more difficult to see what was happening, not make things more terrifying. In fact, one scene of a house being attacked by the supposed Cuthulu creature was shot entirely this way and is also shown in the trailer without it, and was much more effective sans effects.
I will give the filmmakers some credit as they did try. It definitely falls into the category of horror movies where mood trumps shock and setting up the scene is not a lost art. The lighting was quite effective and added to the feel of the whole picture greatly. In fact, the cinematography on whole was much better than one would expect from a low budget horror flick. The interiors of Wilbur’s house were also great and would have fit in easily in a classic Hammer picture, even if they in no way matched the exteriors of the house.
They also were very aware of their technical limitations. Specifically when the Cuthulu demon-thingy comes out and attacks Sandra’s Friend, all shots are very quickly cut and we catch just glimpses of it, never fully seeing the entire creature. From what I saw of it, this was a very good idea as seeing it full on, it would have looked ridiculous. It was also interesting that it was able to remove all of Sandra’s Friend’s clothing, one piece at a time until she was totally naked (Ah, so THAT’S her purpose in the movie!) without once laying so much as a scratch on her (amazingly perfect) body, but apparently killing her all the same.
Now I must make mention of what (in many circles) this picture is most famous for, Sandra Dee getting naked. While having such a clean-cut, virginal heroine dropping her clothes predated Julie Andrew’s part in “S.O.B.” by a few years, if that is the only reason you are watching this, you’ll be disappointed. Not only could it easily have been a body double, what you see ain’t much. In fact, the only scene out of this sequence that raised my eyebrows was when Wilbur used her cooch as a bookstand for the Necronomicon. That area of a woman’s anatomy just doesn’t seem to fare well in Lovecraft movies (we love you, Barbara Crampton).
There are a couple of firsts in this movie that I found much more interesting. It was Talia Shire’s (credited as Talia Coppola) first feature and was also the first screenplay written by Curtis Hanson. We all have to start somewhere, people and both more than made up for this later on. It never ceases to amaze me how many greats got their start with Roger Corman.
The only extra (if you don’t include the “Fun Facts” on the back of the DVD box) is the trailer that, as usual, makes it look much better than it is.
All in all, I just can’t recommend this movie. Lovecraft completists should still check it out and folks who like seeing were people get their starts (or, in Ed Begley’s case, “end” as he passed away shortly after making it) might enjoy it, but people wanting to see a good horror movie…not so much.