• Director: Daniel Haller
  • Writers: Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, and Ronald Silkosky, based on the novella by H.P. Lovecraft
  • Starring: Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Sam Jaffe, and Talia Shire
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Paramount Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video

The actor Dean Stockwell was a fixture of my childhood because of his role as Al on Quantum Leap. Al is a hologram from the future who appears to time traveler Sam Beckett (played by Scott Bakula) to help him out with his various problems. My mother had tapes of most of the episodes of Quantum Leap off of the television, and I ended up watching most of them, making the show one of the first semi-grown-up tv series I watched as a kid. What I did not know as a kid was that Stockwell, the child of two actors, had been in the business since he was a kid himself, starting with small roles in several prominent 1940s Hollywood movies like Anchors Aweigh and Gentlemen’s Agreement. He went to high school and college, then briefly resumed his career before “dropping out” and living on a California commune with, among others, rock star Neil Young. Stockwell returned to prominence in the 1980s with acclaimed roles in movies including Paris, Texas, Blue Velvet, and Married to the Mob, for the last of which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Shortly thereafter Stockwell took the role on Quantum Leap, and continued to work into the 2000s, appearing in many movies along with recurring roles on JAG and Battlestar Galactica. Stockwell retired from acting in 2015 following a stroke, and died of natural causes this past week at his home in New Mexico, at the age of 85.

I considered featuring one of Stockwell’s several more critically-acclaimed movie roles, but in the end settled on The Dunwich Horror, mostly because I felt like watching it. Stockwell appears as the villain Wilbur Whateley, in one his first performances after leaving the commune. The movie is an on-the-cheap adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft novella, yet is very much of its time and place. It is produced by the schlock king Roger Corman, who moved into Lovecraft after having success adapting many of the horror stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Sandra Dee, making a futile attempt to reinvent herself after her engenue roles dried up, plays Nancy, a coed at Arkham College who finds herself drawn in by the very weird Wilbur, and ends up drugged and on a slab, apparently ready to be sacrificed to let the Old Ones back into the world.

Lovecraft who primarily wrote in the very early years of the 20th Century, was very little known in his day, but his work has gained ever-increasing prominence and influence over the decades. His style is sometimes referred to as “Cosmic Horror,” and is full of protagonists being driven to madness by vast forces beyond their understanding. He is best known for his “Cthulhu Mythos,” of which “The Dunwich Horror” is part, which involves brushes by various humans with ancient, evil, god-like beings from another dimension, often set in a fictionalized version of New England (Lovecraft himself spend most of his life in Providence, Rhode Island). This mostly does not turn out well for those humans. I am a big fan of Lovecraft’s work, even though the man himself was a bit of a crazy racist (his view of the world as being taken over by “mongrelized lower races” contributed to his themes about a world descending into madness).

Despite Lovecraft’s increasing popularity, movies based on his work have never really taken off. A Wikipedia page attempting to list them thinks that there have been 26 attempted films based on Lovecraft over the decades (that the first was not until 1963 shows how his work has gained in prominence over time), but the only one of these that would be thought of as anything approaching a classic is 1985’s Re-Animator, which is more known for its gross special effects than anything else. That list of 26 movies also includes more recent efforts like 2019’s The Colour Out of Space, starring Nicolas Cage, which I actually quite liked, and 2020’s Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart, which I knew was about a drilling team somehow unleashing monsters at the bottom of the ocean, but I didn’t realize that those monsters were… literally Cthulhu? I may have to watch that now. Anyway, there are likely several reasons why Lovecraft movies have not really caught on at the box office, unlike many other famous Horror writers. For one thing, they are all about the “sense of dread,” far more so, say, than things happening in the plot. Relatively few of them end with, you know, the monster being defeated because the protagonist did something heroic. 

The Dunwich Horror was actually the second Lovecraft-based collaboration between producer Corman and director Daniel Haller, who had previously worked together on Die, Monster, Die! Despite the title, that movie was actually a very loose adaptation of “The Colour Out of Space.” I would say that if someone is going to like The Dunwich Horror, it is because they are the sort of person who would like Lovecraft anyway. Unlike many of the other attempts at Lovecraft adaptations, this one doesn’t take too many liberties with the source material. Given almost no money, it actually isn’t a bad take on this.

But if you’re not someone who would probably like this anyway, boy, I’m not sure there’s much to grab onto. Stockwell gives a deeply weird performance, and I buy that a random girl would fall under his spell, but it’s a very weird thing to anchor a movie around. Dee gets almost nothing to do except writhe around and moan. Word has it that the producers thought she was agreeing to get naked in the final sacrifice sequence when she signed on, but in fact she refused to do so, and the brief nudity included in the movie is a body double. There are long sections of the running time devoted to weird, psychedelic sequences that feel like drug trips. Lovecraft’s “mongrel races” are, for all intents and purposes, replaced by some dirty hippies having one of the least inviting orgies of cinema. Ed Begley, Sr., a former Oscar winner for 12 Angry Men, plays a college professor who trundles around Massachusetts aimlessly and then rescues Nancy at the end. What he does to rescue her I remain unclear on. Sam Jaffe (who was so good in The Asphalt Jungle) shows up briefly as Wilbur’s crazy old father, and for some reason his voice is dubbed by someone who is going even weirder. Talia Shire, so early in her career here she’s still going by “Talia Coppola,” also shows up in a bit part as a nurse, who is eventually forced to crash her car by an Old One standing in the middle of the road.

For those unfamiliar with the story, that is the big secret at the center of all of this, that Wilbur’s twin, supposedly stillborn, actually lived and  “takes after his father,” i.e. he’s an evil monster from another dimension, who Jaffe’s character keeps locked in a room upstairs at the creepy mansion.. You should know going in that this monster is pretty much never seen on screen. There is one scene where Nancy’s friend Lavinia (Joanne Moore Jordan) wanders into the monster’s room and… screams her lungs out for the next minute or so while crazy, psychedelic flashes happen on screen. For the rest of the movie, the monster is portrayed as sort of an evil wind, breathing, groaning, playing over a field or a stream. When people get killed by it, we only see them from the point of view of the monster, not the other way around.

If this last sounds like a criticism, it isn’t meant as one. The monster here is way more creepy and effective than it has any right whatsoever to be under the circumstances. The effect of the wind playing over water while weird noises happen on the soundtrack works surprisingly well. The movie itself is really almost exactly what I expected, given the billing of “an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation produced by Roger Corman.” It is also helped out by Dean Stockwell’s attempts to give an actual performance. I have never seen him phone anything in, so to speak. Dean Stockwell will be missed, but the good news is that there is there is still plenty of his work left out there to explore.

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