DVD Review: The Dunwich Horror

In some ways, this is a rather silly film as well as a loose adaptation of the original short story, but I can’t be too hard on it. It was, after all, my childhood introduction to the works of H.P. Lovecraft; if I hadn’t watched this movie and noted that it had some unusual elements that I hadn’t seen in other horror movies, and then seen the same title on the spine of a library book a few years later, who knows where I’d be today?

This was on television more than once in the early ’70s, and for years I was under the impression that it was one of those scary made-for-TV movies that aired during that time period and traumatized so many of my generation with images of little goblins dragging Kim Darby into the chimney or a Zuni fetish doll chasing Karen Black. Now that I see it on DVD, I realize that it was an AIP theatrical release. It’s actually one of the early examples of sexed-up Lovecraft–see also Dagon and From Beyond. The bowdlerized version I grew up with didn’t have visions of naked orgies, nor did the tentacled horror locked up on the top floor strip the clothes off one of its victims.

Wilbur Whately's idea of a dateWhat we did see, even on ’70s television, was that Wilbur Whately gets a girlfriend so he can try to repeat his mother’s experience with human / Old One hybrids.

This version of The Dunwich Horror begins with a prologue at the Whately house, which is much larger, fancier, and in better condition than the dilapidated farmhouse of Lovecraft’s story. When we get a better look around the place later on, we can observe that the interior has the same sort of decayed opulence as the Usher house… and will meet with a similar fate.

Old Man Whately (Sam Jaffe), who bears a staff with a Thunderbird-looking symbol atop it, stands with two albino women at the bedside of his heavily pregnant daughter Lavinia, who is not an albino. Lavinia writhes and moans to indicate the pains of labor–but after binge-watching all 5 series of Call the Midwife, I find it a tad unconvincing. Her father helps her up off the bed.

Cut to the animated credits, which impressed me very powerfully in childhood. A couple of robed figures in silhouette make a perilous journey through an ever-shifting landscape of trees and towers and jagged rocks.

Giant in the opening creditsAt one point, the hill they’re climbing up becomes a giant demon who devours them–but then the giant’s hand morphs into a snake’s head and the travelers emerge on its forked tongue, so no harm done. Eventually, they reach their destination, a large stone table, and one of the pair, who turns out to be a woman, lies down and gives birth.

It only now occurs to me that this is a symbolic representation of the Whatelys’ journey to the old stone temple where Wilbur was born. At least, I assume it’s symbolic and not what the Massachusetts coastline is actually like.

It’s at the University of Arkham, not good old Miskatonic U, that we meet visiting lecturer Doctor Armitage (Ed Begely) and two young women who seem to be his student assistants, Elizabeth and our heroine, Nancy (Sandra Dee, who really wanted to break away from her Gidget image). The Necronomicon features in Armitage’s lectures and, now that his last class for the week is done, he hands the large tome over to Nancy. She and Elizabeth take the Necronomicon back to the library and place it in a carefully labelled glass display case.

Wilbur (Dean Stockwell) has been lurking since Armitage finished his lecture, staring at the Necronomicon like a hungry wolf, but it’s now that he makes his move. He asks Nancy if he can have a look at that book.

Viewers familiar with the Lovecraft story will note that this Wilbur Whately is not 8 fThe Necronomiconeet tall nor particularly goatish in appearance, nor does he have a deeply rumbling voice that suggests unusual internal organs to produce speech. A little later, we’ll also learn that the birth scene we witnessed at the beginning was 25 years ago, so Wilbur isn’t an overgrown and prematurely developed boy of 15. He’s a bit creepy, but more in the line of a Jeb Hawkes sulky hippy type than a half-otherworldly being.

Nancy is at first inclined to refuse the request, but Wilbur stares at her hypnotically and puts the first, but far from last, of his spells on her. She hands over the book.

Wilbur is just beginning to dig into a crucial section of text about opening up the gateway for the Old Ones–“Yog Sothoth is the key”–when Dr. Armitage shows up and takes the book back.

In this version of the story, the Necronomicon is even more rare than it usually is in Lovecraft’s tales. This is the only surviving copy. There was another, Wilbur says, that belonged to his great-grandfather Oliver. Dr. Armitage isn’t hostile or wary toward Wilbur even after he hears this. He’s delighted to meet a Whately; he’s written a paper about Great-Grandpa. Wilbur’s familiar with Armitage’s work too, but he’s still not borrowing the Necronomicon.

The four of them–Dr. Armitage, Wilbur, Nancy, and Elizabeth–go out to dinner together that evening. The doctor doesn’t really believe in the occult practices he’s an expert in, and he’s disturbed when he learns that Wilbur regards it as his own religion and views the Necronomicon as a sort of Bible.

Wilbur misses his bus back to Dunwich, which we’re told is about 40 miles away, and Nancy offers to drive him home.

When they get to the house late that night, Wilbur invites her in for a cup of tea. As he passes through the living room, he taps a little green glass sculpture on the coffee table that seems to possess magical properties connected with Whatever’s in the locked room up in the attic. It also gives Nancy her first fleeting visions of that half-naked orgy I mentioned above.

After putting the kettle on in the kitchen, Wilbur slips out the back way to disable Nancy’s car, then puts something into her tea. (I’m delighted to see that the Whatelys’ teacups are the same Pink Willow china pattern that I have.)

Since Nancy can’t get her car started and is too drowsy to drive anyway, Wilbur offers her his mother’s old bedroom for the night and a black nightgown that looks a lot like the one Mom was wearing when she gave birth to him. Which gives you the first hints of what he has planned for her.

That night, she has a vivid dream about the hippy orgy–so vivid that when the participants chase her, she wakes as she runs out of the bedroom and into the hall.

The next day, Nancy and Wilbur have a picnic and go into town. Dunwich seems a little more upscale than the decayed village of Lovecraft’s tale. In addition to the general store where the local farmers hang out, there’s an active newspaper, a Greyhound bus station, an art gallery, and a shop named “Fancy” something, which could be anything from a cutesy cafe to a hairdressing salon to an antique shop. Unlike Lovecraft’s Dunwich, this place is near the coast so it probably gets its share of tourists.

Wilbur takes Nancy around and shows her the sights, including what used to be the old town square where his great-grandfather was hung–and left to hang until they finally burned the tree down–for being a warlock and for the disappearance of a local girl. He explains to her about his ancestor’s belief in “Another race of beings from a different dimension. An earlier race, superior to Man. And he believed that they could be brought back.”

The most impressive place on the tour, however, has to be the Devil’s Hopyard, an incredibly ancient stone temple on the cliffs’ edge overlooking the bay.

The Devil's Hopyard

The two had talked about sex earlier in the day; Nancy said that she’s thinks it’s great, under the right circumstances. When she climbs up on the sacrificial slab at the Hopyard, however, she admits to Wilbur that her ideas about sex have been, up until now, entirely theoretical. As it turns out, the right circumstances wind up being on this cold slab of stone with a big book on her chest, with a guy who natters on about ancient fertility rights and appears to be tattooed with Egyptian-style hieroglyphs everywhere that’s normally covered by clothing.

There’s some question about how much of what happens up at the Hopyard is fantasy. When she and Wilbur go up to the ancient stone temple, Nancy is wearing a light brown coat, a turtleneck sweater, and a skirt; when the sex scene gets started, she’s wearing a low-cut black gown that’s open down the sides, like the sort of thing that Bob Mackie used to design for Cher. Did Wilbur bring this along with them as well as Great-Grandpa’s tattered and incomplete version of the Necronomicon in anticipation of the event? Also, the couple are suddenly surrounded by people who appear to be cultists. These aren’t the wild-haired, naked people of Nancy’s visions–or, if they are, they’re more somberly dressed now in long black robes with hoods that cover their faces and only a triangular portion of their chests exposed. Plus the whole sequence is filmed through a textured cloth that makes it hard to get decent images.

Black-robed cultistsThese black-robed cultists remind me again of the Leviathan storyline from Dark Shadows. I wouldn’t have called that Lovecraftian, and perhaps it isn’t in the purest sense, but it does have some marked similarities with this film version of The Dunwich Horror. There’s a stone temple at which a young woman is intended for sacrifice to become the mate of a human-looking monster. The Leviathans also consult a large and ancient book of forbidden lore.

Another question that arises is how much of what happens to Nancy is something she’s agreeing to. We see so little of what our heroine was like before Wilbur approached her, it’s hard to judge. I don’t know whether the problem lies in the limitations of Sandra Dee’s acting, or the limitations of the part as written, or what.

Whatever Wilbur put into her tea last night makes her sleepy, and he slips her another dose during their picnic. She becomes more zoned out as the story progresses, but at this point she holds coherent conversations with Wilbur and she’s aware of what they’ve come up to the Hopyard for, as far as the sex part of it goes. I don’t think that she really believes in the Old Ones any more than Dr. Armitage does.  At the very least, whatever power Wilbur has over her makes her entirely suggestible. When Wilbur asks her to stay the weekend, she says she’d like to, but she can’t. When we see her next, she tells her worried friends who’ve come looking for her that she’s fine, she’s staying with Wilbur. ‘Bye.

But Nancy’s friends don’t leave. Instead, Dr. Armitage and Elizabeth go into Dunwich to ask some of the locals about the Whately family. We meet Dr. Cory (Lloyd Bochner, who was also in Crowhaven Farm as the smarmy guy who kept hitting on Hope Lange); he tells Armitage what he knows about the circumstances of Wilbur’s parentage and birth, in sepia-toned flashbacks.

No one knows who Wilbur’s father was, but Cory recalls the day that Old Man Whately came into town and announced to a jeering group of local folk that his daughter was having a baby. Old Whately’s speech is taken almost directly from Lovecraft:

“I dun’t keer what folks think—ef Lavinny’s boy looked like his pa, he wouldn’t look like nothin’ ye expeck. Ye needn’t think the only folks is the folks hereabaouts. Lavinny’s read some, an’ has seed some things the most o’ ye only tell abaout…. Someday yew folks’ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!”

Dr. Cory admits to Armitage that he didn’t actually deliver Wilbur. He was brought to the house after the baby was born, and was told that there’d been a twin who died at birth although he never saw that child. Lavinia had obviously been out in the rain before he examined her and was so “torn up inside” that she nearly died. Cory patched her up physically, but her mind was so disturbed by the experience that she’s been in the nearby asylum since.

The two doctors go to visit Lavinia in her padded cell, and listen to her ranting as she calls out “My sons! Tear it down! Kill them all!” and such like, though they don’t yet understand what she means by it.

Lavinia gives birth

Elizabeth, meanwhile, chats with Cory’s nurse/receptionist, who has known Wilbur from childhood. She tells Elizabeth that Wilbur was always creepy and that the Whately house is reputed to be haunted. Even now, the Dunwichers think that there’s someone else living there besides Wilbur and his grandfather. The nurse is surprised to hear that Wilbur has a girlfriend and advises Elizabeth to get her friend out of there.

Spurred by what the nurse has told her, Elizabeth heads back to the house by herself. Nancy isn’t there–she and Wilbur are up at the Devil’s Hopyard–but their activities have agitated the Horror behind the locked door upstairs and it starts rattling the knob frantically. Elizabeth hears this and gets the idea that it’s her friend. Ignoring Old Man Whately’s warnings, she heads up to the top floor and opens the door. This turns out to be a very bad idea.

When I used to watch this movie on TV as a child, this scene ended in a flash of psychedelically colored tentacles and Elizabeth screaming. In the uncut film, it goes on for a considerable time as the whipping tentacles strip her.  The Horror will attack several other people, both women and men, when it goes on its rampage near the end of the movie but everyone else it kills gets to keep their clothes on. I assume that it got worked up over Wilbur having sex with Nancy, and so rapes Elizabeth–and then murders her, since we don’t see her again after this.

The Whately HouseWhen Wilbur and Nancy return to the house, Old Man Whately tells them about Nancy’s friend going upstairs. This is where Nancy begins to seem out of it. “Where’s Elizabeth?” she asks Wilbur, and doesn’t sound very upset at what might have happened.

Since Nancy first arrived, Wilbur’s grandfather has been opposed to Wilbur trying to repeat the family’s human/Old One breeding experiment; the Dunwich girl his father Oliver tried it with died, and his own effort left Lavinia insane. Wilbur insists that he has the right girl this time and he’ll make it work.

As the two argue, Old Whately tumbles down the stairs and ends up dead. In a little touch taken from the original story, one of the things that intrigued me in childhood, the frantic chirps of whippoorwills accompany the old man’s last breaths. When the birds fall silent, Wilbur explains that they didn’t get his soul. Nancy seems more curious about the birds than Old Whately’s lying dead on the Thunderbird-patterned floor.

Wilbur tries to bury his grandfather at the town cemetery and performs his own funeral rites. There’s some nice ritualistic business with a knife over the grave. The townsfolk interrupt the funeral and tell Wilbur they don’t want one of the Whatelys buried near their own families, which tends to put me out of sympathy with them. The dead old man isn’t the Whately they need to worry about.

Wilbur storms off, leaving Grandpa unburied. He’s got more important matters to attend to.

He and Nancy drive back to the university in Arkham that evening and he leaves her sitting in the car while he pops into the closed library. She’s really gone at this point.

For a moment, the plot resembles that of Lovecraft’s story as Wilbur attempts to steal the Necronomicon. Unlike Lovecraft’s Wilbur, however, this film’s version is successful. No dog is there to tear him up; instead, the security guard who discovers Wilbur is killed during a struggle when he tries to prevent the theft of the book.

Dr. Armitage hears about the library break-in. He and Dr. Cory visit Lavinia a second time as she is dying. As with her father, the whippoorwills see Lavinia out of life, and their excited chirps indicate that this time they caught the soul they were after. Armitage finally puts everything together and realizes what Wilbur intends to do with the stolen Necronomicon. The two doctors hasten back to Dunwich.

Wilbur and Nancy are back up at the Devil’s Hopyard, enacting a second ritual.

I have to give Dean Stockwell points for making the rites he performs look convincing. As at Old Man Whately’s funeral, he employs certain elaborate motions with a knife and goblet. He also uses some interesting gestures, especially that most memorable one where he places his hands on either side of his head so that the rings on his pinkies line up with his eyes; I’ve only learned recently that this is copied from real-life occultist Aleister Crowley.

Wilbur's chestWilbur calls upon his “brother in Darkness” to come and join them. Back at the Whately house, that glass sculpture in the living room falls off its table and sets the place on fire. The thing in the locked room is now free and heads down the flaming stairs and out of the house.

Wilbur then calls for Yog Sothoth, and Nancy calls out that same name. Wilbur tells her that she’s “one of us now” and it won’t be long. They wait.

But the Horror is in no hurry to get to the Hopyard for this family reunion. It first flattens a farmhouse and kills the inhabitants, then wanders around the countryside for a while. I suppose that after being shut up in its room for so long, it welcomes this chance to stretch its tentacles.

Some nice, simple effects are used here. We haven’t gotten more than quick, almost subliminal glimpses of the Horror yet (fortunately), but we do see wind rippling over the surface of a pond, bending rushes, stirring the leaves on the trees as it passes. Occasionally, there are flashes of color-tinted negative images as if we’re seeing the world through the Horror’s eyes.

The Horror’s wandering gives Armitage and Cory time to assemble the angry Dunwichers, who are certain that Wilbur’s responsible for the farm’s destruction and the gruesome deaths of their neighbors. The two doctors redirect them with surprising ease, convincing them that Wilbur is the only person who can put a stop to this rampaging monster.

A few more townsfolk, including Dr. Cory’s nurse, are killed before the Horror finally makes its way up to the Devil’s Hopyard, where Wilbur’s been waiting and chanting for some time. I think Nancy’s taking a nap.

Armitage arrives just then too, and he engages with Wilbur in a shouted duel of incantations. Ed Begley is less convincing in this scene than Stockwell; if I’m being generous, I can attribute this to the character’s not believing that all this occult stuff was real until a couple of hours ago and he never thought he’d have to put his knowledge of it to practical use. His magic phrase–“kadimah”–is spoken tentThe Dunwich Horroratively.

Wilbur looks smug as he answers it with magic words of his own. He believes he’s won the fight and turns his attention back to Nancy.

Then Armitage hits him with one last unexpected phrase–it sounds like “Yog Namor!” Wilbur is struck by lightning, bursts into flame, and falls off the cliff into the sea.

The Horror finally makes an appearance, and I wish it hadn’t. I can be indulgent with a lot of what goes on in this movie, but this is the silliest thing in it. Even in magenta tints, we’re given too good a look at the tentacle-covered face that hovers over Nancy on the stone altar before it too is destroyed.

Is that Dean Stockwell’s face under that mask?

Nancy awakes and sits up. She says “No, oh no,” in rather flat tones, as if everything that’s happened to her over this bizarre weekend has been no more than a mild disappointment.

Armitage explains that the Horror was Wilbur’s twin brother–and as for their father? “Not of this Earth.”

He doesn’t name Yog Sothoth as Daddy.  In fact, within the context of the movie and the way they use the name, I’m not sure if Yog Sothoth is supposed to be one of the Old Ones and the otherworldly father of Lavinia’s sons. It may just be one of the more powerful magic phrases.

Armitage tells Nancy that the last the Whatelys is dead.Nancy's baby

The end… or is it?

As Armitage and Cory help Nancy down the stairs from the stone temple, the camera focuses on her abdomen and superimposes an image of a fetus–a non-tentacle-headed fetus–to let us know that one last Whately is on the way. And, now that she’s on her own, is Nancy free of the spell, or is she still “one of us,” as Wilbur claimed?

About Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats. As well as being the author of numerous short stories, novellas, and essays, she is the author of “Maiden in Light,” “The Wizard’s Son,” and “Sonnedragon,” novels set on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period. All three are part of an intended series of fantasy novels that mostly take place in a dukedom called the Northlands, a part of the Norman Empire that roughly covers the north-eastern U.S.

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