The Dunwich Horror
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Although he penned soul-scarring stories of the macabre, no soul was more timorous than H. P. Lovecraft. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890, and raised by his mother after his father's death from the effects of syphilis. A sickly child who rarely attended school, Lovecraft was an autodidact whose studies of chemistry and astronomy were augmented by Gothic tales related by his grandfather. Thwarted in his goal to become a professional astronomer, Lovecraft backed into a life of letters when Weird Tales began accepting his short stories in 1923. The 17,500-word The Dunwich Horror was written in 1928, after the author had spent several desultory years in New York unable to find work.
Devastated by the loss of his mother in 1921, Lovecraft had married tradeswoman Sonia Greene but the failure of both her business and her health drove the couple into debt. Lovecraft returned to Providence without his wife and seems to have written The Dunwich Horror as a way to reassert his love for the mysteries of New England. The tale was inspired by various long-standing local myths he had heard as a guest of Evanore Beebe, who lighted her North Wilbraham, Massachusetts, home with lard burning lamps. Weird Tales paid Lovecraft the then-princely sum of $240 for the story, publishing it in 1929. Astonishingly prolific (his body of work was wide-ranging and included treatises on politics and art criticism) but never well paid, H. P. Lovecraft died in poverty from intestinal cancer in 1937, never imagining the influence his writing would exert on generations to come.
American International Pictures had wanted to mount a film adaptation of The Dunwich Horror as early as 1964, at which time their release schedule trumpeted an impending production to star Boris Karloff. The aging horror king had already appeared for AIP in the tongue-in-cheek The Raven (1963) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964), and would go on to headline Die, Monster, Die! (1965), Daniel Haller's adaptation of Lovecraft's 1927 story The Colour Out of Space, shot in the United Kingdom.
Half a decade would pass (and Karloff would die) before producers Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson got their production of Dunwich (as the property was called through February of 1970) off the ground. AIP's January 1969 release schedule boasted the casting of Peter Fonda (fresh from the success of Corman's The Wild Angels, 1966) and Diane Varsi, a sensitive ingénue who had been blacklisted by the big studios for walking out on her Fox contract and who could find film work only with AIP.
By August of that year, the casting had undergone significant changes. Announced in place of Fonda (who made Easy Rider  instead) was Brandon De Wilde, child star of George Stevens' Shane (1953), then in his late 20s. When the production went before the cameras at the end of the year, it was Diane Varsi's Compulsion (1959) costar Dean Stockwell in the lead role, while Varsi herself was out and former teen queen Sandra Dee appearing in her place. (Varsi turned up instead in a supporting role in Corman's Bloody Mama  and De Wilde went to Europe to make the spaghetti Western The Deserter .) Also out of the picture was Hollywood veteran Ralph Bellamy, replaced at the last minute by another Hollywood veteran, Oscar®-winner Ed Begley.
The early casting of Bellamy was clearly inspired by the actor's appearance as an avuncular Satanist in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). Directed by Daniel Haller, from a script credited to fledgling screenwriters Henry Rosenbaum, Ronald Silkosky and Curtis Hanson (two decades before LA Confidential, 1997) but to which AIP veterans Ray Russell and Charles Beaumont (authors of the script for Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace , an adaptation of Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) also made unrecorded contributions, The Dunwich Horror was heavily influenced by the Polanski film and Ira Levin's source novel. Whereas Lovecraft's original is a classic monster-on-the-loose tale, the film rescues the character of Wilbur Whateley from an as-written early death so that he can play matchmaker for Dee's comely (and presumably fecund) coed and a formless Ancient One to beget a monstrous new race. (During postproduction, Dee did find herself pregnant but sadly miscarried shortly thereafter.) The result is a respectful attempt that fails for the same reason most Lovecraft adaptations do; it is unable to make literal that which Lovecraft left to the imagination.
Quarreling with his director, Stockwell (a self-professed Lovecraft fan) adapted a winking attitude toward the material, playing Wilbur Whateley with tongue planted firmly in cheek... and the approach serves the film surprisingly well. With the book's peregrinating horror reduced to some disappointing optical effects, Stockwell's hippie adept is the show and his outré performance (rivaling for sheer weirdness his celebrated comeback in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, 1986) puts The Dunwich Horror across as (to quote The Oregonian) "a pretty good bad movie."
Producers: Jack Bohrer, Roger Corman
Director: Daniel Haller
Screenplay: Curtis Lee Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, Ronald Silkosky; H.P. Lovecraft
Cinematography: Richard C. Glouner
Art Direction: Paul Sylos
Music: Les Baxter
Film Editing: Christopher Holmes
Cast: Sandra Dee (Nancy Wagner), Dean Stockwell (Wilbur Whateley), Ed Begley (Dr. Henry Armitage), Lloyd Bochner (Dr. Cory), Sam Jaffe (Old Whateley), Joanna Moore Jordan (Lavinia Whateley), Donna Baccala (Elizabeth Hamilton), Talia Coppola (nurse Cora), Mike Fox (Dr. Raskin), Jason Wingreen (Sheriff Harrison), Barboura Morris (Mrs. Cole), Beach Dickerson (Mr. Cole), Michael Haynes (guard), Toby Russ (librarian), Jack Pierce (Reeger).
by Richard Harland Smith
Lovecraft: A Biography by L. Sprague de Camp
The Complete H.P. Lovecraft Filmography by Charles P. Mitchell
Interview with Dean Stockwell by Craig Edwards, Psychotronic Video issue 21, 1995
Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee by Dodd Darin and Maxine Paetro
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz