Monday, October 03, 2005
The Dunwich Horror
One of HP Lovecraft’s greatest talents is in establishing a well worn creepy mood. He casts New England as a place of old secrets. Labyrinthine rows of cobblestone streets in Boston set in contrast to the wilder New England outskirts, grown untamed through years of isolation. His monsters are grotesque bordering on absurd, and the extent to which you find them scary depends entirely on how well the tone of the story has prepared you to accept them as scary and not as absurd. Set-up is crucial.
When the action first opens in the Dunwich Horror (produced by Roger Corman), we’re in an antiquated New England bedroom, scanning the faces of two nunnish old women, a lion’s maned man and a woman writhing in the throes of labor. On closer inspection, we see she has a large circular pattern tattooed on her forehead. The man, dreadfully anxious, kneels by the bed and helps his wife stand and begins to lead her out of the room: a potentially compelling series of shots. We could be on our way to setting up that eerie Lovecraft mood. It all depends on where these shots go next.
Unfortunately, they don’t go anywhere at all. We cut right to the credit sequence while El Beardo is in the middle of helping his wife stagger across the room. The title sequence is a neat blue/black animated bit, which, due largely to the synth brass funk music and the image of a giant gape-mouthed Satan dropping a human into his mouth like a grape (and then, due to a pause in the animation, remaining gape-mouthed for a comical amount of time), our memory of the opening shots is completely erased.
In a movie where your ultimate villain is a rubber ball of snakes with all the pizzazz of a green golf-club with a tooth sticking out of it, you’d better do everything you can to make us ready to buy your rubber nightmare when it finally does appear. Nary a moment should be wasted and this movie has already spun its wheels for five minutes.
Despite its glaring issues in pacing and suspense-building, Dunwich Horror’s problems have nothing to do with acting. As the lead villain, Wilbur Whateley, Dean Stockwell adopts a chilling matter-of-factness – we know why people find him uncomfortable to be around, but when the female lead, Nancy (Sandra Dee), finds him hypnotic and irresistible, it’s not out of the question.
There’s also some rather nifty camera work. The coolest shot of the movie comes near the end, as the being, Yoggsothoth, approaches. The coming presence is conveyed in one shot as a violent ripple crawling over the surface of a creek and the blowing about of bushes along the waterside.
Roger Corman movies tend to have a feeling of quality-on-the-cheap, and this movie is no exception. It’s a decent early showcase of Dean Stockwell’s talents, but scary, it is not.
Other things of note: (1) Among the various cool items decorating the Whateley household is a pair of what can best be described as giant crystal nose-tips, (2) Whateley’s mom, the woman from the opening sequence, reappears twice from her padded cell in a Miskatonic hospital. Some of the movie’s creepiest moments come here. (3) A cool shot of Whateley performing a burial rite, shot from inside the grave. (4) Hey, that’s Talia Shire! And that’s probably the first and last time I’ll ever feel the need to put an exclamation mark after that woman’s name.