Monday, October 08, 2007

The Dunwich Horror

(1970) **1/2

I've been thinking about H.P. Lovecraft's work and how it translates to the screen. The thing is, most of his characters are cyphers, their personalities being functions of the plot. Sometimes they're described in "having an affinity for the occult" mode, but usually they're described as upright, even-keeled people so it will be all the more shocking how far they unravel when faced with whatever unspeakable horrors await them. But you can't have movie characters like that, it's boring. So a good H.P. Lovecraft movie is going to have to fashion decently fleshed-out characters for itself, characters that work with his particular style and mood -- something he never bothered to do.

Or, as seems to keep happening instead, you can ignore his style and mood and just fashion the characters you want, as long as you maintain the same bits of info. Some of the ideas, the names, the beloved gobbledegook. My favorite part was right in the begining, when the vernerable professor hands Sandra Dee a big book and says "Here, Nancy, would you please take The Necronomicon back to the library?" If you don't know what I'm talking about, The Necronomicon is a fictional book in his literary universe that summons horrible beings. So it's kind of like handing the Death Star plans to Jar Jar Binks.

Anyway, I'm being overly harsh on The Dunwich Horror. It doesn't measure up to H.P.'s vision, and I'll be getting into all that, but it's good fun for a while. The story centers on Wilbur Whateley, the youngest in the sick and locally reviled Whateley clan. (Reviled in the town of Dunwich, of course.) Wilbur was born under mysterious circumstances, leaving his twin stillborn and his mother insane. I recall in the story that Wilbur is sort of a creepy, bookish hillbilly. The movie Wilbur, played by Dean Stockwell, is an oily but still compelling lothario with an unfortunate '70's configuration of hair.

One look into these peeps and he's got librarian Sandra Dee in his clutches; she drives him home and through a combo of chicanery and spooky hypno-charm she decides to stay the weekend. On the first night she has bizarre dreams implying weird pagan orgies, and I heave another sigh. H.P. just didn't do lame old Satanists or druids or whatever. His cabals were downright unearthly. Here's my very favorite sentence of his, from The Call of Cthulhu, describing the sounds heard by the New Orleans police as they crept up on a mysterious rite deep in the bayou:

"Animal fury and orgiastic license here whipped themselves to demonaic heights by howls and squawking ecstasies that tore and reverberated through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of Hell."

Can you see how I'd be disappointed if those actions were meant to be carried out by these clowns?

All of this is pointing to ritual sacrifice and the Old Ones or Other Gods bursting through to our world. Same plot as Hellboy, too, if you saw that. That's Lovecraft's whole deal, that outside our tiny universe lurk massive entities that would melt our minds to see, who don't give a rat's ass that we even exist. Great stuff, and it's easy to see why people keep going for it. The Dunwich horror is the mother of all family-monster-in-the-attic stories, as it happens that Wilbur's twin is not dead, and isn't even remotely human. In the story it's an invisible, giant, multilegged worm beast with countless eyes and tentacles, in the movie it's this thing.

Yes, those are toy rubber snakes around the rim, there. The word "disappointing" doesn't quite cover it, does it? The Horror's few onscreen appearances are accompanied by heavy color-distortions so as to hide its true nature. If you look closely through the first attack you'll notice in all the frenzy that it manages to remove the hapless girl-victim's clothes first.

Two other details I must point out: First of all there's Pops here, who I dig because never goes anywhere without his magical Outer Gods staff. Walking around the house, doing yardwork, he's always got it.

Second of all, I'm noticing that a lot of these '70's movies seem to want us to like the bad guys, at least a little bit. Wilbur Whateley is a troubled outsider, the evil doctor in Sssssss has his high-minded ecological concerns, and the patriarch grandfather from Frogs, willing to risk his descedants' lives so that his birthday party will proceed as normal -- even he gets a little understanding. What gives?

By the end of this flick I was kind of hating it, not for these goofy shortcomings but because Wilbur's smooth monotone started to seriously grate on me during the final ritual scene. For an eighty-ish minute movie it seemed like about 105.

See also I'mnotMarc's review from 2005. We both gave it the same rating. Or you can just say I copied him, I don't care.


DCD said...

I don't think that I have actually read any HP.

What do you guys think have been the best translations from books to movies in the horror genre? Have any of them really knocked it out of the park?

AC said...

The Shining?

Johnny Sweatpants said...

Octo, you should check out Lemora: A Child's Guide to the Supernatural. Allegedly it was heavily influenced by Lovekraft. And it's also fantastic!

Love the pic of the old guy and his staff!

Jordan said...

"Faithful" good adaptations:

Rosemary's Baby (nearly identical to the book)

The Dead Zone (ibid.)

"Unfaithful" good adaptations:

The Shining