THE DUNWICH HORROR
If you, Dear Reader, are like me, you're still waiting for a true - and truly great - Lovecraft adaptation to be made. Lovecraft's writings are notoriously difficult to adapt to the visual medium. They are verbose and grandiose in their descriptions but generally devoid of anything we would normally refer to as "action". They are usually light on character, but heavy on exposition. This has led to what I call "fill in the blanks" style adaptations of his work, scripts that take certain plot elements, locations and characters and then construct around them formulaic genre stories. Because there is so little plot in many of Lovecraft's stories, we often end up with adaptations that feel as though they were "suggested" by a Lovecraft tale instead of "adapted from" it.
THE DUNWICH HORROR is one of my favorite Lovecraft tales and one that is uniquely suited for adaptation to film. It has everything you would want from a fantasy-horror film: an insane woman, a frightening old wizard and his strange son, a determined Professor rushing to stop an unspeakable evil, witchcraft, sorcery and a giant, unholy monster that goes on a rampage across the countryside. It is Lovecraft's ultimate b-movie tale, the kind Hollywood had been making for years and years in the 50s and 60s. So why has this story suffered so poorly as a film? It has been adapted three times so far, the most recent being in 2009. All three adaptations of the story have been abysmal and all for the same reasons. I won't be discussing Leigh Scott's 2009 version or Richard Griffin's terrible update BEYOND THE DUNWICH HORROR from 2008. Instead, I'll be looking at Daniel Haller's 1970 adaptation, a film which serves a great example of what goes so wrong when filmmakers try to bring Lovecraft to life on the big screen.
For those unfamiliar with Lovecraft's story, the plot goes a little something like this: Far northwest of Lovecraft's famous creation Arkham lies a town called Dunwich. Dunwich is a place dreaded by most for it's nefarious history. In the little town resides Old Whateley and his "son", a deformed young man named Wilbur. The Whateley's have a certain history about them. Dark tales have been spun about Wilbur's mother, Old Whateley's daughter Lavinia, since her death and rumors of demon-worship and black masses have kept the townsfolk in a superstitious stranglehold ever since. Wilbur is trying to get his hands on a Latin translation of the Necronomicon, a book of ancient spells, that is being kept at the Miskatonic University in Arkham. When Wilbur is killed by guard dogs while trying to steal the tome, Dr. Henry Armitage, the librarian, is one of the first on the scene. He witnesses the body of Wilbur Whateley - described as having "skin... thickly covered with coarse black fur" and "a score of long greenish-grey tentacles" protruding from his abdomen - dissolve into a pile of goo. Wilbur's death has one big, unforseen effect. The large, hideous monster the Whateley's have been keeping in their farmhouse - the result of Lavinia's impregnation by an unknown entity - breaks loose and goes on a rampage, killing scores of cattle and two families. This leads Dr. Armitage, Professor Warren Rice, and Dr. Francis Morgan to do battle with the creature using the arcane knowledge of the Necronomicon. In the end, the creature is vanquished and revealed to be Wilbur's twin brother, a creature who "looked more like the father than he did".
You can see why this would make a terrific b-movie, can't you? It has all the necessary elements, the perfect set-up for an exciting finale and all the grotesquery needed to cause screaming fits from impressionable youngsters. But apparently a great b-movie is a lot harder to come by than we would think, because what Haller and his screenwriters, Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky, do with THE DUNWICH HORROR saps it completely of all it's ferocious energy.
The main problem with the film is it's change-up of the key figures. Wilbur is no longer a strange half-man, half-monster. He's played by Dean Stockwell as a stoic, dull personality, more like a robot than a human being. Stockwell's mannerisms and expressions are so low-key and drab that any potential dread is D.O.A.. It's a performance that simply doesn't work for this film. Haller also thought it was a good idea to introduce the character of Nancy into the story. Nancy is a librarian working at the Miskatonic with Dr. Armitage. Nancy falls for Wilbur - he has hypnotic eyes, after all - and goes to spend the weekend at his home, something his father, the crazy old Whateley, doesn't approve of. Wilbur begins slipping something into Nancy's tea and running dress rehearsals with her - while she is half-catatonic - of an impending ritual up on a decrepit piece of mountain land called The Devil's Hop Yard. It isn't too long before Nancy's friend Elizabeth begins to worry about her and Armitage begins to suspect Wilbur is up to something nasty.
In short order, Elizabeth is stripped naked and eaten by the monster the Whateley's are keeping in an upstairs bedroom, Armitage forms an alliance with a town doctor, Old Whateley dies while falling down the stairs, Wilbur gets his hands on the Necronomicon, the monster breaks loose and kills a bunch of secondary characters, Nancy masturbates on a stone altar and Armitage saves the day by screaming a single word over and over again. Roll credits.
This inclusion of Nancy into the storyline does little for the film, if it does anything at all. The real dramatic pull of the story lies in the classic Man Vs. Monster plot device. The destruction of all mankind should be enough of an emotional incentive for the audience. Haller's introduction of a female character adds nothing. Nancy is an unimportant damsel in distress who is only there so that female members of the audience can have a character to root for. But Nancy is, like everyone in this film, completely devoid of personality. The fact that she spends the last third of the film - and this film only has momentum during the last third - lying flat and half-dressed on an altar in a lusty daze is appropriate for a character who has spent the past two-thirds of the film walking around like an automaton. Her inclusion in the story dilutes and weakens it.
The entire film is a misjudgment. It feels off and stale, like a copy of a copy of a Hammer film. It wants to be engaging. It wants to be exciting and suspenseful, but it simply doesn't have the stuff necessary to make it work. The liberties that Haller and his writers take with the story don't bother me as much as their inability to get the stuff they kept right. Everything is flat and emotionless. Everything is slow moving and ponderous. Everything feels rehashed and recycled, watered down and miscalculated. The entire film, from beginning to end, is an utter mess.
I've always said that any movie dealing with witchcraft or black magic rituals had better have strong visuals, compelling writing and great acting. Why? Because you're inevitably going to reach a point in the film where we have to observe those rituals being carried out. Nothing kills a film's credibility and believability like a black magic ritual scene. Whenever you have a few characters standing around chanting made up words and waving blades around, the chances of your film slipping into unintentional comedy are very, very high. The rituals presented in this film are shot in what feels like real time. They go on and on, with Stockwell muttering this and muttering that, scooping up dirt and flicking a knife back and forth. It's laughable. The whole thing is laughable. And it extends to the film's finale, too. When your entire film comes down to two men standing four feet away from each other, screaming nonsense words as the wind machines roar, you're doomed.
Haller isn't the only filmmaker to have failed in his attempt to adapt Lovecraft for the screen. Nowadays when we think of Lovecraft adaptations, we think of Stuart Gordon and his films FROM BEYOND, RE-ANIMATOR, CASTLE FREAK and DAGON. But these aren't really Lovecraft adaptations. They're more or less homages. Aside from the general idea of Lovecraft's stories - doctor re-animates dead corpses; scientist invents a machine that breaks down the barrier between worlds; man stumbles upon a town of half-breeds that worship an ages-old deity - they have nothing in common with the source material at all. The films that try to adapt Lovecraft's work fully tend to fail largely because the world Lovecraft created in his stories - and the monsters that populate them - seem resistant to visual evocation. They're too strange, too obscure, too difficult to interpret. So what filmmakers do is simply select a few choice bits of the story and wrap them up in standard horror trappings. Every once and awhile, some of them work. Largely, however, they fail.
While I have no doubt that someday a filmmaker will come along and get it right, the sheer number of failures is disheartening. I put off seeing THE DUNWICH HORROR for a very long time because I knew it would never capture the essence of the tale in a way I would find satisfactory. Surprise, surprise, it didn't. But it could have been a good, entertaining film. I'm not demanding a perfect adaptation. I just wanted a film that didn't shit all over the source material. Haller's film tries to do Lovecraft justice, but fails miserably.