most widely read story, "The Dunwich Horror," was written
in the summer of 1928 and was transformed into a rather interesting
film forty-two years later, by the same people who brought
us The Haunted Palace and Die Monster Die.
Produced by Roger Corman and directed by Daniel Haller,
The Dunwich Horror also shows the influence of that true imp
of the perverse, filmmaker Roman Polanski, whose landmark
adaptation of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby two years before
Dunwich forever changed the face of horror films.
Before Rosemary's Baby, horror movies were turning into
heavy-handed, cumbersome, and clichÖ-ridden affairs, degenerately
descended from the likes of the German UFA production of The
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the great Universal pictures of
the 1930s and 1940s (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.). Cinematic
horror was decidedly external, the kind of story easily transferred
from stage to screen.
For the creators of Rosemary's Baby, real horror was mostly
internal, a part of dreams and minutia. Levin/Polanski's horror
was surreal and dream-like, its terrors taking full advantage
of the non-verbal grammar of film. It was the global success
of Rosemary's Baby that probably cleared the path for Corman
and Haller's modernistic adaptation of The Dunwich Horror,
a film where the creators finally, to a certain degree, let
Lovecraft be Lovecraft.
The Dunwich Horror opens with Dr. Henry Armitage (played
by character actor Ed Begley, Sr.) strolling down a Miskatonic
University walkway (actually UCLA). The dreaded Necronomicon
is neatly tucked under his arm and quickly gets the attention
of young Dean Stockwell as Wilbur Whateley, looking every
bit the "dark and goatish gargoyle" described by Lovecraft.
As in the original story, Wilbur has come from Dunwich to
Arkham to get his hands on a good copy of the blasphemous
For a tome supposedly containing formulae that could destroy
the known universe, security measures are amazingly lax. The
book is haphazardly stored in a glass case with a cheesy "Necronomicon"
name card above it. The library is closing but Wilbur's goatish
love-looks get the better of the beautiful librarianMs.
Sandra Dee as Nancy Wagner. Wilbur takes the dread tome to
a table and mouths a passage more or less from the original
novella, hinting at the Lovecraftian horrors to come:
"Yog-Sothoth is the gate whereby the spheres meet, only
them from beyond can make it multiply and work. Yog-Sothoth
is the keyand with the gate open, the Old Ones shall
be: past, present, futureall are one. The Old Ones walk
serene and primal, undimensioned and unseen. The Old Ones
broke through of old and they shall break through . . .
Wilbur isn't able to finish. He's interrupted by Dr. Armitage,
who wants the evil book put back under glassthough a
bonfire might be a better choice. But upon learning that Wilbur
is a Whateley the men quickly bond and head off to Miskatonic's
cool campus coffeehouse, with Nancy and her fellow librarian
Elizabeth in tow. Over espressos they discuss the dark powers
of the Necronomicon, making Wilbur miss the midnight bus to
Dunwich. He gives Nancy the goat's eyes once again and she
offers him a ride.
At the strangely opulent Whateley home, Wilbur leaves Nancy
alone in the living room and makes a cup of drugged tea. The
special brew does its job and Wilbur offers the librarian
an unused bedroom that just happens to have a ritualistic
black nightie hanging in the closet.
Nancy is swept off to the Dreamlands where we see crazed
images of naked hippies (this is 1970 after all) painted and
draped with garlands, making a big flesh-ball of pagan lust
in Lovecraft's "lonely places." Caught in the middle of this,
our prim and proper Nancy looks like a dazed Nixon daughter
trapped in a Haight Street Summer of Love Love-In.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Dr. Armitage have come to Dunwich
looking for Nancy, where they run into old Wizard Whateley
(perfectly played by Sam Jaffe, best known as Doctor Zorba),
who wants them off his property. Dr. Armitage refuses to take
this rejection lying down and engages in some detective work
by consulting Dr. Corey, the country doctor who delivered
In a neat sepiatone flashback, Corey narrates a faithful
re-creation of Lovecraft's scene in Osborn's General Store,
when old Whateley bursts in looking for the doctor to help
his daughter give birth. Whateley prophesies that, "some day
yew folks'll hear a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's
name on the top o' Sentinel Hill!" Unfortunately, Dr. Corey
quickly reveals what Lovecraft saved for his trademark final
italicized punch line: Lavinnia had twins that night.
Their birth had a horrific effect on Lavinnia and she winds
up in a padded cell mumbling about "seeing them now . . .
in lonely places . . . Old Ones!" which is a pedestrian cribbing
from Lovecraft's Bible-parodying passage: "They walk unseen
and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken
and the Rites howled at their Seasons. As a foulness shall
ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them
As Armitage and Corey consult, Wilbur takes Nancy to a wild
cliff side called the Devil's Hop Yard to discuss ancient
fertility rites. Nancy is so tea-ed up that Wilbur easily
gets her on the stone altar and starts chanting the terrible
name of Yog-Sothoth. Sandra Dee does her best imitation of
a sexually aroused Mia Farrow, as black-robed hippies gather
around to watch the Old One "do" her.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth breaks into the Whateley place looking
for Nancy. Old Wizard tries running her off but she slaps
him aside and enters the mansion, climbing the stairs to the
very top to find an ominous-looking door. Naturally, she has
to open it and, in a truly horrific cinematic moment, comes
face to tentacle with an interdimensional creature! A creature
Lovecraft described in the local Dunwichian dialect as, "made
'o squirmin' ropes . . . nothin' solid abaout itall
like jelly . . . ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin'
aout all along the sides . . . an all a-tossin' an' openin'
an' shuttin' . . . all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings."
Simply put: an overgrown sea anemone on lysergic acid.
Through a tangle of tentacles and flash-cuts the thing behind
the door strips and devours one very surprised librarian.
Wilbur and Nancy return and are confronted by Wizard, who,
in a major departure from the original story, wants Wilbur
to "let the book be!" In the novella, Wizard urged his grandson
to get his paws on the Necronomicon, telling him to "open
up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant that ye'll
find on page 751 of the complete edition."
In the film, Pa Whateley has a very un-Lovecraftian attack
of a guilty conscience, and in a desperate bid to stop Wilbur
he falls to his death. This allows the filmmakers to belatedly
introduce one of the more poetic themes of the novella: the
whippoorwills, screeching psychopomps lying in wait to gobble
up the souls of the dying.
Wilbur returns to Arkham for the good version of the Necronomicon
and then takes Nancy back to Hop Yard for the final ritual.
He calls for his twin, locked behind a door, and the film
nicely tracks with the original story as the Dunwich Horror
shambles unseen through the countryside.
Dr. Armitage sees the imprint that the invisible creature
leaves across the land and heads for Hop Yard where Wilbur
is not only opening the dimensional gates, but Nancy's legs
as well. Propping the Necronomicon between her thighs, he
attempts to pronounce Lovecraftian incantations like ygnaiih
or thflthkh'ngha (which look a lot more blasphemous than they
sound). Armitage arrives in the nick of time and shouts his
own funny words at Wilbur, making the goat-boy burst into
a column of AIP cinematic fire.
The world is safe once more, because Dr. Armitage's incantation
slams the gates on the materializing Yog allowing the scholar
from Arkham to deliver the punch line: Wilbur's twin brother
"looks more like the father than he did."
And in a final nod to Rosemary's Baby, we see that there's
an inter-dimensional bun baking in Sandra Dee's ovenno
doubt preparing the cosmos for Yog-Sothoth's Baby! Heaven