Year 1970
Studio American International Pictures (AIP)

James H. Nicholson

Samuel Z. Arkoff

Director Daniel Haller

Curtis Lee Hanson

Henry Rosenbaum

Ronald Silkosky

Music music

Sandra Dee

Ed Begley

Dean Stockwell

Length 90 mins

The Dunwich Horror

‘‘ The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. ’’

Lovecraft's 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 book.

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 librarian—Ms. 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 key—and with the gate open, the Old Ones shall be: past, present, future—all 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 glass—though 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 Wilbur.

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 not."

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 it—all 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 oven—no doubt preparing the cosmos for Yog-Sothoth's Baby! Heaven forfend.