There are a number of times in my adult life when I have rewatched a film I haven’t seen in decades, only to realise that it wasn’t the film I was thinking of. It happened again with The Dunwich Horror, a film I always used to confuse with The Devonsville Terror. I realised my confusion back when I finally rewatched The Devonsville Terror, but that meant that I was eager to revisit The Dunwich Horror. And I don’t think many people have been eager to revisit this.
Dean Stockwell plays Wilbur Whately, a young man who wants to borrow a copy of the infamous Necronomicon and chant some words that will unnerve anyone who has already heard of the mighty Yog-Sothoth. He charms young Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee), a woman who returns with him to his home, soon getting a sense of how local people feel about his family name, and unwittingly being prepared to play an important part in a ritual that Whately has been planning for some time.
Working from the source material by H. P. Lovecraft, three people worked on this script, including a writing debut from Curtis Hanson (credited as Curtis Lee Hanson), but nobody can really do enough to turn it into a satisfying horror movie. Instead, it all rests on the dark charm of Stockwell (which works) and the exchanges between the rest of the cast (which doesn’t). Director Daniel Haller doesn’t seem to know how to make things more cinematic (it’s unsurprising to find that he only did a handful of movies before spending most of his career directing episodes for a wide variety of TV shows), and many scenes waver between being dull and being laughable.
Stockwell almost makes it all worthwhile though. His strange and enjoyable performance allows him to prove what fantastic screen presence he has. It is a shame that nobody else can come close to him, with Dee particularly bland, her casting more damaging to the film because she brings no energy to it. Ed Begley and Lloyd Bochner and wiser elders, hopefully due to figure things out and save Nancy before it’s too late, and Sam Jaffe is fairly enjoyable in the role of Old Whately, a combination of grumpy grandfather and “Crazy Ralph”. I wish that Donna Baccala (playing Nancy’s friend, Elizabeth) had more screentime, because she makes a much better impression with her few scenes than Dee makes at any time. Unfortunately, she disappears all too soon.
Lovecraft, like many other horror writers, has been translated from page to screen with greatly varying degrees of success, but some people will always enjoy seeing any attempt to film his work. The Dunwich Horror still has just enough in it to make it of interest to those who know the source material, and deserves to be watched by anyone who likes Stockwell, but I am not sure how many people would try to class it as a good movie. It isn’t one. But it does have an odd charm that will endear it to some.
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