“I know enough about strange things not to laugh at them.”
The Dunwich Horror is not the first movie ever adapted from the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Indeed, it is roughly the fifth or sixth, depending on how you count. It isn’t even the first to be released under its original title, though most people can be forgiven for forgetting The Shuttered Room (1967). Yet, I have a feeling – based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever – that it is the earliest one with which many fans are familiar.
This claim – again, supported by no actual data – may have as much to do with the fact that The Dunwich Horror is one of the first Lovecraft films to feel “modern” in its depictions of sex and occultism, meaning that it, more so than previous films in the canon, feels like it could play on a double-bill with Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna’s later forays into the Old Gent’s work, with their copious rubber monsters and equally copious nudity.
The first H. P. Lovecraft adaptation to hit the big screen was Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace back in 1963. Ostensibly a part of Corman’s “Poe cycle,” the film borrowed only its title from Poe, and was instead a fairly straightforward adaptation of Lovecraft’s posthumously published novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Daniel Haller, who would later direct The Dunwich Horror, worked as an art director on that film, as he had on virtually all of the “Poe cycle” pictures.
For those who have seen those amazing Technicolor gothics, I don’t need to tell you that Daniel Haller was a bravura art director capable of wringing some truly unforgettable sets from relatively meager budgets. In case you do want to know more about it, though, the booklet that accompanies the new Blu-ray from Arrow Video features a lengthy essay about Haller and his background as an art director.
Haller made his directorial debut in 1965, helming the second or third (again, depending on how you count) cinematic adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft to ever hit screens, the dramatically titled Die, Monster, Die!, a loose adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” There, his background as an art director was already apparent, and the film looks every bit of a piece with the “Poe cycle” movies that came before.
By 1970, however, things were changing, and The Dunwich Horror brought something that had been absent from the “Poe cycle” films. Namely: hippies. It wasn’t the first time that sexuality had made its way into Lovecraftian cinema. Even as far back as The Haunted Palace, the unfortunate female lead is offered as a “mate” to one of the Old Ones, while 1968’s Curse of the Crimson Altar brought in BDSM imagery and a decidedly swinging ‘60s vibe.
The Dunwich Horror felt modern in a way that those films hadn’t, though, while also staying truer to the original story than Crimson Altar and bringing in New Age-y dream sequences and psychedelic effects to represent Wilbur’s invisible twin – who, when we do finally see him, looks something like a Beholder made out of spring snakes. Normally, I am all about showing the monster as much as possible, but in this case, the camera’s negative effects might actually have been a good call.
Dean Stockwell’s smirking, corduroy-clad Wilbur Whately could not feel more early-‘70s if you paid him, while his love interest and female lead is played by none other than Gidget herself, Sandra Dee. They bring the (relative) youth to the proceedings, while older character actors like Sam Jaffe and Ed Begley (in one of his final film roles) round out the cast.
While all this helps to explain the modern “hipness” of The Dunwich Horror, Haller’s background as art director is still plainly visible, and no place more so than in the Whately house itself, which looks on the outside like the Sawyer clan from Texas Chain Saw Massacre decorated for Halloween, and on the inside like Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum.
Unlike some other films from the era, The Dunwich Horror has remained relatively well-known (and well-preserved) throughout the years, so there have been plenty of previous opportunities to watch it, even before this Blu-ray release. And most of those prints have been in fairly good repair, so while it has never looked better than it does now, the restoration is not such a triumph as some others that have been done before.
Of course, film quality is not the only thing that an Arrow Blu-ray tends to bring to the table. The Dunwich Horror also offers a unique opportunity to appreciate Les Baxter’s otherworldly score, which gets its own featurette on the disc, not to mention new commentary tracks, interviews, and so on. The disc also boasts a reversible sleeve, with new artwork by Luke Preece, as well as the original poster art by Reynold Brown. And if anything is truly responsible for the longevity of this film in the public consciousness, it might be that poster, featuring a chimerical beast that the movie’s meager effects could never hope to replicate.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.