The Dunwich Horror: Roger Corman’s Take on a Classic Lovecraft Tale

The Story

The Dunwich Horror, based on H.P. Lovecrafts’ eponymous short story, centers around the enigmatic character of Wilbur Whateley, who tries to summon ancient gods known as “The Old Ones” by performing a pagan ritual from the Necronomicon, an Arabic book on the occult.

The film introduces to the story a female lead, Nancy Wagner (played by Sandra Dee), a co-ed who finds herself entranced by Wilbur. She first sees him while she is returning the Necronomicon to the Miskatonic University Library for Dr. Armitage, a professor who had just finished giving a lecture on the book. She agrees to let him peruse the Necronomicon even though it is a rare and valuable artifact and the library is closing and drives him to his home in Dunwich where he drugs her. Drugged and under the influence of Wilbur’s preternatural charm, Nancy agrees to spend the weekend at the Whateley house, unaware of the dark ritual Wilbur has planned for her.

Dean Stockwell as Wilbur Whateley

Stockwell steals the show with his exageratedly creepy portrayal of Wilbur Whateley. From the intense expression in his eyes to his monotone, awkwardly halting speech, every that Wilbur does is unnerving. Stockwell’s over the top creepiness, along with his afro and mustache, lighten the mood of the film with a campy, seventies vibe.

After his performance in The Dunwich Horror, Dean Stockwell, a former child actor, went on to star as John Cavil in the 2006 remake of “Battlestar Galactica”, Mark Whiting in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate,  Colonel Grat in the 2002 TV series “Star Trek: Enterprise” (2002). He has gone on to receive an Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 1988 film Married to the Mob and 4 Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his role in the 1989 “Quantum Leap”.

Reinterpreting Lovecraft

The Dunwich Horror remodels the Lovecraftian sense of the supernatural and the unimaginable, portraying it visually and musically as late sixties psychedelia. The atmospheric soundtrack and avante garde cinematography–which includes indirect camera angles, layered scenes, flashing colored lights, and Vaseline-smeared camera lenses–create the impression of an acid trip gone eerily wrong.

This feeling of psychedelic horror reaches the first of several climaxes in the scene where Elizabeth unwittingly releases Wilbur Whateley’s monstrous twin.

In addition to putting a psychedelic spin on Lovecraftian horror, the film adds a female lead and makes the sexual undertones in the story (which Lovecraft merely hints at) explicit. A brief romance occurs between Wilbur and Nancy, who is mysteriously drawn to him despite warnings from her friend Elizabeth and Dr. Armitage. Also, in the film, Whateley attempts to summon the Old Ones by having their leader, Yog Sothoth, impregnate a scantily clad Nancy while in the original story he tries to summon them by simply reciting verses of the Necronomicon.

Release and Legacy

The Dunwich Horror was released on January 14, 1970. Though the final scene of the film, which shows Nancy pregnant with Yog Sothoth’s supernatural seed, seems to set up a sequel, no sequel was ever made. In 2009, however, another film verson of “The Dunwich Horror” premiered on SyFy. Though not a remake or sequel, it also stars Dean Stockwell, this time ironically in the role of Dr. Armitage, Wilbur Whateley’s nemesis.

One thought on “The Dunwich Horror: Roger Corman’s Take on a Classic Lovecraft Tale

  1. I loved the original Dunwich. I was sad to see syfy had a movie named the same. Even though it may have been a ‘syfy original..’ it was not.. just like Being Human is not a SyFy Orginal. Maybe I do not understand the business.. but how they can call it original when there is a UK Being Human which I do prefer. I just do not get what part of coming up with your own idea people do not understand. Sadly most old school movie goers like me are very upset at the flood of remakes hitting the theaters. 21 jump street is abomination to the series I grew up with. Dark Shadows, sure that looks neat.. but its not like Dark Shadows at all.:/ I am afraid. Very Afraid! lol The Clash of the Titans.. omg.. But look at Wrath of the Titans.. They should have made Wrath instead of clash and left the original alone. I remember a time when I imagined them making some of my favs.. with better technology.. but please no more lol. Conan.. *cries* For the love of Crom!! I say leave the originals and make homages, sequels.. stuff like it.. like what they did with The Thing. I would like to know what other people think about it. : ) But Like I said.. I ♥ the Original Dunwich Horrors lets hope they do not try to remake Squirm or Motel Hell! haha

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