Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Monday, November 03, 2008

Don't Let a few bad apples stop you from accessing the Ungodly Power of Transdimensional Entities: THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)

Ask some dour passerby on the street: "Should I feel safe in accessing daemonic realms for personal power?" And they'll probably say no. But don't let that stop you. The Elder Gods are waiting for your call!

My own usual weekend solstice debaucheries were put on hold in favor of taping a mess of AIP 1960s Lovecraft-adaptations off TCM, many of which--in the bizarre ironic sort of way which the Elder Gods adore--depicted the exact sort of arcane six dimensional ceremonies I was shamefully avoiding. It's okay though, since that fits the Lacanian idea of the Other (the TV conducts ancient pagan ceremonies so I don't have to)

THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970) is the only one of lot I've actually watched so far, and it's a grand curio from the time when AIP was the leader in hybridized hippy-horror, i.e. the EAP/LSD (Edgar Allen Poe meets Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) genre.

Ostensibly a horror film, strip away the beginning and the end and it's more like a chemically altered love story; a sweet tale of romance and drugged tea between a budding hippy warlock (Dean Stockwell rocking a terrible Donald Sutherland 'do-stache ensemble) and the daughter (Sandra Dee) of Necronomicon lecturer and fuddy duddy supreme Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley). This whole slow drugging and mind manipulation-seduction leading up to would be mating with extra-dimensional beings is a clear cut pruning the DNA of Lovecraft's source material in order to better clone ROSEMARY'S BABY, something Stockwell was against. According to TCM: "Quarreling with his director, Stockwell (a self-professed Lovecraft fan) adapted a winking attitude toward the material, playing Wilbur Whateley with tongue planted firmly in cheek… and the approach serves the film surprisingly well."

One cheek that doesn't turn well is the clashing, wildly inappropriate music from Les Baxter. Did he really think this was a James Bond movie? For some reason, old Les seems to have got it into his head to do a "leitmotif" lounge theme that repeats in various forms throughout the film, ala Wings' "Live and Let Die," robbing the already poverty-stricken atmosphere of any accumulating ominousness. When old Dean is doing his chants and having magic fights with Armitage, Baxter scores it like punch card computers should be blowing up, and extras in blazing hazmat suits running around in the distance.

That said, Stockwell's playing all his cards close to the vest does work to the film's advantage, whether he's arguing with an incredibly hammy Sam Jaffe, battling library guards to steal the Necronomicon, or gently laying Dee down on the altar of the elder gods, Stockwell's self-mocking hipsterism helps us endure the mumbo jumbo stretches, something I found reassuring as I struggled with my own unholy altar. Plus, there's lots of beautiful Bava-esque gel lights employed throughout his hippy mansion, and some cool set dressing such as some big hypnotist-aide crystals in a tangent that goes nowhere (unless you're looking for Corman prop continuity).

Though the climactic monster eye view is rendered epileptic with psychedelic colors and quick edits when some dissolves and overlays would have been nicer on the neurons and druggier too, there's a wild orgy dream sequence that's one of the better ones in AIP's vast orgy canon (way trippier than the one in ZABRISKIE POINT), with the naked (white) hippies all painted up to look like Aborigines. So all in all, not too bad, and we even get some Corman regulars like Barbara Mouris and Beach Dickerson, plus a really good psychedelic credits sequence (an AIP color horror tradition). Lloyd Bochner is a welcome surprise as a local doctor as is Talia "Shire" Coppola as his assistant! You can feel the engines of THE GODFATHER already starting to hum somewhere deep in the unborn belly of the elder gods, snaking up from the Lovecraftian depths of the Corman-AIP bullpen.

For more on the many good and not so good Lovecraft films over the years, check out the article from writer and film historian David Del Valle over on Acidemic's main page. And remember, the Ancient Ones are always waiting... and they want you to vote early and often! Only 2.45 human sacrifices per call.


  1. Tarrantino you now and will forever will be a chickenshit to me!

  2. You IDIOTS got mad because I had a memory of JAMES LIPTON with Tobey Macguire are you all humanoids or are you NUTS?