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 Zizek-cum-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 of the whole bleedin' lot I've actually watched so far. 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... the two blending well along a bad trip mortality arc (Roderick Usher's morbid acuteness of the senses being another word for 'bum trippin'")
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 Wilbur Whately (Dean Stockwell rocking a terrible Donald Sutherland 'do-stache ensemble) and Nancy (Sandra Dee), the niece or daughter of Necronomicon lecturer and the extremely fuddy-duddy buzzkill, Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley). All-too-wisely, Dr. Armitage disapproves of Wilbur, especially the whole date rapey hypnogogic drugging / mind manipulation-seduction thing. He suspects it's all leading up to would-be mating with extra-dimensional being thing (here doubling as Wilbur's 'bad' twin). That, and Wilbur stole the Necronomicon from the hidden vaults of the Miskatonic library! Armitage thinks he should be the only one allowed to read it. What a complete bastard, even if he is right.
Alas, there's a clear-cut pruning of Lovecraft's source material in order to better clone ROSEMARY'S BABY, definitely a last minute choice you can tell; Polanski's film was re-settting the bar, and as always AIP was quick to walk under it; Stockwell was against the change, rightly believing Lovecraft was timeless. 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." Playing all his cards so close to the vest does work to the film's advantage, giving him a vaguely intriguing air, as if he's got a private joke we'll be let in on as soon as the squares leave. Whether he's arguing with an incredibly hammy Sam Jaffe, socking Miskatonic library guards, or gently laying Dee down on the altar of the elder gods, Stockwell's self-mocking hipsterism helps us endure the dull stretches with Begley, clearly swaying our vote so we want to see just what Wilbur's dredging. Plus, there's lots of beautiful Bava-esque colored 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 continuity with old Corman Poe films--that prop's been in at least three).
One cheek that doesn't turn well is the clashing, wildly inappropriate music from Les Baxter who offers a spy movie-ready "leitmotif" that repeats in various forms throughout the film. Reminiscent of Wings' "Live and Let Die," it robs 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 on fire. I like a lot of Baxter's stuff but he could really miss the mark, overdoing the comedic mickey mousing in films like Comedy of Terrors, for example, or re-scoring Italian horror imports so all their atmosphere evaporates, replaced by the feeling of being at a tacky Tiki lounge in 70s Belgrade. Similarly, the climactic monster eye view as the beast flies around the house, is rendered via quick cuts, epileptic with psychedelic colors and quick edits when anyone who's actually tripped would know some dissolves and overlays would have been nicer on the neurons and druggier too.
Highlights include: a wild orgy dream sequence hallucination that's one of the better ones in AIP's vast orgy canon (way trippier than the similar one in the same year's ZABRISKIE POINT), with the naked (white) hippies all painted up to look like Aborigines and having a wild, crazy time; Corman regulars like Barbara Mouris and Beach Dickerson bit-parting around the edges; a really good psychedelic credits sequence (an AIP color horror tradition); Lloyd Bochner as a local doctor, and Talia "Shire" Coppola as his assistant! What?! 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 potent and poetic article from writer and film historian David Del Valle over on Acidemic's main page. And remember, the Ancient Ones are always waiting... for your call.