Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that leave audiences not knowing what to think.
College is expensive, especially when it comes to textbooks. I don’t even want to think about how much the Necronomicon costs at the Arkham Miskatonic University. Can you buy a used copy or does it have to be the original bound in human flesh and inked in human blood? Daniel Haller’s 1970 film The Dunwich Horror posits the true expense of exploring the dark depths of the famed tome. Terror and strange events ensue when Dr. Henry Armitage, a visiting professor, is in town giving a lecture on the Necronomicon and ancient civilizations. The student body is impressed, but so is an outlier who plans to possess the book.
This week’s strange and fantastic tale is a mingling of gothic horror meets the psychedelic aesthetic of the late 60’s in the film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror.
The Dunwich Horror begins with a woman giving birth while two hooded women look on in silence. We come to learn that this is the origin of Wilbur Whately, a young man looking to carry out his great grandfather’s legacy of madness. Follower of the Necronomicon, Great Grandpa Whately aimed to use the text’s rituals to open up a dimension and bring forth a super race of men revered by ancient civilizations.
Wilbur Whately, expertly played by Dean Stockwell arrives at Arkham Miskatonic University hoping to procure the Necronomicon. Intrigued by the family’s history he knows too well, Dr. Armitage takes Wilbur out for a drink with a couple of co-eds. Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley), is instantly creeped out and decides he will not lend him the book. However, Nancy Wagner, a student of philosophy, is taken in by Wilbur’s intense gaze. Some girls might find it off-putting, but Nancy (Sandra Dee) eats it up and plays into his trap.
Wilbur’s plan was two-fold: get the book and find a virgin to impregnate during the ritual. There is something very odd about the way The Dunwich Horror plays out. There is never a moment where Nancy thinks twice about Wilbur’s intentions. She gives him a ride home and while she is distracted he tampers with her car, rendering her stranded at his house. She drinks tea and is overwhelmed with the need to sleep, but never suspects he drugged her. In fact, she is charmed and relishes the chance to spend time with him. There is something in Nancy’s trust and innocence that turns this film into an odd cautionary coming of age story.
Wilbur Whately’s grandfather warns her about staying on the property and she just ignores him. Kind of like when you were in high school and you brought over some weird friend and your grandma mumbles in Spanish how they suck and they should go home. Nancy’s obliviousness sort of works against her 1960’s independent woman spirit. Nancy is literally in the driver seat of her fate as she is the one who offers Wilbur a ride home and despite her doped up state, she continues to make the decision to stay with him.
Some folks are into that. We’ve all had that creepy boyfriend who was way into Faces of Death videos and insisted on making out to Danzig’s Lucifuge. The guy is harmless, but he gives the illusion of danger, like watching a horror movie or going on an amusement park ride. Wilbur could potentially be that boyfriend. He charms her by showing her his old gothic home, he engages in deep philosophical conversations about his beliefs, and he takes her on occult sightseeing tours of the family land. However, this is not the first boyfriend experience Nancy needs. Wilbur is truly dangerous and has nothing but evil mischief on his brain. Haller makes some interesting choices in showing us the inner workings of Wilbur and Nancy’s brains.
There are some subtle shows of the supernatural splashed against vivid colors and screeching sounds to take the mood from eerie disturbance to terrifying havoc. Wilbur seems to be a sorcerer of sorts. With a wave of his hands, he can move objects. He also presses his hands to his eyes and smashes them together when he is really concentrating. These low key visuals are juxtaposed against screeching bird sounds that portend death or splatters of reds and purples flash across the screen as evil acts occur. In addition to these effects, there is also dreamy imagery. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant would go bananas over this. There are flashbacks to the ancient beings, hooded figures walking through forests and mountains performing sinister looking rituals. It’s all very Song Remains the Same.
The film culminates at the Devil’s Hopyard – not a Satanic brewery – but the site of fertility rituals on a nearby cliff. It is there that Wilbur gets Nancy hot and bothered by talking about opening portals and worshipping the ancient ones. Nancy becomes entranced and half naked as she lies on a ceremonial stone slab writhing in ecstasy waiting for the ritual to finish. She is rescued by Dr. Armitage who has a small magic fight with Wilbur. Dr. Armitage is able to use the words of the Necronomicon against him and destroy him.
While the film has a pretty sexual conclusion, it is the desire of sex that drives the film. Nancy is a virgin who fully supports sex, but admits she has never had any. All of Wilbur’s talk is meant to put sex on the brain. There is something very hormonal about this that adds to the coming of age quality of the film.
Virgins, college kids, and occult rituals are the driving force behind The Dunwich Horror. Watch this film while wearing a pentagram and thinking about the name of your first born demon baby.