1970s Horror Films #1 – The Dunwich Horror (1970)

Wilbur meets a fiery end.
Dean Stockwell staring
Dean Stockwell as Wilbur Whately gives his mesmer stare.
Sandra Dee looking
Sandra Dee in her first adult role.

The first film of the 1970s Horror Films Blog is “The Dunwich Horror” which was released on January 14, 1970, starring the venerable Dean Stockwell of “Blue Velvet” and “Quantum Leap” fame, and teen heartthrob, Sandra Dee, who was attempting to break out of that mold here. An American International Pictures release, the film was produced by the legendary team of James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, and executive produced by the even more legendary Roger Corman. It was directed by Daniel Haller who also helmed the Boris Karloff vehicle, “Die, Monster, Die!” (1965), and “Devil’s Angels” (1967) among other films and TV shows. Rounding out the major cast members are such great character actors as Ed Begly (father of comic actor Ed Begly Jr.), Lloyd Bochner, Jason Wingreen (“Archie Bunker’s Place”) and Sam Jaffe (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”), with a small part for future Mrs. Rocky, Talia Shire. And the inimitable Les Baxter lends his talent to the score, creating a perfectly creepy atmosphere. As a fan of horror author H. P. Lovecraft, I was pleasantly surprised by the story’s use of major elements from his work such as Yog Sothoth and the Old Ones, although the film is a major departure from the eponymous source story. I do remember seeing this on TV as a kid, but very vaguely, so this time was a fresh watch on Pluto TV.

Sam Jaffe as Old Whateley
Sam Jaffe as Old Whateley.

In Lovecraft’s 1928 novella, Wilbur Whateley is a horrific-looking albino who stinks to high heaven, but in the movie, Stockwell is charming yet sinister as Wilbur. I’m not going to continue comparing the story with the film here, and instead will focus on the movie. The plot is fairly straightforward: Wilbur goes to Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts to borrow a copy of the Necronomicon for unknown purposes, and can read the alien-looking language within. He soon encounters college student Nancy Wagner (Dee) who succumbs to his hypnotic gaze and lends him the book, which is priceless and one of a kind. She has no idea what Wilbur wants with the book, and at this point, she doesn’t care. Her professor, Dr. Armitage (Begly), finds out about this and immediately retrieves the book from Wilbur. As he’s somehow missed his bus home (perhaps purposely), Nancy gives Wilbur a ride home. Along the way she’s warned by locals about not trusting the Whateleys. At his house, Wilbur starts to enact a nefarious plan, starting with sabotaging Nancy’s car, and reinforcing her hypnotic state. Realizing something is wrong when she doesn’t return, Nancy’s friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala), along with Armitage, start to investigate and uncover the horrific truth behind the Whateley family, and it becomes a race against time to save Nancy from a fate worse than death, in a major battle between good and evil.

Talia Shire looking serious
Talia Shire as Nurse Cora.

The film looks good and was directed very well by Haller, with a keen eye for some interesting angles. He even effectively uses the 70s trope of having images with no audio briefly flashing during a conversation that gives it an otherworldly feel. The townspeople get involved in the climax of the film, lending an exciting element to the situation. And it wouldn’t be a true Lovecraft adaptation without the mention of one character losing their mind, as insanity is a strong theme throughout most of his stories.

Jason Wingreen, Ed Begly, and Lloyd Bochner looking concerned.
Wingreen, Begly, and Bochner worried by black magic goings on.

The effects are very well done by the skilled Roger George who has quite the street cred of horror and exploitation films, as well as bigger fare like 1981’s “The Howling,” and 1984’s “The Terminator.” Aside from the excellent practical effects, there were several optical effects that made the scenes trippy, and just felt right for what was needed. Haller’s use of negative shots painted in red, evokes images from Carlos Enrique Taboada’s 1975 film, “Darker Than Night” (aka “Blacker Than the Night,” or its original title, “Más negro que la noche”). There are also glimpses of a Lovecraftian creature that’s immediately horrifying and shocking.

Overall, the performances were really good, with Stockwell putting on his creep outstandingly. He underplays the part effectively, with a dash of being a little unhinged. Dee also does a great job in her first adult performance, and ends up partially disrobed in one scene which was pretty shocking for an actress known for her wholesome roles. When watching it, the song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” only runs through your head when she first appears on-screen, and then her performance sends all of those teen films she was in to the back-burner.

Elizabeth being killed
Elizabeth being killed by the monster.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great character actors in this film who always turn in solid performances. Begley, Bochner, and Jaffe each do a yeoman’s job as journeymen actors. Bochner was aged 25 years to play Dr. Cory, while Jaffe — who plays Old Whateley — was de-aged 25 years for a flashback sequence. Joanna Moore Jordan appeared as her own age in the flashback as Lavinia Whateley, and then aged forward 25 years for her character in the present time. Begley’s Armitage is the Van Helsing of the piece, and while not as prominent or athletic as Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing in the Hammer “Dracula” films, he’s still a good presence. He sells the part convincingly as the professor who gets to spring into action against the forces of darkness, of which he is well-versed. Sadly, this was one of Begley’s last performances, as he died three months after its release in April, 1970. Bochner and Jaffe also rock excellent supporting character status, and when you watch the film, you immediately recognize them despite any makeup appliances they had to wear.

Wilbur performing a ritual on Nancy.
Wilbur performing a ritual on Nancy.

I highly recommend the “Dunwich Horror.” While not tame enough to be family fare, and not violent enough to drive away potential viewers, “Dunwich” achieves a good balance and is entertaining throughout.

Wilbur meets a fiery end.
Wilbur meets a fiery end.

Release date: January 14, 1970, USA. Run Time: 1h 30m.

The following are newspaper ads and one image of Dean Stockwell from an article. Click on image to enlarge.

Newspaper clipping with photo of Stockwell and Dee
An article clipping from the El Paso Times, Sunday February 15, 1970.
Newspaper Ad
From The Los Angeles Times, Monday January 26, 1970.
Newspaper Ad.
The El Paso Times, Friday March 20,1970.
Newspaper Ad.
A reissue of the film from The Boston Globe, Tuesday March 16, 1971.
Newspaper Ad.
The El Paso Times, Sunday February 15, 1970.
Newspaper Ad.
From The Boston Globe, Thursday May 7, 1970.
Newspaper Ad.
From the El Paso Times, Thursday March 19,1970.
Newspaper Ad.
From The Boston Globe, Thursday May 7, 1970.
Newspaper Ad.
The Boston Globe, Thursday May 7, 1970. I kept it with the “Day of Anger” ad because I like that film, and also if it was just the smaller image, the quality would be poor.
Newspaper Ad.
Reissue of the film from The Boston Globe, Friday December 15, 1972.

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