In some ways, this is a rather silly film as well as a loose adaptation of the original short story, but I can’t be too hard on it. It was, after all, my childhood introduction to the works of H.P. Lovecraft; if I hadn’t watched this movie and noted that it had some unusual elements that I hadn’t seen in other horror movies, and then seen the same title on the spine of a library book a few years later, who knows where I’d be today?
This was on television more than once in the early ’70s, and for years I was under the impression that it was one of those scary made-for-TV movies that aired during that time period and traumatized so many of my generation with images of little goblins dragging Kim Darby into the chimney or a Zuni fetish doll chasing Karen Black. Now that I see it on DVD, I realize that it was an AIP theatrical release. It’s actually one of the early examples of sexed-up Lovecraft–see also Dagon and From Beyond. The bowdlerized version I grew up with didn’t have visions of naked orgies, nor did the tentacled horror locked up on the top floor strip the clothes off one of its victims.
This version of The Dunwich Horror begins with a prologue at the Whately house, which is much larger, fancier, and in better condition than the dilapidated farmhouse of Lovecraft’s story. When we get a better look around the place later on, we can observe that the interior has the same sort of decayed opulence as the Usher house… and will meet with a similar fate.
Old Man Whately (Sam Jaffe), who bears a staff with a Thunderbird-looking symbol atop it, stands with two albino women at the bedside of his heavily pregnant daughter Lavinia, who is not an albino. Lavinia writhes and moans to indicate the pains of labor–but after binge-watching all 5 series of Call the Midwife, I find it a tad unconvincing. Her father helps her up off the bed.
Cut to the animated credits, which impressed me very powerfully in childhood. A couple of robed figures in silhouette make a perilous journey through an ever-shifting landscape of trees and towers and jagged rocks.
At one point, the hill they’re climbing up becomes a giant demon who devours them–but then the giant’s hand morphs into a snake’s head and the travelers emerge on its forked tongue, so no harm done. Eventually, they reach their destination, a large stone table, and one of the pair, who turns out to be a woman, lies down and gives birth.
It only now occurs to me that this is a symbolic representation of the Whatelys’ journey to the old stone temple where Wilbur was born. At least, I assume it’s symbolic and not what the Massachusetts coastline is actually like.