The High Camp of The Dunwich Horror

Dunwich Horror from 1970 has pretty much nothing to do with the HP Lovecraft story from whence/which it came – and that’s a bone of contention for many people, Stockwell included. He was disappointed in how the movie came out – being a huge Lovecraft fan. But the point must be made that it is, essentially, a B-movie, with all the glory and mortification that that implies. It must not be taken too seriously, and it must be seen as an homage to Lovecraft – rather than a faithful adaptation. I think the thing is a HOOT. I love B-movies anyway – I love camp classics – I love Ed Wood’s movies, for example – To me, they are the best examples of the sheer JOY of film-making. And Dunwich Horror, while it definitely has much better production values than Ed Wood’s stuff, is in the same vein. It doesn’t take itself too seriously – it’s not ponderous or pretentious in the slightest – it doesn’t worry too much about itself – it is unapologetically manipulative – and frankly, it’s a blast.

Every time I find myself in the middle of such an obsession as the one I am in now – and I “go to work” – meaning: seeing everything they’ve done – there are always surprises. And there are always movies I discover that I NEVER would have seen otherwise … and I don’t know, it’s a great joy to me. Like Only Angels Have Wings. I had never seen that movie before my Cary Grant obsession – I think I had only seen Bringing Up Baby, Philadelphia Story, North by Northwest … but when the obsession began, I saw EVERYthing. And the gems!! I mean, I know I’m late to the game on that one, but better late than never. It’s so fun for me – and not only that, movies like Only Angels Have Wings add tremendously to the enjoyment of life for me. It’s a movie I can sink into, relax with … I still watch it probably once every two weeks. I know it by heart now. It doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of it at all.

So I love that aspect of my obsessive personality. And the same thing is happening with Dean Stockwell – an actor who has made 100 movies – there’s just so much stuff to see – not all of it good, not all of it worthy of his gifts – etc. But I love the discovery process.

And discovering movies like The Dunwich Horror has been so much fun. There’s another really campy movie he did – a werewolf movie – called The Werewolf of Washington – and that’s another one that I probably never would have seen if I wasn’t ALL ABOUT DEAN FREAKIN’ STOCKWELL right now. And it’s SO much fun. Anyone who loves B-movies, and campy horror flicks – should definitely check these out. They’re part of a genre I love, and everyone in them plays their parts to the campiest HILT!

Dunwich Horror wastes no time in getting started. There’s a “creepy” opening sequence as the credits roll – a cartoon depiction of a woman being impregnated by this massive devil-like creature – and then the first scene shows a plump and innocent Sandra Dee, with her immovable blonde bob, walking on a college campus with her professor. She is holding a huge book that looks very old. The professor says, “Could you please go return the Necromonicon to its case? Can I trust you with this task?” Suddenly – with no warning – we get a glimpse of a man nearby, eavesdropping. He is Dean Stockwell and he looks distinctly sketchy. He is intense, his eyes burning a B-movie glaze at Sandra Dee and the book. He also is wearing a totally porn-star-from-the-70s ‘stache. It is so gross. Sandra Dee goes back into the library with the book – obviously an important book – and she goes to put it back into its case – and suddenly, as if from out of nowhere – Stockwell is there, intense, quiet, and asks if he can look at the book.

She, at first, is befuddled … No, no, she can’t … the library is closing … she’s supposed to put it right back … but he, with his subtle arts of persuasion (uhm, burning-eyed porno-stache brainwashing) gets her to give it to him to flip through. He sits down at a table, and naturally (because that’s what you do) – he begins to read it out loud, in a quiet low voice – that builds in intensity as he turns the pages. The words he reads are all like:

“and then when the moon is ripe and the sea is in high, the door will open … and the Old Ones will come through … and all will flow, and all will cease to be, and all will move and churn and there must be a sacrifice … there will be a sacrifice … and then … as has been decreed … the Old Ones will rise again …”

Total gibberish, new age gibberish – but Wilbur (Stockwell) is obviously enthralled. Watching Dean Stockwell sit in that library, reading those words out loud like a creepy incantation, has become one of the primary joys of my life. He has all these thick rings on his hand – with weird squiggles on them (what does it mean???) – and his shoulders are narrow in his little corduroy jacket – and he looks sort of normal, yet there is something OFF about this Wilbur. Is he attractive? Sandra Dee seems to think so. She murmurs to her friend, “Did you see his eyes?”

Uhm – how could you miss them with closeups like this one?

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Dude. Step back. Learn boundaries.

Thanks.

So the movie is tons of fun. There are gloriously campy moments (Stockwell speaking some ancient “language”, while holding his Ogam-stone rings up beside his head Ha!!! Love it, love it, love it, love it… Sandra Dee writhing almost naked on some Druidic altar as Stockwell places the sacred book in between her legs – to do his incantations – naked witchy hippie types running through fields in dream-esque sequences that are supposed to be horrifying yet end up looking just mildly amusing and vaguely erotic – lots of intense closeups of people looking evil or suspicious. Also there has to be the creepiest house in history. Wilbur takes Sandra Dee there for a “date” – and seriously, if some dude took me into his house, and it looked like that one, I’d run for the hills as quickly as I could.

Oh, some interesting trivia:

Curtis Hanson (you know, LA Confidential) wrote the screen play.

And Talia Shire is in it. This is pre-Rocky. She has a small part but it’s always cool to see someone on the cusp of great fame. She has no idea what’s going to happen in her career in the next decade, and it’s going to be something else!!

Stockwell’s great in the movie. One of the things he has said about it that I really liked was this:

He loves HP Lovecraft, so he was really psyched to be involved with the film. Very early on, though, he realized: Okay. This isn’t exactly the movie I thought it would be. This ISN’T really about Lovecraft’s story.

So what did he do? He adjusted how he played the part. He gave up the movie he wanted to be in, and accepted the movie he was in. He said he played the whole thing in a “tongue-in-cheek” manner – because that was the overall TONE of the movie. This is a very very smart move – and surprisingly difficult. I can think of examples of my own life where I had to give up my idea of what I WISHED was happening – and just go wtih what was actually happening. To quote one of my acting teachers in college, “It may not be the show you want, but it’s the show you got.”

I was in a version of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds – and at the time, it was one of my favorite plays ever – and I had got the part I wanted. Tillie! The lead! So exciting! Dream come true! And very early on in the rehearsal process (one of the worst I can remember) it became apparent that … well, I was gonna have to give up my fantasy of being in that play I loved so much … because of certain factors I won’t go into (the woman playing my mother, ahem) – It was NOT Zindel’s play because that actress refused to play her role in the manner in which it was written. She used to go off stage and vomit. That was how big her antipathy was to the material. She REFUSED to play a bad mother, and basically – that’s what the whole play was about. It was a devastating experience for me – a huge disappointment – but my acting teacher’s maxim “it may not be the show you want, but it’s the show you got” really came in handy.

The Dunwich Horror was a campy movie, with ‘scary’ moments, and an infrared “monster” raging through the woods, and lots of nudity and dream-sequence orgies (again, they’re supposed to look scary but they actually end up looking really fun) … and Stockwell went with the movie he was IN, rather than his fantasy of what the movie SHOULD have been.

And the tongue-in-cheek manner in which he plays that part is delicious.

It’s one of his funnest performances.

There’s a scene where his grandfather dies (his nutso bearded grandfather who wanders around the haunted house like a wraith – holding a huge stick) – and Wilbur and the Sandra Dee character go to the local graveyard to bury him. But because he was a Whateley – a hated entity in the town – the funeral is busted up by townsfolk who refuse to have a pagan madman be buried near their Christian relatives. But before the townsfolk show up – Wilbur goes through his pagan rituals, and guys? Seriously. I watch Stockwell with the little mortar and pestle, and his big shiny knife, and his chunky rings – he is also wearing a black cape – and he does these swoopy motions with the knife over the gravesite, saying things like, “Ick. Nick. Ick.” Or whatever – gibberish – but you know it means something to Wilbur. Anyway, I watch him – and I am in love with him. I love actors. There is something beautiful about a job well done, even in a B-movie such as this one. There’s dignity in it – and I love it.

Then at the end, Sandra Dee is all naked on the altar – she’s gonna be a virgin sacrifice – or – it’s going to be a Rosemary’s Baby type situation – where some Beelzebub creature from the 9th dimension enters our world and impregnates her – or maybe it’s like The Astronaut’s Wife … anyway, and Stockwell, in his stupid cape and his cheeseball mustache, walks around the altar – holding his hands up beside his face, knuckles facing out – so his rings are … what … facing the heavens? And he’s shouting gibberish incantations into the wind …

And I watch such scenes and think, “I have never been so happy. This is hysTERical.”

Doing Hamlet is awesome. The classics are there for us, to challenge us, and to be embodied, generation after generation.

But something like The Dunwich Horror also has its place – and it’s a blast. I highly recommend it.

Some screenshots below.


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The freakin’ rings.

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Dude, I thought I told you to learn boundaries.

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run for the hills, Sandra!!

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The ‘stache. In all its nasty glory.

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That’s such a Stockwell expression.

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Run!!!

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Up to the Altar of New-Age Death and Virgin Sacrifice.

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You vill climb up on ze altar, you vill take off your clothes, and you vill soon feel very very sleepy …

Here’s a quote from Dean Stockwell:

“The best thing in The Dunwich Horror is a scene towards the end, where the guy takes the girl up and sticks her on the altar and does these incantations. It was indicated in the script that he opens his shirt. In Lovecraft’s story, there’s an indication that he has very weird stuff on his skin. So, I arranged to have a friend of mine, George Herms, a fine artist, paint my chest. He came down to the set and spent four hours in the morning, doing what looks like runic hieroglyphics, all on my chest. Those stand out when I open up my shirt and you see all these weird calligraphies on my body.”

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I love that that was his idea.

And here is part of the scene at the graveyard I mentioned above. I just love him. He’s an actor, playing a part, he is behaving ridiculously serious … but he’s not at all condescending to the material. If that makes sense. Stockwell is not “slumming” in this movie. “Tongue in cheek” doesn’t mean condescending – it means a certain attitude towards style. Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) is DEADLY SERIOUS as he does this stupid ritual, with runes, and dust, and shiny knives, while wearing a flowing black cape. I adore it. And look at Sandra Dee in the background, all concerned and womanly. Hilarious.

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I just … come on. Look at that. It’s hysterical.

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Those damn rings again.

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Uh oh.

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I have no words for how much I love that shot.

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Oh whatever, I’m just wearing a black cape, reading my book, which just happens to be resting on your mons veneris, as you writhe about on an altar. Yeah, same ol’ same ol’ for me.

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Wilbur, man, you gotta cut it out with that ring gesture. It’s gettin’ kinda old. ChillAX, bro!

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I wouldn’t look so cocky, Wilbur. Things are NOT going to end well for you, my friend.

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21 Responses to The High Camp of The Dunwich Horror

  1. Dan says:

    //Stockwell included. He was disappointed in how the movie came out – being a huge Lovecraft fan. //

    Awesome. I like him better already – not that I disliked him before; he was excellent in the new Battlestar Galactica. Are you going to post about Quantum Leap or did you already and I somehow missed it?

  2. red says:

    Dan – I know, I love that he was like: “Bummer. Lovecraft’s great … and this might be fun but it ain’t Lovecraft!!”

    I am daunted by the Quantum Leap and writing about it – I am systematically watching them all – and have made my way thru Season 2. 3 more seasons to go.

    There is SO much to say about it! I loved the series when it was on originally – and now I love it even more. Wonderful writing, funny, smart – the dynamic between those two guys …

    I’ll be doing probably a week-long retrospective of Quantum Leap once I’ve seen the whole series in its entirety.

    I need to gear up for it!!

  3. Dan says:

    //I’ll be doing probably a week-long retrospective of Quantum Leap once I’ve seen the whole series in its entirety.//

    Awe. Some. Looking forward to it. I haven’t watched the show since college days – does it still hold up?

  4. Emily says:

    I love how obsessions with certain performers will lead you to the darkest depths of movie suckdom and come out of it wanting to write an almost academic treatise about what you’ve just witnessed.

  5. red says:

    Emily – hahahahaha It was like when I was seriously researching how to get my hands on the porn movie Stallone made.

    Like: I made INQUIRIES.

    To a video distributor in GERMANY.

    I have no shame about it either. I’d do it again.

  6. red says:

    Dan – it totally holds up.

    It’s funny, clever – and then it can rip your heart out, if necessary. Scott Bakula is wonderful (talk about under-rated! – well, I guess not – the dude is still working like crazy – but he’s just terrific, so endearing.) – and the plotlines are surprisingly NOT monotonous, even though it’s kind of the same “theme” every week.

    And Stockwell is a riot.

    But then, on the flipside, you ache for that guy. He’s kind of tortured.

    Great performance.

    Maybe I’ll do an episode by episode breakdown – although I REALLY need to get ready for that. It would almost be like an online book club – only with Quantum Leap episodes.

  7. red says:

    (Did I just say that?)

  8. Emily says:

    Now that’s what I call unconditional love.

  9. nightfly says:

    I think those are the Sideburns that Ate Cleveland.

  10. brendan says:

    I only have memories of Sandra Dee from much earlier…she is so hot. Oh my! I feel like holding my hands up to my face! And using a mortar and pestle!

  11. red says:

    Actually, not to be a downer – but Sandra Dee’s mother wouldn’t let her do the nude parts on the altar … so that’s actually a body double in those last shots. There are all these gropey moments where Stockwell clutches her bare ass or one of her boobs – but it’s not Ms. Dee herself. :(

    I love Sandra Dee, too. She’s kind of cute and simple in this. Bewildered, and drawn in to Wilbur’s insane mortar-and-pestle idea of a date-rape!

  12. Su says:

    //Like: I made INQUIRIES.
    To a video distributor in GERMANY. //

    Oh yes, porn distributors here are known for their range… LOL
    No shame, Sheila, no shame…;-)

  13. Brendan O'Malley says:

    I actually meant the shots where you can see her face, god. Give me some credit. (Cancel that Netflix order, stat!)

  14. red says:

    ha!!!

    Sorry, Bren. :(

    Yes, her face is very cute. She spends the whole movie looking quietly confused and compassionate.

    Until it is far too late!

  15. Dan says:

    Scott Bakula does indeed rock. One of my long time guilty pleasures is that football movie he did with Sinbad.

  16. red says:

    hahaha I never saw that.

    He just has this kind of sweet corny personality – that is never TOO corny – it seems like (at least on Quantum Leap) that that’s really who he is. Who knows, maybe he’s a wild man bad boy … but he’s VERY convincing as that moral-compass straight-and-narrow guy.

    Great contrast with the lascivious character Stockwell plays who appears to have f***ed anything that has moved in the last 4 decades.

  17. James says:

    Just touching upon a minor point, but isn’t “Only Angels Have Wings” vastly underrated? The cast alone is something, plus when you consider that many are placed in unfamiliar roles (Grant as a cold flyboy before his Hitchcock days, Jean Arthur as a showgirl) yet deliver the goods.

    Just glad it’s not a totally forgotten film.

  18. red says:

    I think it’s my favorite movie of all time.

    And to be fair, it’s actually not under-rated at all – It may be under-SEEN – it’s not like Casablanca or Wonderful Life – but it has a TERRIFIC reputation and I honestly have never heard anyone ever say anything negative about it.

    So if you run in serious film circles – that movie comes up all the time. It’s not forgotten at all. It’s seen as one of the best Howard Hawks films – but also as one of the best products EVER of the studio system. It’s just an example of how that system could really WORK given the right elements. The studios turned out so much generic CRAP, but then – ever so often – they got it right. Only Angels Have Wings is one of the best examples of that.

    So among the general public it might not be so well known (although it still gets television play!!)- but to movie buffs, it’s not only highly regarded – but seen as a classic.

    Also, a special oscar was created = just for the aviation sequences in that movie!

    Spectacular to this day – the scene where the plane has to land on a precarious tiny mountaintop top to rescue the injured coal miner … No special effects, it’s real flying … and takes my breath away to this day. A CGI sequence couldn’t ever come CLOSE to the excitement of that one scene!

    Calling Barranca … calling Barranca …

  19. Cullen says:

    I have seen this movie, but it has been quite some time. I must admit that I was quite disappointed about it not being true to the Lovecraft material — I was going through a huge Lovecraft phase when I watched it.

    Anyway, Lovecraft got me hooked on the word amorphous. How can you not love that?

  20. red says:

    hahahaha, cullen – I love that – how writers can do that to certain words. That’s awesome.

  21. Guess says:

    Ohh, I only have memories of Sandra Dee from much earlier.