Thursday 17 August 2017

We Don't Go Back #59: The Dunwich Horror (1969)

To talk about American horror, whether it’s folk horror or not, you have to talk about Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Without Lovecraft you couldn’t have Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Alien, or Cronenberg and Carpenter and Raimi. Without Lovecraft, there’s no Stephen King, no Thomas Ligotti. It spirals backwards to him, an inexorable gravity. Even if it’s explicitly made without the influence of Lovecraft, it has to be a conscious dismissal. It has to happen in Lovecraft’s context. And there’s American horror before Lovecraft, of course there is, but Lovecraft is the bottleneck in the history of American horror.

Also I share a first name with the guy.

As surprising as it might seem, this movie is largely centred around date rape, so if you find this a difficult thing to read about, be warned.

You know you're on to a winner when the book gets scare quotes.
And let us be frank here (because there are already too many Howards in this blog post, BOOM), Lovecraft is a tremendous mixed blessing. I’ve mentioned it before, more than once, so let’s skip most of it, but the salient points here are:
  • Lovecraft’s idea of “cosmic horror”, where human history and human religion is influenced by things that are normally the preserve of science fiction – god, demons, angels, are really what we’d think of as space aliens;
  • Several, but not all, of Lovecraft’s neuroses – specifically his phobia of marine fauna, his racism, his hatred of the poor – inform his fiction heavily, and thus inform American horror, which is I think why space aliens and the like post-Lovecraft, informed by the pulps that Lovecraft began to tower over, are so often given the characteristics of marine animals, like tentacles, scales, bug eyes, slime.
Yog-Sothoth is the gate, apparently. But also the key. And the space god.
And since so many of Lovecraft’s stories were set in rural Massachusetts and deal with witches and pagans in the countryside, Lovecraft informs American folk horror too. So in Lovecraft, it’s often grotesquely portrayed hicks in the remote places who worship capital-T Things from capital-O Outside, more than city folk, and that’s a weirdly ambivalent thing, because obviously they’re depraved and evil and nuts and Must Be Stopped, but they’re also basically right, because they know the truth that City Folks don’t, vis that the only religion that works is the mathemagical (anathematical?) occult science that you find in books like the Necronomicon or the Book of Dzyan. Which, speaking of Dzyan, is pretty much how theosophists in Lovecraft’s day framed their beliefs. It was fashionable for religion to be framed by science back then, and Lovecraft ate that up.

And that makes some of Lovecraft’s work folk horror, even if the monsters are like actually space aliens. And the most obvious example of that is his 1928 story “The Dunwich Horror”.

In this story, the Whateleys, a family of degenerate country folk, make a pact with one of the Old Ones, a being called Yog-Sothoth1. Lavinia Whateley dies giving birth to Wilbur, who grows at a frightening pace. Wilbur, a goat-faced, monstrous figure, fails to steal the Necronomicon from the Miskatonic University library, because a guard dog mauls him to death. Before his body dissolves, Miskatonic librarian Professor Armitage discovers that Wilbur was hiding weird alien features – fur, tentacles, an extra mouth – under his clothes. An invisible monster bursts out of Wilbur’s home and terrorises the local countryside and kills many. Armitage takes two colleagues and, armed with an incantation from the Necronomicon, faces the thing and banishes it from the earth. The punchline is that Wilbur had a twin, who took more after the father than he did.
Not shown: Armitage washing his hands for the next half hour.
And it’s not that great a story. It ends really suddenly, with Armitage saving the day with some chanting. The hicks speak in a weird tortured dialect, and it’s not a massive stretch, given what Lovecraft himself had to say about race, to see the thing as an unconscious metaphor for miscegenation. Lovecraft had at best a tin ear for dialogue, and no idea about people at all, really. Lovecraft did this thing in his stories where he had otherwise erudite characters say what amounted to “this is like something out of [pulp fiction author]”, and in “The Dunwich Horror” he has someone who you wouldn’t imagine reading pulp horror making a reference to genre fiction.
“Inbreeding?” Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal! But what thing—what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensioned earth—was Wilbur Whateley’s father? Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912, when the talk about the queer earth noises reached clear to Arkham— What walked on the mountains that May-Night? What Roodmas horror fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?”
— Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”
"Roodmas horror." Are you kidding me, HP Lovecraft?

Anyway, it's just as well Lovecraft might do that, because “The Dunwich Horror” is a deliberate and more muscular rewrite of Welsh writer Arthur Machen’s earlier story, “The Great God Pan”, except that where in Machen’s story the half-human monster is a woman, and her unearthly power is sexual, Lovecraft’s monster is violent, hungry, and masculine but also sexless. Aside from Lavinia, who exists in the story so Wilbur and his Unnameable Twin can be born, no other women are allowed to intrude. Both stories are misogynistic in their own way, but while Machen stresses a horror of a woman as a sexual being, Lovecraft erases women altogether.

Given his importance, relatively few big-screen films have been made of Lovecraft’s stories, mainly because, I think, his monsters are so baroque that they’d be difficult or at the very least really expensive to make, and partly because they’re not generally structured in a way that lends them very well to film storytelling.
This is a roofie.
And the films that are relatively well-known aren't generally adaptations of his more significant stories, so for example, of Stuart Gordon’s three Lovecraft movies, the two best-known ones, From Beyond (1985) and Reanimator (1986), are based on relatively minor works in the Lovecraft canon although Dagon (2001) is an adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, which is a much more central piece in the canon. There was a version of minor Lovecraft story The Unnamable (1988) and even a sequel, The Unnamable Returns: The Statement of Randolph Carter (1992), but neither had a whole lot to do with the source texts. Guillermo Del Toro famously tried for some years to launch an adaptation of Lovecraft’s wonky, flawed masterpiece “At the Mountains of Madness” but to no avail. I'm sure there are others (notably some TV adaptations, like Gordon's first Masters of Horror episode, which did "The Dreams in theWitch House") but the point stands, because I'm already reaching a bit here.

So Daniel Haller’s 1969 The Dunwich Horror (produced by Roger Corman, usually a mark of a good time) is a rare example of a film based on a significant Lovecraft text that got a big-screen release. While it keeps many elements of the story, and quotes directly from it, the film version introduces a sexual element. In fact, the film becomes driven by sex. Rather than the “bent, goatish giant” of the story, Wilbur is a still-young Dean Stockwell, smooth-faced and bright-eyed, who embroils in his schemes student Nancy (teen idol Sandra Dee, seen here a few years after her star had faded somewhat). Here Wilbur is still born to cultists, and here Armitage refuses Wilbur the opportunity to study the Necronomicon, as he does in the story, but the plot diverges, as Wilbur enchants Nancy with his gaze, gets her to give him a lift home back to Dunwich2 (“Damn, there won’t be another bus until morning,”) and then slips her a roofie.
"Sex? I think it's great."
That’s right. Wilbur drugs Nancy, and while she’s nice and suggestible, gets her to stay. She has psychedelic dreams. He takes her out for a picnic, and she tells him about the dream, and then this happens:
Nancy: Ask me anything.
Wilbur: OK, how do you feel about sex?
Nancy: I think it’s great.
Wilbur: So do I, Nancy.
And once you’ve got through with cringing, the thing to take away from that exchange is that she’s lying of course, and he knows it, she’s a virgin because she’s Sandra Dee and Sandra Dee played virgins, except this is Sandra Dee after she’s stopped being in teen movies and so Wilbur takes her, drugged and pliant, up to this wild hilltop altar, and deflowers her in another one of those wild psychedelic dream sequences, which is the only part where you get to see what’s under Wilbur’s shirt which isn’t fur or tentacles, but is nonetheless a) a bit occult and b) calculated to make you think, "Mate, you really should have got yourself a better tattooist".

All the time this is going on, Nancy’s friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala) and Professor Armitage (Ed Begley the elder, in his last screen role) are looking for her and getting worried, and they do some digging. Armitage begins to get to the bottom of Wilbur’s birth with the help of the local GP, Dr. Cory (Lloyd Bochner), while Elizabeth chats with the practice nurse (Talia Shire, later best known as Adrian Balboa in the Rocky movies). The nurse reveals that Wilbur is largely shunned by the townfolk as a creep (as if we haven’t worked this out) and expresses deep misgivings as to the safety of any girlfriend he might have.
Kevin McCloud would throw a fit.
And so on. Elizabeth winds up as monster food, Nancy spends the second half of the film drugged and manipulated, and it’s up to the Professor to save Nancy, in an ending that, after the buildup of the rest of the film, is frankly perfunctory (Armitage saves the day by chanting, as in the story), with a coda that’s just as brief, suggesting that there’s going to be another Wilbur and/or twin soon, because the sex rites worked.

And, look, if a big part of that sounds like Date Rape: the Movie, you’re not wrong. The Dunwich Horror replaces Lovecraft’s classism (rather than a shack, the Whateleys live in a mansion) with breathtaking sexism. Nancy’s descent into being what amounts to Wilbur’s sex slave is inexorable and shown in quite some detail. I lost count of the number of shots of Nancy’s almost naked thigh and butt on the altar.

Still, Nancy gets it relatively easy. Every other woman in the film with a speaking part winds up dead, or violated and then dead. The monster kills a bunch of people in the final act, including a lot of guys, but when it kills Elizabeth, it tears off her clothes first, and the only reason it does this is because the director wants the audience to see her topless. Exploitative? Hell yes.
A fate worse than death, followed by death.
There’s something oddly matter-of-fact about all this. Like when he’s manipulated Nancy into giving him a lift home, he shows Nancy to the sitting room, and then he goes to the kitchen and he puts the kettle on for a cup of tea, and while the kettle’s boiling, he nips out and disables Nancy’s car, then comes back in time for the kettle to finish boiling, so he can put a roofie in her tea. Or later on, when he’s got her on the altar in a witchy robe, he’s got the Necronomicon on her tummy, only she starts writhing around a bit too much for the book to be stable, so he goes to the end of the altar, hoicks her legs apart, and then props the book up between her thighs. There’s a faint hint of unintentional comedy in how much detail there is here, the putting on of a kettle and the propping up of a book.

But it’s cynical, mainly. I mean, the script isn’t anything to write home about, being about as economical and direct as a horror film gets (no space for subtext here, oh no, at least not deliberate subtext), but the animated opening titles are great, the direction and photography is of a decent standard and the soundtrack, by Les Baxter, is excellent.
Armitage: I know enough about strange things not to laugh at them.
Hmm, the book's a bit wobbly. Better fix that.
I have to include this film in my survey, because while it’s not a direct precursor of Children of the Corn or Jug Face, it’s an earlier example of the same thing, and a direct adaptation of the wellspring from which these other, indirect films come.

If a film like Blood on Satan’s Claw qualifies with its pre-fab Satan, Lovecraft’s rural cultists with their gods they've worshipped for centuries, and their folklore about the whippoorwills, who sing when an evil person dies, and stop singing if they fail to catch their soul, surely count.

This is where we came from. You don’t have to like it, but there it is.

1OK, look. After Lovecraft, Lovecraft fans and followers, mainly at the behest of one August Derleth, systematised Lovecraft’s monsters and gods into different categories, and Yog-Sothoth, according to the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia and the Call of Cthulhu rulebook, is defined as an Outer God, but in the actual story as written, it’s an extradimensional entity worshipped by people who are not educated and/or white enough to know better and it’s called an “Old One”. (back)

2While I have always, being British, read the name Dunwich as if it were pronounced “Dunn-itch” (much like Dulwich), I was surprised that the characters in the film say “Dunn-witch”, and having taken a straw poll on those social media they have these days, discovered that the most likely American pronunciation of the town name is indeed the latter. So, you live and learn. (back)