Dunwich Horror Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: January 10, 2023
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 88:24
Director: Daniel Haller
A mysterious young man named Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) travels from the small town of Dunwich to the library of the Miskatonic University, which holds one of the only copies of the Necronomicon, a legendary book of occult lore that Wilbur hopes to borrow. Graduate student Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) falls under his malign influence and travels with him back to his home where Wilbur has plans to use her in a ritual to raise ‘The Old Ones’ – cosmic beings from another dimension. But who, or what, is in the locked room at the top of the stairs? And what will happen if they get out? (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Few authors have been more influential to horror cinema than Howard Phillips Lovecraft. While the majority of Lovecraft related media tends to be of the ‘inspired by’ variety, a number of movies have been directly adapted from the writer’s work. Several of these earliest credited adaptations were produced by Roger Corman and American International Pictures, beginning with The Haunted Palace (1963), based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (pub. 1941), directed by Corman himself, and misattributed to Edgar Allan Poe as part of his Poe Cycle. This was followed by Die, Monster, Die! (1965), based on The Colour Out of Space (pub. 1927) and directed by Poe Cycle production designer Daniel Haller, his debut behind the camera. Corman put Haller on a couple of bikersploitation programmers, Devil’s Angels (1967) and Wild Racers (1968), then handed him AIP’s fourth Lovecraft adaptation (after Vernon Swell’s The Crimson Altar ), The Dunwich Horror (1970), based on the story of the same name (pub. 1929).
Dunwich Horror effectively ended the AIP brand of Lovecraft movie and combines vestiges of Corman’s opulent soundstages and Victorian style with a more contemporary approach. Haller indulges in baroque, Gothic set dressing and Corman’s trademark psychedelia with a naturalistic twist and counterculture attitude. This difference is personified in the lead performance from a young Dean Stockwell. A decade prior, Corman would’ve cast Vincent Price as the charming, but dangerous villain. Though Price would’ve been capable of playing Wilbur Whateley (at his age, he would’ve been a better fit for the Ed Begley role), his antiquated acid wit would’ve felt like a throwback at the time and not in the good way that it does 50 years later (though the lack of Price almost certainly keeps Dunwich Horror from being more celebrated outside of Lovecraft fan circles). Stockwell's quieter brand of sinister charisma is what the next generation called for. While still heavily altered, it’s a comparatively accurate adaptation from screenwriters Curtis Hanson (who would go on to write/direct LA Confidential ), Henry Rosenbaum, and Ronald Silkosky, who embrace the fine details of Lovecraft’s larger mythology, including Dunwich itself, the city of Arkham, Miskatonic University, the occult texts known as the Necronomicon, and direct reference to the ancient, unknowable gods known as The Old Ones. For his part, Haller struggles to depict the author’s prose, but accounts for his budgetary limits and makes the right choice to abstractly portray unknowable evils with Corman-esque, psychedelic color saturation and inversion.
Sometimes, there is a sense of whiplash in the combination of eras. Dunwich Horror isn’t quite up to the immediacy of the post-Night of the Living Dead horror world. The experimental editing and camera tricks are up to the New Hollywood standard and there are PG-worthy ‘adult themes’ that inject a bit of unexpected danger into the proceedings. The abrupt shift from the safety of Saturday matinee ideas to a topless hippie orgy nightmare and a (mostly tame) version of Rosemary’s Baby’s rape scene is genuinely distressing. I suppose one shouldn’t expect the first AIP horror movie of the ‘70s to suddenly feature gore on par with Hammer (especially since they’d been censoring Mario Bava movies since the ‘60s), but I think the lack of shock value is still notable and a little strange, considering how badly Haller wants to remind us of Roman Polaski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). It’s actually interesting to track the escalation of sex & violence throughout the rest of that year, as they released Bob Kelljan’s Count Yorga, Vampire, Gordon Hessler’s Cry of the Banshee, Jess Franco’s Venus in Furs, and Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (Hammer’s first sapphic vampire movie), in that order.
Keep your eyes peeled for a pre-Godfather and pre-Rocky Talia Shire (née Coppola) in a small role as a nurse.
Dunwich Horror has had a healthy life on home video, thanks to distributor MGM shoveling it onto every format under the sun including a barebones anamorphic DVD and a double-feature Blu-ray with Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971), slightly misframed at 1.78:1. I don’t have access to that disc for direct comparison, but I imagine that, like most MGM HD transfers, there was room for improvement. Arrow’s Blu-ray features a new 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative that was graded and restored in 2K and is presented here in 1080p, 1.85:1 video. This is a clean and richly textured transfer that is vivid when it needs to be, but otherwise appropriately subdued and moody. Colors are consistent, shadows are strong without crushing the fine details, and grain levels are even. There are few digital artifacts or print blemishes, aside from occasional white dots and a handful of scenes with a dash of brown/yellow dirt. It might be possible to squeeze a little more detail from the wide-angle shots, but I appreciate the disc’s producers not overcompensating with sharpening effects.
Dunwich Horror is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio and its original mono sound. The sound design is simple in terms of layering, meaning that the consistency of the dialogue (including some obvious ADR) is important and effects are limited to mostly incidental noises. Music gives the track its biggest workout, even covering for the lack of supernatural sound effects, aside from the very silly “rahh-rahh” vocalization of the invisible evil. Jazz composer and AIP regular Les Baxter supplied the score and it is all-around good, especially the rock drum-infused title version of the melancholic main theme, which is set to an animated opening. Even at its loudest, the music doesn’t have issues peaking or buzzing, though it is a bit muffled at low volume levels.
Commentary with Guy Adams and Alexandra Benedict – The co-creators of the audio drama Arkham County (2020) take an amiable approach to their track, cracking jokes alongside factoids about The Dunwich Horror story vs. the film, Lovecraft’s work, health problems, and legacy, and the appropriate pronunciation of “Dunwich.”
The Door into Dunwich (130:13, HD) – A very, very long Zoom conversation between Swamp Thing artist and film historian Stephen R. Bissette and horror author Stephen Laws in which they discuss The Dunwich Horror. Or at least that’s the plan. The discussion (which runs considerably longer than the film) covers all things Lovecraft from a largely personal perspective, like two new friends feeling each other out after meeting at a mutual friend’s house party. It’s also educational, of course, as Bissette, in particular, brings extensive research to the table.
After Summer After Winter (16:21, HD) – A second, more easily digestible interview with Ruthanna Emrys, author of The Innsmouth Legacy novel series, on Lovecraft writing, its mythos and themes, and Dunwich Horror as an adaptation.
The Sound of Cosmic Terror (32:06, HD) – Music historian and author of Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-Garde (McFarland Press, 2009) David Huckvale takes a deep dive into Les Baxter’s Dunwich Horror score. After running through Baxter’s early career, Huckvale literally breaks down Baxter’s music note by note.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.