Drive-in kings, American International Pictures pitched this as their answer to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but it’s actually their third try at an H.P. Lovecraft horror film. Pretty college student, Nancy (Sandra Dee) is inexplicably fascinated by creepy Wilbur Whatley (Dean Stockwell) when he turns up at the Miskatonic University to sneak a peek at that ever-troublesome tome of ancient lore: the Necronomicon. It isn’t long before he lures Nancy back to his spooky mansion, where a crazy old uncle (Sam Jaffe) rants in the parlour and something monstrous lurks inside a locked room. Turns out Wilbur was spawned by an alien god. Now he wants to sacrifice Nancy in a ritual and summon the Old Ones, unless good guys Professor Armitage (Ed Begley) and Dr. Corey (Lloyd Bochner in silly, old age makeup) can stop him.
Typically for a conservative outfit like AIP, The Dunwich Horror tries to equate psychedelia and the love generation with demon-worshipping evildoers. The multi-authored screenplay (including future L.A. Confidential (1997) writer-director Curtis Hanson) is pretty muddled, with Wilbur sympathetic while facing redneck bigotry then recast as Satan’s son, plotting to unleash the Old Ones upon mankind. It might’ve worked had Wilbur been a Vincent Price-style, tortured anti-hero, but dour, bleary-eyed Dean Stockwell never seems as magnetic as Nancy keeps saying he is. Listen out for a now unintentionally funny line from her concerned friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala), as an example of how words change meanings throughout the decades: “If he were a straight guy I wouldn’t be so worried!”
In her last movie role, 50’s teen starlet Sandra Dee is an appealing heroine, but the script ties Nancy down firmly as the victim, even before Wilbur straps her to the altar. A lame, freeze-frame twist leaves us nowhere to go. H.P. Lovecraft had such a pathological fear of women, the heroine’s fate is perhaps inevitable. His concept of an irrational universe often leaves his villains with the least fathomable motivations in horror. Okay, smart guy you’ve unleashed unimaginable terror - now what? Art director turned auteur, Daniel Haller has no knack for pace or drawing strong performances (or reigning in a wildly overacting Sam Jaffe), which leaves the drama somewhat stilted. His first Lovecraft movie: Die, Monster, Die! (1965) has Boris Karloff painted silver and a greenhouse full of other-dimensional monsters, but suffers similar problems.
Both films look great though. Wild hallucinations exhibit his visual flair as Nancy dreams of prehistoric natives chasing her around the woods and romping like outtakes from Woodstock (1970). Haller shoots through gauze, uses shock-cuts, coloured gels and fog to create a palpable sense of otherworldly dread. He pulls off a couple of good scares with cutaways to Wilbur’s hideously aged mother and the psychedelic monster attacks. Curious how the female victims are stripped and - it’s implied - ravished, but the men are merely slain outright. Hmm. Among the monster fodder is a young Talia Shire, having served as actress, set dresser and location scout on Haller’s best film, The Wild Racers (1968).