American International Pictures (AIP) is best remembered as the brainchild of Samuel Z. Arkoff, an entertainment lawyer who crafted a formula based on filming low-budget exploitation features geared towards teenagers. Originally started in the late-50s, AIP would become the home studio for the Beach Party films, as well as Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. As with any low-budget studio it’s where once A-list stars go to make a quick buck, and it’s where we have today’s film: The Dunwich Horror. Loosely based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror is probably best remembered for featuring Sandra Dee sans shirt. Honestly, that’s about the only excitement found in this routine Satanic cult thriller obviously hoping to cash in on Rosemary’s Baby.
A mysterious man named Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) shows up a university hoping to “borrow” the famed Necronomicon, as you do. However, he finds something better in Nancy Wagner (Dee), who Wilbur invites to his home for the weekend. Unfortunately, Nancy is being prepped for a darker purpose than she could have expected.
Roman Polanski’s fingerprints are dusted throughout The Dunwich Horror, but instead of imitating him Rosemary’s Baby (released two years prior), director Daniel Haller and screenwriters Curtis Hanson (yes, L.A. Confidential Curtis Hanson) and Henry Rosenbaum attempt to cobble together Rosemary’s Baby with leftovers from the Poe films. Corman and Arkoff spared no expense, creating a grand set for the Whateley manor. If only as much thought went into the script as the sets and casting.
Make no mistake, the casting of this will tickle classic movie fans who’ll be surprised to see not just Stockwell and Dee, but Ed Begely and Sam Jaffe; Talia Shire also has a small cameo as a nurse. With almost all of them on the downhill skids of their career, they aren’t running through their paces in the acting department. Dee, too old for Gidget, isn’t given much beside being the dumb girl, swayed into letting Wilbur look at the Necronomicon because he’s cute. (Apparently Dean Stockwell’s 1970s Chuck Traynor facial hair and afro made the ladies weak in the knees.) Once Wilbur gets Nancy to his estate the movie becomes an excuse to place Dee in LSD-infused dream sequences and get her naked and ready to be impregnated by…something.
A woman in labor pains opens the film and it’s fairly easy to figure out what Wilbur’s game is; one of the many problems the movie has coming after Rosemary’s Baby. There’s just no mystery to anything, nothing new or original with the premise. The exploitation of Dee couldn’t be more apparent because there’s nothing leading up to it but the actual reveal of her nude! The rest of the movie is fairly rote, with Nancy’s friend and professor (Ed Begley) coming to save her; Nancy and Wilbur having some awkward flirtation (the chemistry between Dee and Stockwell is non-existent), before the denouement that, oh, no Nancy’s got hell-spawn in her. The movie ends immediately after this reveal so what’s the point? If you want to give me something show me Gidget birthing the spawn of Satan!
Dee and Begley aren’t the worst offenders in the over-acting world. No, that honor goes to Dean Stockwell. If you watched Stockwell play the poor little rich boy in The Secret Garden, imagine that kid all grown up! Stockwell, with that aforementioned 1970s stache and ‘fro, spends too much time alternating between opening his eyes wide enough for them to pop out of his skull or squinting them to the point of falling asleep. I’m sure eyeball-acting can be done well, but it just makes Stockwell looks skeezy and weird from the first minute he arrives. There’s no way any woman would find this guy intriguing, let alone a woman as gorgeous as Dee. I know definitions of masculinity were different in the 1970s, but I’m pretty sure women could tell a creep when they see one.
There isn’t much more to say about The Dunwich Horror. The acting is shoddy despite the magnanimity of the cast and sets; the plot is a retelling of a better story; and there’s really not much worth making fun of (the worst offense a bad horror movie can commit). AIP made some fun camp classics, but there’s nothing camp or classic, or particularly fun about this. I won’t say it’s horrible, as Dee is worth watching and it’s quick, but it’s not good.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.