by Mark McLaughlin
It can’t be easy, trying to make a movie out of an H.P. Lovecraft story.
If you’re a fan of his work, you might wonder why there aren’t more Lovecraftian movies. After all, his stories are all so thrilling and imaginative….
But, there are some technical issues to consider. Personally, I delight in everything that Lovecraft ever wrote, but I do realize he was writing for the printed page – not the big screen.
For one thing, most of his stories feature hybrid deities whose bizarre forms could easily confuse movie viewers. People who aren’t familiar with these creatures might think, “What’s the deal with that big fat lizard-guy with the tentacle-beard and bat-wings? Is he a demon, an alien, a mutant, a deep-sea creature or what? Why is he always asleep at the bottom of the ocean? What’s so scary about that?”
Lovecraft’s creatures carry a considerable amount of back-story, which can be imparted in a story with relative ease. But it can be tricky, trying to convey all that exposition in a movie. I suppose you could give the hero an assistant who asks a lot of questions, like any one of Dr. Who’s companions. Still, that can get tiresome before long.
How do you casually explain, on-screen, the basics of a character as wildly convoluted as Nyarlathotep? “Well, you see, he’s sort of a shape-changing demon from another dimension. He’s known as the Crawling Chaos, though I’ve never seen him crawling around. When he visits Earth, he likes to dress up as a young Egyptian pharaoh. No one really knows why.”
Also, Lovecraft’s deities/creatures are often divided up into groups that don’t sound all that different. There are the Great Ones, the Outer Gods, the Great Old Ones, the Elder Gods, and the Elder Things. Okay, most of them are really old and/or great … yeah, we get it. The real question is, who gave these groups those names? They sure didn’t name themselves. For example, the Elder Things were huge, winged aliens with heads shaped like starfish. They would’ve been more likely to call themselves the Huge Things, the Winged Things, or the Starfish-Headed Things, instead of just referring to how long they’ve been around.
American International Pictures released the Lovecraft tale, “The Dunwich Horror,” as a movie back in 1970, and it’s clear they had to make a lot of hard decisions about how closely they would adhere to the original plot.
In the written story, the lead character, Wilbur Whateley, was the hybrid son of a human woman and the cosmic entity Yog-Sothoth. Wilbur was a freakishly tall, misshapen humanoid with a riotous conglomeration of unearthly limbs and organs. Obviously that would have been an expensive challenge for the production company’s make-up department.
That’s probably why they hired a handsome hunk, Dean Stockwell, for the part … that, and the fact that he was far more visually appealing than some transdimensional body-part casserole. Of course, they did want him to look somewhat sinister, so they gave him a sinister mustache. It really was an awesomely thick mustache … a veritable mustache of madness. I suspect they also made his hair curlier, and his eyebrows bushier, to make him look randy and satyresque.
The original story didn’t have a romantic interest, which is no surprise to Lovecraft readers. Fiction-wise, romance was not Lovecraft’s strong suit. Love – and women, for that matter – rarely figured into any of his plots. That must be why Sandra Dee was brought into the film. A nationally released movie without an element of romance isn’t going to get very far.
The print version of “The Dunwich Horror” made readers wonder whether or not ancient monstrosities would take over the Earth and destroy humanity. The movie version made viewers wonder whether or not Nancy, the perky coed played by Sandra Dee, would finally lose her virginity to Arkham’s handsome mystic outcast.
One of my favorite moments in the movie comes shortly after the distinguished Dr. Armitage asks Nancy, who helps out in Miskatonic University’s library, to take care in putting away the priceless Necronomicon. Nancy agrees, but in no time at all, she allows Wilbur Whateley to browse through the ancient grimoire because he has “great eyes.” I’m glad she’s not in charge of national security….
Later, in the movie’s saucy ritual scenes, one cannot help but notice that Wilbur has propped up the Necronomicon on Nancy’s luscious body. At one point, he even has to part her legs a bit to get a better look at … the book, presumably.
We’re entering spoiler territory now, so please, don’t read on if you plan on watching the movie and would like to be surprised.
Certainly the movie’s most dramatic scene is when Wilbur and Dr. Armitage have their final face-off at the pagan altar site. Out of the blue, they begin to jabber occult phrases at each other that sound like words being hollered backwards. Apparently, the good doctor is better at jabbering, and has learned a higher quality of backward buzzwords. His occult cries cause Wilbur to burst into flames, and the defeated lad falls screaming off a nearby cliff.
At that moment, Wilbur’s supernatural, snake-tressed twin brother decides to make the scene. But by then, Wilbur has perished, the magic has dissipated, so the twin must depart for some Yog-Sothothian limbo. I was hoping that the twin would look like a giant mustache, composed of thousands of slender tentacles, but I suppose such an expensive effect would have been beyond the production’s budget.
Will there ever come a day when Lovecraftian movies are as popular as superhero movies? Probably not. Like I said: For most viewers, they’d require too much explanation. Lovecraft’s fictional world is filled with otherworldly concepts and pseudo-scientific mysteries, and that’s the way it should be. He wished to generate a profound sense of cosmic awe, leaving readers with more questions than mere words could ever answer.
The movie “The Dunwich Horror” is certainly enjoyable, but it doesn’t capture the dark, brooding brilliance of Lovecraft’s story. At least it presents many of the written tale’s marvelous concepts and inventive plot points … and really, that’s good enough. Hopefully, many of the folks who have seen the movie have found and enjoyed the source material, ushering new devotees into Lovecraft’s literary domain.