Sunday, October 8, 2023

American Gothic Week: Of Their semblance no man may know, saving only in the features They have begotten on mankind; and of those there are many sorts, differing in likeness from man's truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them


Directed by Daniel Haller
Written by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, and Ronald Silkosky (based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft)

Spoilers: maybe kind of high?

In 1965, after years of loyal service to the company as a production designer and an art director, above all for Roger Corman on his Edgar Allan Poe films, AIP tasked Daniel Haller with directing the very first film he could call his own, Die, Monster, Die!this being the boisterously vague new title given to it by AIP, though it was an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space," one of the author's best works.  On the basis of Die, Monster, Die!, it seemed like we'd gotten a terrible bargain, losing arguably the single best art director in the whole world (that is, on a per-dollar basis) and only getting in return a flailing, semi-competent film director who did things like use split-diopters in shots with only one apparent subject in the frame, and managed to make a movie where, if it was the only exposure you ever had to him, you probably wouldn't guess that Boris Karloff is generally held to be a significantly better actor than Nick Adams.  It is also (though this is less Haller's fault) tremendously bad at being a Lovecraft adaptation, so it's a curious thing that Haller's entire legacy as a feature film director is basically synonymous with H.P. Lovecraft: in the late 1960s, after Die, Monster, Die!, he made two biker movies for AIP under Corman after Corman's brief restoration as a producer at the company; in the very early 1970s he seems to have tried to break into the mainstream, with a dubious-looking sex comedy, about an Irish bounder, and a slightly-better-looking sex drama, about a fornicating priest, neither of which appear to have made much impact, and soon thereafter he settled into television where, happily, he did wind up with something that looks like a productive and varied career (his last theatrically-released anything was the pilot, originally intended for broadcast, for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which, hey, isn't nothing).

In 1970 on the dot, he sealed his Lovecraft legacy with The Dunwich Horror, the very first Lovecraft film adaptation to use one of Lovecraft's own titles, and to the best of my knowledge it was only the third of any fashion at all*; Haller had even art directed the first, The Haunted Palace, a rendition of "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" in the style of one of Corman's Poes, before he directed the second, the aforementioned Die, Monster, Die!  Well, Haller must've learned a lot between 1965 and here, because The Dunwich Horror is a vastly more assured thing than Die, Monster, Die!, and maybe it's worth mentioning that Haller's best teacher, Corman, was an executive producer on this one (though it seems relatively clear that The Dunwich Horror was made now because there was Rosemary's Baby to exploit, there were discussions of doing Lovecraft's 1927 story "The Dunwich Horror" as far back as 1963, and one presumes Corman would have been its director then had AIP followed through).  Even so, the one really significant point of recommendation for Die, Monster, Die! as a Lovecraft adaptation, or just as cinema generallyHaller's trippy, lo-fi-and-more-effective-for-it approach to visualizing the fundamentally non-visualizable "monster" of "The Colour Out of Space"is a feat Haller manages again here, innovating once more to visualize the merely more-or-less non-visualizable monster of "The Dunwich Horror."

Haller's The Dunwich Horror is better Lovecraft, too, and, yes, practically anything would be better Lovecraft than Die, Monster, Die!simply by being set in what they have the decency to at least call New England, it's better than Die, Monster, Die!, no matter how astonishingly obvious it might be that we're in Californiabut The Dunwich Horror appears to have been, to start with, written by people who had read, understood, and possibly even liked the original Lovecraft story.  Without being so badly undercut by his screenplay this time, we can see that Haller "gets" Lovecraft after all, to the extent anybody making so much as a semi-major motion picture ever "gets" Lovecraft.  As much of a surprise as it is coming from the Die, Monster, Die! guy, I'm not sure I could name too many other Lovecraft adaptations more faithful to the plot of a Lovecraft text.

Which needless to say leaves a lot of room to be unfaithful; it's turning out more and more to be the case that The Haunted Palace, which I complained about being set in the 1870s, is one of the only major Lovecraft adaptations that even bothers with "period" at allhere in 2023, 1875 is closer to Lovecraft than we areand so, of course, 1970's The Dunwich Horror takes place in no "period" earlier than 1969.  To some degree, this works out: there's a "dark hippie" complexion here that dovetails nicely enough with Lovecraftian cults.  In either case, we do begin a little bit earlier, about twenty-odd years earlier (which, accordingly, elides the rapid growth of Lovecraft's villain, though that's always been a small detail and the film changes him a lot more than just that when they cast Dean Stockwell as a sexier, more charimastic version of the decidedly unsexy, uncharismatic antagonist of Lovecraft's story); we begin, anyway, with a glimpse of childbirth, that segues immediately into the limited animation of Sandy Dvore's starkly graphic opening credits sequence, playing a perverse little game with Christian nativity imagery until we arrive at a mountain-sized demonic creature, though what's really memorable already is that wild, wild score, courtesy Haller's fellow Corman Poe veteran Les Baxter.  There's a fair amount more to Baxter's score than thisa lot of score bleeding into the ambient sound design, and nice horror movie electronic weirdnessesbut the main theme, which in its various forms probably amounts to an absolute preponderance of the score, is a hell of a thing, an extraordinarily strange piece to accompany a horror movie: it's certainly downbeat, but it helps bridge this to science fictionand I sort of prefer the horror of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos to be equal parts science fiction, something readily accomplished in, for example, "The Shadow Out of Time," and less readily accomplished with the ones full of phonetically-dubious chants and generic magical rites, like, well, "The Dunwich Horror"and Baxter's main theme wouldn't be that out of place in, like, a relationship drama, this sort of very vaguely psychedelic jazz that, if it weren't also pretty terrific on its merits, I suppose I wouldn't be talking about it so much.  Though if you didn't like it, The Dunwich Horror would probably get tedious quickly.

It's a great, distinctive, and ambitious way to open, and those qualities do recede afterward (at least for a while), as we grapple with The Dunwich Horror's three screenwriters' go at contemporizing "The Dunwich Horror."  So: here at Miskatonic University in the sunny, Southern Californian changeless, legend-haunted city of Arkham, Massachusetts, we find a couple of students, Elizabeth Hamilton (Donna Baccala) and, more importantly, Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee, hellbent for leather to get out from teen girl roles, to the extent of shit-talking literally all her previous movies in publicity for, of all things, this movie, apparently having thrown herself at the first "grown-up role" that came her way, and while obviously your idea and my idea of a such a thing may differ from The Dunwich Horror's, I guess I begrudgingly accept "broodmare to other-dimensional monstrosities" requires "maturity" of some fashion or another).  Presently, Nancy and Elizabeth are putting away a certain ancient tome at the behest of their occult professor, Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley), only to be interrupted by an importune request for a quick glance at the book from one Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell), whom we will soon learn, if we didn't immediately figure it out, was the child born to a certain ancient father back in the credits sequence.  Armitage has refused Wilbur, but Nancy, captured by Wilbur's steady, almost hypnotic gaze, almost relents.  After all, going by Lovecraft, half the job of any member of Miskatonic's library staff was refusing poor, ugly people access to silly books from small minority religions, as in "The Dunwich Horror," while allowing attractive, well-dressed people to spend hours alone with them and jot down notes in their margins, as in "The Shadow Out of Time"; and as this particular Wilbur Whateley isn't quite so hard on the eyes, surely Dr. Armitage just made a mistake.  Armitage throws him out anyway, but Wilbur catches his curiosity when he says his name, as Armitage is aware of Wilbur's decrepit grandfather's (Sam Jaffe's) adherence to the Other Gods, and after a seemingly nice dinner with the professor and the two women, Wilbur "accidentally" misses his bus back to his hometown, and Nancy, a little taken with the fellow, is more than happy to give him a ride back.  You could perhaps guess, even if I hadn't spoiled it above, that Wilbur's desire for Nancy is not exactly for himself alone.

This is the major divergence from "The Dunwich Horror," and even then, it isn't that much of a change: Lovecraft had, let's be politic and say, an interest in the provenance of bloodlinessometimes this is flat racism, sometimes it's his evidently even more intense (perhaps even more frequently-expressed) hatred of the lesser strains of white people (in "The Dunwich Horror," it's both!), and sometimes this clearly has more to do with Lovecraft's fear of the insanity that marked his own ancestry (it's not certain if Lovecraft knew his father's mental illness was from venereal disease, not genes, though either would fit as an inspiration).  This latter theme crops up in all sorts of ways in his stories, even if it sometimes winds up couched in terms barely to the side of unveiled racism (such as in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth")but while cross-bred half-alien freaks are a Lovecraft staple, the repulsed asexual didn't seem to have much interest in dwelling on the details of their conception.  This is 1970, and AIP, so you don't need to guess what their priorities were, but ultimately what it amounts to is only moving outer god rape out of the backstory and into the foreground and making those details one of the more significant aspects of the horror.  And so we can draw a straight line from Haller to Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna's obscenely sexualized Lovecraftian horrors; but, more proximately, we have the middle of The Dunwich Horror, with Nancy getting sucked into Wilbur's honeytrap, getting drugged and chanted at in between nice picnics, so that there's obviously the element of outright mind control, but an unsettlingly unresisting current in Dee's performance too (or it might just be a slightly-bad, affectless performance, but it gets the idea across).

Not all of this is great: it's a movie where, to a degree, the lack of all that much plot can mean it can slightly feel like nothing's happening, and when things are happening, it's Armitage, Elizabeth, and Dunwich physician Cory (Lloyd Bochner) scoobying around, and while a final frame reversal does some terrific work undercutting any simple ending, it's bound to replicate the weaknesses of "The Dunwich Horror" itself, thanks to that fidelity I was just praising.  "The Dunwich Horror" is a bit of an outlier in Lovecraft, not in a good way, in that, with Armitage, it has a competent hero who basically knows what he's dealing with and even how to deal with it, so inevitably the film winds up with a sorcery climax that unfortunately involves a fair amount of Stockwell making Pan's horns at Begley.  (Haller can't, or won't, cheat like Lovecraft did, as Lovecraft at least managed to keep it mysterious and cool by depicting his climax from the point-of-view of the Dunwich hillbillies watching from miles away; hence it's kind of what you would expect from two guys standing there, invoking deities at one another on a small budget.  More aggravatingly, they never even do anything visually with the implication that Wilbur, handsome Stockwell or no handsome Stockwell, still ought to fall a little short of "man's truest eidolon.")  I also mildly despise art director Paul Sylos's creation of the Whateleys estate, a sour thing to have to say about a movie directed by a production designer, and some of that is just the architectural differences from the novel (for whatever reason, Old Whateley was not compelled to renovate his upper stories in this one, for the upstairs resident has not outgrown a regular old bedroom).  But most of it is aesthetic, particularly the abandonment of the rural decadence that Lovecraft harped on whenever things went into the countrysideyou get a sense of atavistic impoverishment, despite the Whateley's gold hoard, in the storyand this is pretty much just a house.  It might be a somewhat luridly-designed, Victorian house, with pagan (and New Age) accoutrements that help it feel sinister (even 70s-sinister), but the big thing here is that Haller is not being served well by cinematographer Richard Glouner, who is overlighting the hell out of these spaces where, hypothetically, evil dwells, and there's another child of a malevolent outer god waiting upstairs.

What it really has going for it, though, is Haller marshaling some strong hallucinatory imagery to get the otherwordly danger across.  Sometimes this is sexualthe sharply quick-cut dreams of cultic orgies juxtaposed against shots of the oceanside cliffs, and I'm not entirely sure what to even make of reciting from a Necronomicon propped up against Dee's thighs, but I like it (and sometimes it's not even hallucinatory as such, but rather feels like Haller is uniquely obsessed with photographing close-ups of Dee's sartorius, though this might just be an accident of costuming and the limited number of angles available on her pelvic area that would have appreciable skin in them)and, thinking on it, with very few exceptions, it's practically always sexual.  But there is the overriding matter of Wilbur's nameless brother.  As implied, Haller has not been afraid to take some risks that could collapse into goofiness, and happily The Dunwich Horror has mostly fallen onto the "fascinatingly off-beat" side of it, but our first contact with the other son of Yog-Sothoth alongside poor, instrumental Elizabeth is a wild swing.  As far as my thoughts on it go, it's an absolute success; AIP's horror flicks can be a lot of fun but they are very rarely scary, but this is scary, and very much on the basis of how incredibly startling it is when Haller blasts it right in our face in the middle of the movie with, essentially, no warning that he's going to be going this psychedelic, with this (it's hard to describe it any other way) pop art version of Lovecraftian horror, all coruscating colors and jagged editing.  It's almost undeniably kitsch (and not even necessarily that originalthere's not a little bit of 2001 in it, and more than a dash of Star Trek's "Is There In Truth No Beauty?"), but whatever: it is such aggressive, enervating kitsch that it doesn't feel like "kitsch" in the moment.  I have praise for the way Haller obliquely communicates the cross-country rampage, too, with POV shots and a really powerful wind machine, though this is more eerie than it is disorientingly frightening like Wilbur's brother's first emergence; and that one sequence is worth so much, as one of the single most intelligent handlings of Lovecraft's descriptions of the indescribable in any visual medium.

And so it's maybe a shame that Haller didn't do more than just the two Lovecrafts, even if the first one sucked.  He claimed to have been offered every opportunity to do AIP's post-Corman Poes, but declinedthose, he said, belonged to his friendbut The Dunwich Horror makes it feel like we missed out on a potentially rich vein here, a Haller Lovecraft Cycle for the early 70s that, in time, perhaps could've even stood next to Corman's own contributions to the history of literary horror on film.

Score: 7/10

*There's the question of 1968's Curse of Crimson Altar, which they say is an uncredited adaptation, though it appears to have been less inspired by "The Dreams In the Witch House" than inspired by somebody's pitch to do "The Dreams In the Witch House."  But it looks fun, with an iconic cast, and we might just have to circle back.

No comments:

Post a Comment