I love the double-feature concept of March 29’s Scream Factory (from Shout! Factory) Blu-ray disc with 1970’s The Dunwich Horror and 1971’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. What’s not to love about pairing dark, twisted authors H.P. Lovecraft (Dunwich) and Edgar Allan Poe (Rue Morgue)?
But in execution, the two films, which weren’t related in their original releases, fall short.
In part that’s because both were based on short stories expanded into movies, for which 1841’s Rue Morgue was wildly changed, morphing into less of a detective story and more of a Phantom of the Opera yarn, with a masked murderer haunting a Paris theater. As for 1928’s Dunwich, it loses Lovecraft’s brooding ’20s tableau in favor of a sunny setting in then-current day 1970.
For that film, Hollywood stalwart Dean Stockwell plays a dark man with sly, soft-spoken charm who uses an ancient, evil book (think Evil Dead) to unleash other-dimensional monstrosities. Sandra Dee, graduating a bit from her ingenue roles in Gidget, Tammy and A Summer Place — though still playing a college student at 28 — gets inadvertently involved and menaced.
You almost want to say “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee” for her while she lies on a sacrificial slab and shows a surprising amount of skin. Gidget goes R-rated! But it’s not that R-rated.
The film has trippy visuals fueled by colorful though cheap optical effects; a fine Les Baxter score; and little touches like showing a Shell gas station sign being lit only as “HELL” (akin to the sign-twisting in 1980’s Motel Hell). It’s also a kick seeing a young Talia Shire (then still billed as Talia Coppola) in a small part.
More creepy than scary, Dunwich doesn’t do justice to the horror genre’s Van Gogh (Lovecraft was another artistic genius who lived in poverty), though that’s not to say it’s a bad movie. The disc also sports the original trailer and an audio commentary by film historian Steve Haberman (hidden on the menu under audio options, instead of extras).
He also provides a commentary track for Rue Morgue, the fifth film or TV telling of that tale. Heavyweight actor Jason Robards stars, but was miscast in a role which would have been better played by Vincent Price, star of so many other Poe adaptions.
As noted by forthright director Gordon Hessler (now deceased) in the 12 minute featurette Stage Tricks & Screen Frights (recycled from a 2003 DVD release), Robards felt the film was a comedown for him despite a respectable budget for the eight-week shoot in Spain, standing in for Paris.
Thunderball’s Adolfo Celi has a detective role, with Herbert Lom as the villain, and production values are solid. But the tale and its telling don’t due Poe justice any more than Dunwich did for Lovecraft. As Hessler says, “we knew we were doing pulp fiction” and the film was recut “badly” by the studio.
I suspect both authors were spinning in their graves at these films’ releases. Given their genre, it’s a fitting image.
— Bruce Westbrook