H.P. Lovecraft’s Horrifying Tale of the Necronomicon, Starring Sandra Dee

As Hollywood continues to remake horror films for a new generation, this overlooked gem could be fabulous source material with a fresh coat of paint. Based on horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s original story, someone attempts to bring the ‘Old Ones’ to our dimension using the Necronomicon, a forbidden book of knowledge. Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee star in The Dunwich Horror, an unappreciated Gothic chiller by director Daniel Haller. The 1970 horror movie is genuinely creepy and one of the best Lovecraft adaptations.

H.P. Lovecraft’s name is legendary to horror fans as one of the genre’s founding titans, crafting through his writings an entire mythology of monsters around Cthulhu and beings called the Old Ones. The Dunwich Horror is one of his stories that translates easiest to the screen with its basic story and satisfying ending. Haller’s movie adaptation is a smart, atmospheric telling with stylish direction, fleshing out the original story with convincing performances.

The Dunwich Horror also happens to be one of the most effective horror movies of its day at actually frightening audiences, wisely leaving the most shocking moments to the audience’s imagination. Horror in the Seventies often lacked genuine scares, which is not the case in Haller’s film. The Dunwich Horror’s compelling mixture of Lovecraftian themes and eerie suspense is up there with the best Hammer films of its time for true terror.

The small New England town of Dunwich hides a dark secret. Perky college student Nancy (Sandra Dee) and her professor, a Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley), encounter a young man desperate to read the Necronomicon at nearby Miskatonic University. Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) and his family have a deep connection to the dreaded tome, an ancient and esoteric manual for summoning demons and other forbidden knowledge. The Necronomicon is a fictional book central to Lovecraft’s mythology, revealing dark secrets for the Old Ones’ human followers. For what evil purpose does Wilbur want to use it and what are his plans for the lovely Nancy?

Sandra Dee is perfectly cast in the role as the ingenue attracted to the mysterious Wilbur.

Wilbur is an atypical villain, quiet and unassuming in demeanor. From his first meeting with Nancy, it is clear Wilbur has evil intentions for her. Living alone with his grandfather (Sam Jaffe), the Whateley family worships the Old Ones. A race of ancient monsters that left the Earth for another dimension before mankind first appeared in Lovecraft’s elaborate stories, the Whateleys hope to perform the necessary occult rituals in opening the portal and bring the Old Ones back to Earth. Key to Wilbur’s plan is Nancy, an unwitting accomplice in serving the Old Ones.

If there is one criticism that can be leveled against the movie, Nancy is asleep for much of the movie. Kept in check by Wilbur’s smooth handling, Nancy almost feels superfluous to the rising conflict between Wilbur and the town of Dunwich. Sandra Dee is perfectly cast in the role as the ingenue attracted to the mysterious Wilbur. A modern remake would almost certainly beef up her role, making her more of an active participant in her own fate.

They don’t make horror movies like this anymore. The Dunwich Horror is a lean, taut occult thriller rich in atmosphere, weaving a compelling movie from Lovecraft’s original story. It is truly an essential movie for classic horror fans featuring memorable performances by Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell.

Movie ★★★★★

The Dunwich Horror Blu-ray screen shot 10

The 1970 horror movie arrives on Blu-ray in a serviceable, steady, and mostly unremarkable presentation. Scream Factory has released it as a double-feature sharing a BD-50 with Murders In The Rue Morgue. Taken from intact, undamaged elements, the film-like transfer is watchable.

The main feature runs 87 minutes, encoded in a solid AVC video encode at 1080P resolution. It is properly presented in a widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio, preserving the wonderful credit sequence. Scream Factory has improved immensely over the past year at its encoding practices, minimizing most artifacts with more transparent video. Aside from faint hints of chroma noise, the grain structure survives in fine form.

The film elements themselves, licensed from MGM, are unrestored with a few visible cue marks, indicating a secondary film source with ordinary inherent resolution. They are in clean condition other than a few specks. A rich, crisp color saturation with excellent contrast on interior shots make up for the slightly washed-out exteriors. Detail and definition are decent in quality but fairly ordinary by today’s standards. The film scan does look relatively new in appearance, its clarity and depth are much improved over the older MGM DVD.

Fans should be fairly happy with Scream Factory’s fine presentation of The Dunwich Horror. Many licensed MGM properties like it have turned out much worse on Blu-ray. Only a better scan from the negative could improve the video quality to any appreciable degree.

Video ★★★★☆

The movie’s mono soundtrack arrives in adequate but limited 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio. Composer Les Baxter’s distinctive score adds a great deal of atmosphere to the movie, backed with attempts at eerie sound design. Recorded in the Todd-AO sound system, heavy distortion is evident at the upper frequency ranges when the Old Ones start grumbling. Dialogue is clean and intelligible, placed evenly in the mono mix. There are definite recording limitations to this soundtrack’s fidelity, this audio likely sounds as good as the movie will ever sound.

Optional English SDH subtitles appear in a white font.

Audio ★★☆☆☆

Scream Factory has released The Dunwich Horror in a double-feature with Murders in the Rue Morgue. Please see the separate review for included special features pertaining to Murders in the Rue Morgue. As this distributor usually does with its double features, the cover contains original poster art advertising the movie and alternate VHS-style movie information on the reverse.

Audio Commentary with Author and Film Historian Steve Haberman – An unusual solo commentary but one packed with information. Haberman reads prepared text related to various production aspects, including covering the cast and crew. I did find the information about the early battles over this movie’s rating, one of the first by the MPAA in this period, very interesting. The discussion does sound a bit stiff with Haberman reading off the page most of the time. He clearly did a lot of research and presents a lot of fascinating tidbits.

The Dunwich Horror Theatrical Trailer (02:16 in HD)

Extras ★★★☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray.

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