I saw in the news that Dean Stockwell had passed away. He had a long, varied, and successful career. When you look at his IMDB page, the top performances are listed: Quantum Leap, Married to the Mob, Paris Texas, and Dune (the 1984 version). I think of him as a very young actor or as a bizarre bad guy in Blue Velvet.
But I remember him from another really, really, odd role. He was the star of a 1970 Lovecraft-based C-movie The Dunwich Horror. I saw it as a teenager – it really made an impact on me. I wrote about the film in 2012 – and thought I’d revisit it here.
Sandra Dee and the Son of Cthulhu
For folks that are around my age, the most influential person in our upbringing and general outlook on this best of all possible worlds may be Samuel Z. Arkoff. Just looking at that name brings a flood of almost subliminal memories from my childhood. Arkoff was one of the founders of American International Pictures – the source of the flood of B-movie oddness that was the main warped window we had into the world at large.
American International Pictures made films for years based on the ARKOFF formula –
- Action (exciting, entertaining drama)
- Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)
- Killing (a modicum of violence)
- Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)
- Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
- Fornication (sex appeal, for young adults)
Which pretty much says it all.
When I look at a list of American International Releases from say, 1956 up to 1981… It looks like about 232 films – I am horrified by how many, well more than half, of them I have seen – and remember seeing. There were the horror films that I saw late at night on a tiny 12-inch b&w television after discovering the amazing new world of UHF television (more than three channels – wow!…Do you remember the little loop antennas?). There were the beach films. There were the Poe films (capped by The Conqueror Worm). Blacksploitation. Bad Science Fiction.
I lived on a lot of military bases growing up and they would show at least three different movies every week; I think it cost a quarter. One of the oddest experiences I had as an adult is when I realized they don’t play the Star Spangled Banner before every movie (Army brats will know what I’m talking about). American International Pictures schlock…. Most of those would wind their way around the bases sometime.
Now they are on Netflix Streaming… though I wouldn’t advise wasting too much of your time.
But I noticed one film that had really left its mark and I wanted to re-watch it (although I knew it wasn’t a very good film) to see if my memory served me well. This was The Dunwich Horror.
It came out in 1970, so I may have seen it at a theater in Panama, but probably saw it in Managua. We would get three films a week on 16mm there and would show them at the Embassy, the Marine Compound, or our house.
It’s pretty standard Arkoff horror fare – let’s see how it stands up to the ARKOFF formula:
Action them til they’re dizzy. Don’t stop. It must be in your screenplay and in your director’s head. Employ only film editors who are as movement-crazy as you are. Kid’s love action…and they”ll go back…and will tell their peers, inferiors, and superiors what’s good.
-The Dunwich Horror definitely has action – though it doesn’t always make sense. Well, actually, it starts a little slow, but does build to a frenzy of monstrous murders with the traditional villagers pursuing and being pursued by an unseen fiend.
Revolutionary scenes get talked of. Use some new photographic devices…editing techniques…locales…smells…stunts or something. Make ’em so the sheer experience of seeing them is unique. New language, new juxtapositions, new shocks, new relationships, new attire, new oncepts…new, new, new. Revolve situations, relationships, hell, even the camera if it will get your movie talked about.
-Although it came out in 1970 – it is full of (now dated) 60’s psychedelic effects – grating electronic music/noise and solarized stylized colorized fisheye scenes of naked actors in bodypaint making grotesque faces at the camera… the usual stuff. Now it’s silly… it was sort of silly back then… but it was unique enough to leave an unpleasant memory then on a kid watching it – enough for me to remember it to this day.
Kill colorfully and often. Young audiences… like to experience death. Vicariously, of course. But then all storytelling is experiencing something that happens to someone else and you come out alive.
You should be sure to kill and do so in bizarre ways so your audience will get their money’s worth, and so they will tell others…Without death or the glamourous threats of it, I would never have been able to make the highest grossing independently-produced, independently-released film of all time, The Amityville Horror.
-Plenty of death. Again, some of it is diluted by the cheap and garish sixties effects – but still there.
Orate! Tell the world about your picture! Talk about it but more important…get people talking about it. Best way is through publicity. As my old buddy Jack Warner used to say, “The movie good enough to sell itself has not yet been produced!”
-I guess this is more concerned with publicity, which I can’t speak for. The characters do like to orate within the film, of course…
Fantasy is what audiences spend money for. Give them fantastic adventures. Entertain them by rushing them into worlds you dreamed up for them. Avoid the prosaic and commonplace. When they’re in those fantastic environments, keep everything moving ultra-fast. Action will help suspend disbelief.
-There was the fantastic element that I didn’t know anything about when I first saw the film – Lovecraft. The movie is adapted from one of his short stories. I didn’t read any H.P. Lovecraft until I was in college – they had these cheap paperbacks at the bookstore with lurid covers.
I would read a story from one of the collections and think, “no big deal,” and then try to go to sleep. It is only in the half-world between waking and somnolence that the true horror of the tales would emerge. I was hooked and am still a fan.
The Dunwich Horror of the film only bears a passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s tale, but it features more than a few touchstones of his fiction: Arkham, Miskatonic University, Yog-Sothoth, The Necrominicon, and the strong hint that the protagonist and his twin brother are actually children of Cthulhu.
Fornicating is the answer to an exhibitor’s dreams. You can’t get an ingredient in most movies that draws better than sex. Of course, you have to use it wisely…You gotta have taste. Foreplay is as important in dramaturgy as in bed. But avoid too much visual sex. It is embarassing and if it goes on too long it puts audiences to sleep. Arouse but don’t offend!
-Ah… here it is. This is what etched The Dunwich Horror into young minds. It stars Sandra Dee, for God’s sake… Gidget. She was the symbol of the innocent, wholesome teenager – so much so that she is now known mostly as the subject of ridicule in a song from “Grease.”
The Dunwich Horror, for all its Lovecraftian touchstones, is really the story of the sexual corruption of Sandra Dee. She starts out as a prim and proper university librarian that trusts an odd but handsome stranger too much, offers him a ride home, and falls under his evil spell. Before she knows what’s going on she’s up on writhing around on an altar in an unforgettable skimpy costume as the centerpiece of a ritual to bring a monstrous race of ancient horrors back to life.
At the very end, even after the sudden, inexplicable, defeat of the evil brothers, it is shown that now she is pregnant with Cthulhu’s grandson… the horror continues.
There is nothing explicit here – a modern film would not even bother with this sort of silliness. That’s sort of a shame – the schlock masters knew what they were doing, how powerful on a subliminal level the image of once innocent Sandra Dee writhing on that altar would be. Nothing much is shown, everything is implied, the imagination fills in the blanks so powerfully.
I’ve rambled on too long about a second-rate B movie that’s almost a half-century old and deservedly mostly forgotten. But these are the memories that we live with every day – some are so deep we don’t even know they are there.
PS – a fellow blogger wrote a post on this subject:
The ARKOFF Formula and the Peter Pan Syndrome