Column: Slicing Score: The Dunwich Horror (1970)

By Maria Mitchell

The Dunwich Horror (Soundtrack). Music composed and conducted by Les Baxter.

The Dunwich Horror debuted in theaters in 1970, generated mediocre success for its parent, American International Pictures, and faded away into quiet obscurity. Author William K. Everson concisely reveals in his compendium, The Classics of Horror Film (Citadel Press; 1977), why the film didn’t succeed as earlier Poe-inspired cheapies churned out by American International had: “Although it didn’t come off, Lovecraft received far more serious attention than Poe in this quite stylish film made to cash in on the new devil-worshiping cycle made fashionable by Rosemary’s Baby.”

While Lovecraft’s original story did utilize the forbidden mating of a human woman and a god-like father generating a god-like offspring, this angle, unlike Rosemary’s Baby, wasn’t the actual focus of the story. The actual focus of the story is the intent of god-like beings to destroy mankind. Because sexual heat often titillates audiences, this angle is usually played up in film, but one should remember that the Old Ones are not interested in mankind’s welfare and they do not find mankind (or comely Sandra Dee womankind) attractive. For the Old Ones, mating is just a means to produce an end to humanity.

AIP, by treating The Dunwich Horror more as a kind of supernatural soap opera with S&M overtones played out between Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee, rather than an apocalyptic vision of cosmic terror, allows the film to fall flat. This is a shame because the film does have a few extremely handsome qualities, even taking the script the extra mile to quote passages from Lovecraft’s actual text in some scenes.

One quality the film boasts that is the hardest to ignore is the stirring and memorable soundtrack composed by Les Baxter. Mixing a lush, bittersweet title theme chimed by sweeping piano chords with exotic Arab flute trills, menacing french horn fugues, weirdly dissonant violin rifts, and sonorous tubular bells, this is a score that creates a moody, orchestral landscape that evokes all the strange beauty of Dunwich H.P.L. alluded to in the original story. Human emotion plays within these cues like plaintive cries in the dark. It’s actually only through some clever transposition of the bitterly-lovely music and Dean Stockwell’s on-screen performance that we the audience are able to feel any sympathy for this ominous outcast. The music, not the script, or performances, is what generates a very human sadness in Wilbur Whateley. Lovecraft buffs may instinctively want to think this humanity is unnecessary, but I believe it’s a legit angle to explore, because even in the original story, Wilbur was still partially human, even if he was a “Roodmas horror fastened onto this world in half flesh and blood.” As someone teetering between humanity and immortality, Wilbur certainly is the epitome of an outcast not belonging to either world.

It is this isolation that seems to draw Sandra Dee’s character to him. This empathy is what elevates her character above the traditional blond virgin sacrifice staple in many horror films. She is more than just the supple victim; she is a woman making a conscious choice to pursue a flawed man in hopes of finding a redeemable quality in him. Her trust is rewarded with a slew of over-the-top, drug-induced nightmares, manipulations and violations, and this chain makes an otherwise-promising film hard to pass due to its absurdity, but once more, the music never fails. It remains chilling, strange and darkly romantic without being sentimental.

Baxter composed several scores for AIP, notably the Roger Corman vehicle, The Pit and the Pendulum. While Baxter and Corman’s composer/director/producer partnership never quite reached the widespread popularity of Hitchcock and Hermann, or Danny Elfman and Tim Burton, his instincts for elevating otherwise-cheesy B-horror flicks above their budget-imposed caste with sweeping, orchestral suites were so evocative his scores tended to frequently distill the best qualities of an otherwise-forgettable movie into a series of beautiful melodies that the audience can take away with them and enjoy as an enduring dignity of the film.

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