Camp David

CAMP DAVID JUNE 2010: “WILBER WHATELEY HAS A GIRLFRIEND”

By • Jun 28th, 2010 • Pages: 1 2

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“WILBER WHATELEY HAS A GIRLFRIEND”

It is early February of 1970; former teen princess Sandra Dee is in between takes reclining as best she can on a faux Druidic altar, surrounded by lighting experts–focus pullers, hair and make-up stylists. Completing the picture is a continuity girl running lines as Ms. Dee puffs on an endless string of cigarettes to quiet her nerves. Her own mother, Mary, comes to her speaking words of wisdom: “Keep your clothes on, Sandy, wait for the body double.” In other words, “Let her be,” to a lurking assistant director eager to get on with it…

This was to be a radical change of image for Sandra Dee, whose last two films, in 1967, were ROSIE (a Roz Russell comedy) and the ironic (under the circumstances) DOCTOR, YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING with George Hamilton. One can only assume the “doctor” in the title would have said something along those lines if he had been informed that Sandra Dee’s next role would be that of a willing sacrifice to an inhuman deity known only as “Yog Sothoth,” with the end result of her being impregnated with his unholy seed.

Rare poised shot of Sandra Dee's body double on bed ...onlooking are the Medocino warlocks and demons seen briefly in Dee's drug induced nightmare.

The difficult transition from debutante to mature actress was simply not happening fast enough to suit Sandra Dee and her then-management, which included of course her mother. When this project was offered it must have seemed like a golden opportunity for Sandra Dee to mature practically overnight — that is, if the film achieved any of the same success ROSEMARY’S BABY did with Mia Farrow. Ironically, both actresses would be divorced during the time of each of their respective films –Mia from Frank Sinatra, and Sandra from Bobby Darin. Sandra would miscarry during DUNWICH’s post production, compounding the depression that was about to envelop her for the rest of her life. DUNWICH sadly did not energize the career of Sandra Dee; in fact this would be her final motion picture. The seventies would yield only occasional work in Television as she retreated more and more into the shadows of depression and substance abuse. Iconic status as a pop-culture figure would finally come for her, but not until nearly the end of her life.

The film in question is, of course, Daniel Haller’s production of THE DUNWICH HORROR, based somewhat on H.P.Lovecraft’s 17,500-word “short” story of the same name, first published in WEIRD TALES magazine in 1929. Lovecraft was at the time unknown to the general movie-going public, making his name above-the-title an impossibility in Hollywood terms. However, with this his third adaptation for the screen, all-produced by American International Pictures, after eight successful collaborations with his only rival in the Horror genre, Edgar Allan Poe, all that was about to change.

The first attempt to bring Lovecraft to the screen was fumbled by the suits at AIP who had no confidence in Lovecraft as a box-office draw; so THE HAUNTED VILLAGE became Edgar Allan Poe’s THE HAUNTED PALACE, grafting Poe’s poem onto the conclusion of THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD, making it the sixth Poe film directed by Roger Corman. The second attempt retained the Lovecraft name…in small caps. But at least the master did not have to masquerade as Poe. Another novella was chosen this time, THE COLOR OUT OF SPACE, retitled from the stylish THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD to the oddly Germanic DIE MONSTER DIE, a rather unfortunate name for a Boris Karloff vehicle since it was well-known how many years the then-78 year-old Karloff had to act under the shadow of the Frankenstein monster.

If all had gone as planned Karloff would have been one of the stars of THE DUNWICH HORROR alongside Christopher Lee, with Italian horror master Mario Bava directing. But this was not to be, and after languishing on production schedules since 1964 the project finally got greenlit as DUNWICH with a decent cast headed by Peter Fonda, Diana Varsi and Ralph Bellamy as Professor Armitage. However by the time the script went from Ray Russell to a very youthful Curtis Hanson, the cast changed again with Dean Stockwell replacing Fonda, having just done PYSCH-OUT the year before. Sandra Dee assumed the role of “Nancy,” known amongst the crew as the “Mia Farrow” part since ROSEMARY’S BABY became a world wide box-office success, paving the way for this film to get produced. More than likely this was the reason for casting Ralph Bellamy as the academic, since he was the infamous “Dr Saperstein” in the Polanski film. (Bellamy’s character name so intrigued Polanski that he named his pet dog after him). Bellamy would bow out soon after, leaving a mad scramble for a replacement in the guise of another equally respected character actor, Sam Jaffe (GUNGA DIN. THE ASPHALT JUNGLE).

Original Poster Art from AIP notice the star was to have Peter Fonda with a different screenwriter.

With the cast now in place, Daniel Haller would finally have the long-awaited opportunity to utilize all the set decorations and symbols that he had designed around Joseph Curwen’s dungeon altar beneath THE HAUNTED PALACE, then continued on in the UK with the decor of the Whateley mansion of DIE MONSTER DIE. As the art director and set designer for all of Corman’s Poe cycle, Haller brought great style and beauty to the floor during the making of THE DUNWICH HORROR.

Daniel Haller always regarded Roger Corman as his mentor and well he should, considering working with Roger was a crash-course in filmmaking like no other at the time. With Corman producing DUNWICH, he was given a free hand as long as things flowed smoothly on the set, and more importantly, that the film be brought in on time and under budget.

The first order of business was to modernize Lovecraft’s tale, originally set in the backwoods of New England, circa 1928, into the counter-culture phenomenon that existed in Mendocino County throughout the late 1960s, playing out in early 1970. Haller had done the very same thing with his previous film, DIE MONSTER DIE, changing the locale to rural England, and in both cases setting the scene in Gothic mansions rather than the farmhouses favored by Lovecraft.

Boris Kaloff and Daniel Haller confer on the set of DIE MONSTER DIE.

I know that this change in time and location separated THE DUNWICH HORROR in terms of Corman’s Poe cycle. While it is true that everything AIP did since then in the Horror genre was based almost entirely on the initial success of HOUSE OF USHER (1960) with each film that followed using the same basic formula as it were, DUNWICH remains unique because of the pop-culture references it reflects, both the success of Polanski’s film and the devastating aftermath of his wife’s murder at the hands of the Manson family, forever changing the landscape of Hollywood from that day forward. It is no coincidence then that Dean Stockwell would adopt a “Manson vibe” or, depending on your point of view, a “Timothy Leary” vibe as well, since the hippie movement of the day was all about getting high or following a cult — at least this is how Hollywood chose to interpret the lurid headlines.

None of this material was lost on Dean Stockwell (an avid Lovecraft fan) who realized early on that to play Wilber Whateley as written in Curtis Hanson’s screenplay was to abandon Lovecraft’s concept enough to make his “goatish features” sexy rather then repellent. In Lovecraft’s tale Wilber dies attempting to steal the Necronomicon from the library wherein the reader is given the payoff of discovering just how otherworldly and deformed he really was under all those bulky clothes. All this was abandoned to give Wilber the plot points involving Sandra Dee’s character, to make the film more like ROSEMARY’S BABY instead of the monster on the loose tale Lovecraft originally created.

Ever since the film’s debut in 1970 much has been made over how far it has strayed from Lovecraft’s original short story: by including a love interest for Wilber Whateley, also allowing him to live beyond the attack at the Miskatonic Library to perish on Sentinel Hill while performing the ritual, and allowing his cosmic sibling to have his way with Sandra Dee, thereby satisfying the fans of ROSEMARY’S BABY as well as producer Corman.

In spite of all this THE DUNWICH HORROR is as faithful an adaptation as one can expect for a low-budget film with few resources at its disposal. During my interview with Daniel Haller he remarked that the only way to keep his film from becoming “another Poe film in the Corman cycle” was to update the storyline and take full advantage of the psychedelic flower children motif which, by 1970, was about to fade from view.

The mythos as created by Lovecraft was long-considered un-filmable since his prose is clear about this unimaginable race of beings that exist outside of our known reality. Cthulhu and his followers worship Yog Sothoth, who is described as being composed of giant spheres of light. Yog is the keeper of the way, as Robert Bloch once described it. He has the power to open the gates, allowing the old ones to re-enter and take back the earth they once inhabited long ago. The Whateleys used the Necronomicon to summon Yog Sothoth long enough to interbreed with their women. The blood of Yog Sothoth now flows through Wilber’s veins and, because of the ritual at the film’s end, Nancy now is creating what Lavinia had created in the films opening credits: another offspring of Yog Sothoth.

In reexamining the film, Nancy’s drug-induced nightmare (in which she awakens only to find herself surrounded by demonic-looking flower children in body paint) makes more sense if you understand that this is Her reality of what she is experiencing in her dream state. When we glimpse the “old ones” walking side by side looking for all intent like witches in long flowing robes, could one interpret this to be the only way such deities can reveal themselves to human kind without them losing their mind completely? In the 1997 film CONTACT with Jodie Foster a similar device is used when she finally confronts the alien life forms. They choose to reveal themselves to her in the form of her dead father. Everything Nancy experiences is on her level of reality, which for American International would certainly be the Haight-Ashbury/counterculture of the late sixties (not to mention easy to present budget-wise). The psychedelic effects work for the film in the sequence in which Nancy’s friend Elizabeth confronts Wilber’s twin. The sound effects, coupled with the shock visuals, filmed with a distorted lens, allows the only bit of real nudity in the film when the inter-dimensional twin made up of tentacles ravages her, pulling away her bra revealing her breasts before devouring her completely. The camera-work as the Horror moves across the Dunwich landscape towards the Devil’s Hop yard is beautifully realized and very much in keeping with Lovecraft.

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8 Responses »

  1. Terrific article, David.

  2. Well done piece on a film that is now, for the most part (based upon the stills you put out, a fully restored movie that is a hoot to watch! Strange Dean didn’t remember his famed line as I asked him about “DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS”, working with Lionel Barrymore and Richard Widmark and “THE SECRET GARDEN” with Margaret O’Brien (he laughed when I brought up the famed ‘screaming’ scene). Ahhh the joys of ‘selective memory’, as my wife says!

  3. Outstanding job David. I remember when you first showed me those rare stills. Now I find myself planning an evening of Lovecraft where I will watch my DVD of “The Dunwich Horror”. Perhaps an Old One will come for a glass of wine and stay for the film.

  4. I’ve been looking for background information on this movie for years. There doesn’t seem to be much written about it, which is unfortunate because it really is a good movie. Your article is fantastic.

  5. Saw this at the drive-in when I was probably 9-10 (1971-2), my parents loving this kind of stuff & passing it on to my brother & I. I was transfixed the moment the sillohetted figures struggled up the hill to work their dread rites, only to be consumed by the demon they were climbing the whole time- and that music!

    Just one minor correction, Lavinia was Wizard Whateley’s daughter, not his wife. Wilbur was his grandson, not his foster son.

    I did not know about Sandra Dee’s pregnancy & subsequent miscarriage. It makes the final scene of TDH very poignant & not a little more creepy. When I saw it re-broadcast on TV in the mid-1970s, the fetus scene was cut- probably for being too graphic for TV of that time.

    So was the setting SUPPOSED to be in California? I always thought that even tho it was filmed there, the setting was still supposed to be in New England.

    This remains a favorite of mine. And I must say that while I was disappointed in the Jeffrey Combs-Dean Stockwell re-do, I did not hate it. A Bava-Karloff-Lee (as Wilbur?) is awesome to imagine, while a Peter Fonda version would have been intriquing as well.

  6. Cedric
    thanks so much for your kind words and especially for that correction which I will amend ASAP since this essay is going in my new book SIX REELS UNDER….you did me a service sir…..I love this film as well and I am glad I am not alone in this….

  7. I really enjoyed your article, this is an interesting movie. The first time I saw it was in pieces (I was getting ready for work, while it was on TV). Seeing it fragmented like that was very surreal and it would ne a few years before I watched it all the way through.
    Did Haller have anything to say about Donna Baccala. I thought she gave the best perfomance in the movie and although her character barely made it past the first half of the movie, she is the person who saves the day. Her nervous concern for her friend is the srongest emotion expressed in the movie and she does alert Dr. Armitage to the waxing problem with the Nancy/Wilbur crisis. So, she basically saves the world. She must have ben a real trooper, putting up with all those snake headed tentacles.

  8. Thanks David
    I have been trying to locate Donna Baccala for awhile now for an interview since she and Dean are the only surviving cast members still with us……the current dvd gives us the most complete account of her attack by Wilber’s cosmic twin thus far….with a flash of nipple…here and there…..more as it happens..

    Cheers
    David

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