Curtis Hanson

The Dunwich Horror (1970, Daniel Haller)

There’s a handful of good things about The Dunwich Horror. They can’t overcome the bad things, but they’re still pretty neat. The script, at least for a while, is fairly nimble. There’s a lot of bad exposition from old dudes Ed Begley and Lloyd Bochner, but the younger folks do quite a bit better. See, Dunwich ought to be hip, but it’s not. The script knows it needs to be hip; director Haller can’t do it. And even if he could do it, cinematographer Richard C. Glouner couldn’t do it. Editor Christopher Holmes tries to be hip with his cutting. He doesn’t do a good job of it and the film’s poorly edited, but he is at least on the same page as the script as far as tone.

Because it’s Dean Stockwell as this smarmy geek who manages to seduce little Sandra Dee away from college with promises of hippie orgies and such. It’s a great idea for a smart genre picture. And Haller butchers every minute of it. There’s some solid dialogue from Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky. There’s good characterization of Donna Baccala as Dee’s concerned friend. There’s nothing to be done about Begley and Bochner however. They both refuse to chew at the scenery. They just look miserable instead.

The sets are fairly awful. They’re poorly lit, but they’d still be pretty bad. Dunwich is never pragmatic when it needs to be, except with some of the special effects.

And here’s the other big bad in Dunwich. The last third of the movie when Haller’s trying to do monster suspense. He butchers it, over and over and over and over and over again. Every time it seems like something might actually be creepy or scary, he screws it up. It’s uncomfortable to watch, just because there’s never anything going for it and it’s all Haller’s fault.

I mean, even the perv shots of Dee’s body double writhing in Cthulic anticipation get cut with some kookiness from Stockwell. He goes nuts for the part while still maintaining this creepy sweet guy thing. It’s an awesome performance. Not good, just extremely entertaining. In terms of actual acting, Baccala and Talia Shire are the best. Dee’s okay but she eventually becomes, well, a human sacrifice.

Finally, the music. Les Baxter’s score is hip, romantic, lush, subdued and a dozen other things. It doesn’t always get cut right–because Holmes is bad at the editing thing–but it’s always kind of amazing. It’s a delight in an almost delightful mess. But Haller and Glouner just tank it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Daniel Haller; screenplay by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, Richard C. Glouner; edited by Christopher Holmes; music by Les Baxter; produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson; released by American International Pictures.

Starring Dean Stockwell (Wilbur Whateley), Sandra Dee (Nancy Wagner), Ed Begley (Dr. Henry Armitage), Donna Baccala (Elizabeth Hamilton), Lloyd Bochner (Dr. Cory), Sam Jaffe (Old Whateley), Talia Shire (Nurse Cora) and Joanne Moore Jordan (Lavinia Whateley).


The Silent Partner (1978, Daryl Duke)

The Silent Partner starts a little bit better than it turns out in the end, from a filmmaking standpoint. The sound design is so phenomenal in the build-up, I actually made note of it. I usually don’t make notes unless it’s something terrible and I want to make sure to bring it up. I fully expected to keep making that sort of note during the film, but I didn’t. I’m not sure, had Silent Partner kept that meticulous approach, if it would be a better movie, but I would have had a lot more notes.

It’s a weird film for a few reasons. Most visibly because it’s a Canadian film with an American screenwriter (Curtis Hanson), an American lead (Elliott Gould), an English romantic interest (Susannah York), but Canadian bad guys, Christopher Plummer and Céline Lomez. There’s an odd feel to the film, which is nice, especially since Gould’s an exceptionally strange protagonist. Most of the characters are established as being lousy people. Plummer’s bad guy is a complete psychopath, shown with a pervasive violence throughout–and he needs to be, just because Gould’s not exactly sympathetic. Sure, York makes fun of him and his boss is a complete worm, but there’s very little redeeming about Gould. But he’s human and he appeals to the viewer on that level. The Silent Partner very quickly (and masterfully, in that fantastic opening) makes the viewer complicit in, essentially, being a criminal. It does a great job of it, but then the film gradually changes.

Halfway through, Hanson’s script fast forwards a couple weeks or a month, something indeterminate but not too long. It pulls off the transition well and gives the film a fresh start, even bringing in Lomez as the deceptive, but still appealing, second romantic interest. This reset button’s particularly interesting because the film–after spending ten minutes setting up the new situation–returns to the existing conflict with York. In the second half of the film, York really becomes essential–mirroring Lomez’s importance too. Hanson’s script presents all of its principle characters as unhappy people who desperately need a drastic change, investing the viewer with concern–not so much for Gould, because he’s so abrasive–but for the female characters.

Gould’s good in the film, steady and sure, but maybe a little uncomfortable playing such an impenetrable character. He has a couple scenes displaying great weakness and without them, the film wouldn’t work. As his nemesis, Christopher Plummer’s terrifying. The way the film sets him up, wearing some black mesh wifebeater, he just oozes violent creepiness. Again, if he weren’t so dangerous–and there is something about Captain Von Trapp being a sadistic monster–the viewer might not feel for Gould.

I saw The Silent Partner for the first time about ten years ago and it’s finally come out on DVD, a decent release from Lionsgate (of all people). I have the feeling it’ll be even better the next time I see it. There’s something really great about York’s performance and I don’t think I appreciated it enough this time through.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Daryl Duke; screenplay by Curtis Hanson, based on a novel by Anders Bodelson; director of photography, Billy Williams; edited by George Appleby; music by Oscar Peterson; production designer, Trevor Williams; produced by Joel B. Michaels and Stephen Young; released by EMC Film Corporation.

Starring Elliott Gould (Miles Culien), Susannah York (Julie Carver), Christopher Plummer (Harry Reikle), Céline Lomez (Elaine), Michael Kirby (Packard), Ken Pogue (Detective), John Candy (Simonson), Gell Dehms (Louise), Michael Donaghue (Berg), Jack Duffy (Fogelman) and Nancy Simmonds (Girl in sauna).


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