Based on one of Lovecraft’s most prolific works, Leigh Scott’s “The Dunwich Horror” can be described in one word: appalling.
“Two centuries ago, when talk of witch-blood, Satan-worship, and strange forest presences was not laughed at, it was the custom to give reasons for avoiding the locality. In our sensible age – since the Dunwich horror of 1928 was hushed up by those who had the town’s and the world’s welfare at heart – people shun it without knowing exactly why.” -HP Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”
The Dunwich Horror (2009), also known as Witches, Witches: The Darkest Evil, and Witches: The Dunwich Horror is a direct-to-video film that aired on SyFy. It was written, produced, and directed by Leigh Scott and is based on Lovecraft’s ‘The Dunwich Horror”, but takes certain ‘liberties’ with its source material.
I’ll be honest: it’s difficult to write a serious, professional piece on Scott’s cinematic interpretation of Lovecraft’s short story. To get my personal opinion of the movie out of the way, I don’t like it. I don’t think anyone should see it. I even think it’s a little insulting. The movie insults its audience, the actors who performed in it, and, despite one’s opinions on him, Lovecraft himself.
For those readers who don’t know, Leigh Scott was considered the most prominent director who was employed by one of Hollywood’s most notorious studios: The Asylum.
If you’ve seen an Asylum movie, you’ll know what’s in store. If not, you’ve no doubt seen one in passing at a RedBox or in WalMart. You might have also seen one scrolling through Amazon or in your local video store. You’ve seen at least one Asylum movie cover and if, like me, you’ve watched SyFy’s television movies, then you’ve no doubt seen an Asylum movie without even realizing it.
To those blissfully unaware of Asylum’s movies, allow me to paint you a picture. Asylum movies are, almost exclusively, D-List films made for less than most thirty second car commercials you see. Their success stems from capitalizing on pre-existing big studio releases. They do this by being incredibly ‘subtle’. With a slight name change and by taking relatively the same beats as their big studio cousins, The Asylum can make cheap, completely legal rip-offs and release them alongside the big budget one.
For The Asylum, all you really need is a distribution deal and a similar name/cover to an actual movie in order to make a profit.
There have been entire articles dedicated to discussing the nature of Asylum and their practices. There are even more rumors outside the articles that have circulated naturally in the film industry, with lawsuits to boot. We’re not going to talk about Asylum, or the rumors, whether or not they’re true, or any of that. Instead, we’re going to take a critical, professional looks at one of Leigh Scott’s final fares with The Asylum.
On the surface, The Dunwich Horror follows the standard beats of the original story.
In a farmhouse outside of a rural town, a deformed and mentally unstable woman named Lavinia Whateley (Lauren Michele) gives birth to twins. One is a deformed boy named Wilbur Whateley (Jeffery Combs), and the other is a strange, unseen child. Their father is kept a mystery until it’s revealed later the Whateley family are worshippers of the Outer God Yog-Sothoth, the Opener of the Way and the Lurker at the Threshold, and he is Wilbur’s father.
Yog-Sothoth is an extra-dimensional being that literally is time and space but is trapped outside it. It seeks to enter our world, which would cause the end of all things. In order to open a gateway for Yog-Sothoth’s return to our universe, Wilbur is tasked with retrieving the Necronomicon, Lovecraft’s iconic book full of forbidden knowledge on the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones. Despite Wilbur actually being eight years old, his physical appearance is that of a middle-aged man due to his supernatural linage.
“The Dunwich Horror” is one of Lovecraft’s most iconic, well-known, and highly praised stories, and for good reason.
However, though Scott hits its general beats one-by-one, he’s notably added some things and entirely removed others.
The first is that the story doesn’t take place in New England, or ‘Lovecraft Country’ and is set in Louisiana instead. While this may not seem like a problem, it is most certainly a tick against Scott’s film. One of the original story’s greatest strengths was its setting. Lovecraft himself put it best in a letter to August Derleth about his setting and inspiration, saying “The Dunwich Horror” is based on, “…the wild domed hills of the upper Miskatonic Valley, far northwest of Arkham, and is based on several old New England legends.”
Changing the setting and time period, for that matter, removes a certain aesthetic choice which hinders the film. When I think cold, gothic, and dark, I think of fall in New England. When I think of Louisiana, I think of hot, sweaty summers by the bayou.
To clarify, the choice to change the setting and period isn’t always a bad one. If Scott wanted to interweave some proper Louisiana legends into the story, the same way Lovecraft did, I could get past the change. If this change was only to lower the cost of the film, however, it’s a difference I can’t overlook.
One can only speculate, but it’s my belief this was done for monetary reasons.
Louisiana is well-known for its tax incentives for the film industry, so it became a popular shooting location between 2008 and 2016. If this is true, which I believe it is, then it only goes to prove that Scott and team are dedicated to making movies as cheap as possible, which is not exactly a positive in my eyes.
A more overt and sour addition is Henry Armitage (Dean Stockwell), and his new backstory in particular. Originally, he was merely a librarian tasked with maintaining and protecting the Miskatonic University library. In Scott’s film, he’s not only a vague member of University staff, he’s also a member of a secret society dedicated to fighting the occult. Why this was done, I can’t pretend to know.
Perhaps Scott thought the original story, one of the early 20th century’s most notable horror stories, was too boring and needed more lightning spells, exorcisms, and demon fights.
We’re introduced to Armitage and his partner, Fay Morgan (Sarah Lieving), while they fight a college girl who is possessed by “…a sixty-thousand-year-old alien demon.” This line was strange to me. After all, Lovecraft wanted it clear that his creatures weren’t supernatural in nature, instead calling them extraterrestrial or extra-dimensional. It’s a point brought up ten minutes after this line, yet they treat everything they encounter like ghosts and ghouls.
Then I realized that all this was simply an inconsistency, which made me question Scott’s understanding of the source material entirely.
To make up for flimsy, half-hearted attempts to make Lovecraft’s story ‘cooler’, Scott stuffs the film with references to other Lovecraft stories: The Black Brotherhood, Innsmouth, Charles Dexter Ward, The Nameless City, Cthulhu, etc. Their addition does nothing to enhance the plot; they only act as Easter eggs that allow people who get the references to feel something positive. It doesn’t work.
With the story being twisted beyond redemption, I looked to the characters for salvation.
It’s a shame their performances only make poor writing worse. I felt myself feeling utterly terrible for Dean Stockwell, Griff Furst, and Jeffery Combs, who are actors I know can give amazing performances!
The cast either put in half the effort or no effort, which may have been a result of them realizing just what this movie was going to end up being. Some actors fumbled through lines, others just straight up mumbled or blundered through a line to the point it becomes inaudible.
One actor, Lauren Michele, put in her all. In doing so, I found myself laughing like a madman every time she was on screen. Each new line she delivered seemed to be more exaggerated and ridiculously weird than the last.
Finally, looking at the technical aspects is a challenge all in itself.
The Dunwich Horror looks incredibly cheap, with lighting straight out of The Room (2003). The camera is constantly floating around on steady-cam, with the cinematographer attempting ‘interesting Dutch angles’, which only earned the achievement of me cocking my head to see what was happening.
The audio is atrocious and inaudible at certain points. In some shots, you can hear everyone well, but in another, it sounds like characters are a mile away in an enormous room. The ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) is tinny and never blended well with the ambient sound of the scenes, causing it to stand out like a sore thumb. And don’t even get me started on the score, which sounded like royalty free tracks from Pond5.
However, the worst element of the entire movie by far was the editing. Everything else is bad, sometimes terrible, but the editing in this is completely irredeemable. To give an example of what I’m talking about, look at the ‘shake’ we see on the Whateleys occasionally. My guess is that it’s supposed to signify they’re not human, but it just looks bad. The effects at the film’s climax are probably the worst, however.
They looked like something seen on a cheap YouTube video — making me think almost no thought was put into this at all.
And that sums up my biggest issue with the movie.
From what I could see, there was absolutely no care, love, or thought put in at any level. Usually, if I can see a movie trying, I can give it a favorable note. If there’s an actor giving a good performance or there’s some specific aspect the crew put effort into, I present it as a win, albeit sometimes a small one.
Leigh Scott put nothing into this.
In my opinion, The Dunwich Horror is an attempt to cash in on a niche audience and nothing more.
It seems Scott doesn’t care about cosmic horror, if the movie is well-received or not, or the art of filmmaking in general. Therefore, I have no problem with saying this movie is terrible.
If you’re a masochist who finds some enjoyment in terrible horror movies, like me, you may find some enjoyment out of The Dunwich Horror, AKA Witches: The Darkest Evil if you want to watch it free with Prime. It has very little entertainment value and feels like a slog, but there are some moments I found myself laughing at, particularly scenes with Lavinia in them.
So, if you feel like a challenge, go gather up your friends, sit down, have a drink or twelve and give it a watch. But be prepared, and may God have mercy on your souls.