A Quickie with The King: Boris Karloff in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (AIP 1965)

All you Cracked Rear Viewers know by now my affection for the King of Monsters, Boris Karloff . His Universal classics of the 30’s and RKO chillers of the 40’s hold an esteemed place in my personal Horror Valhalla. Karloff did his share of clunkers, too, especially later in his career. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is one such film, it’s good intentions sunk by bad execution.

It’s the second screen adaptation of a story from the fertile mind of author  H.P. Lovecraft; the first, 1963’s THE HAUNTED PALACE, was a mash-up of Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe as part of the Roger Corman/Vincent Price series. Corman’s longtime Art Director Daniel Haller made his directorial debut, and the film certainly looks good. Veteran sci-fi writer Jerry Sohl contributed the screenplay, which was then tinkered with by Haller. Therein lies the problem; Haller’s changes drag down what could have been an exciting little horror tale to junior high level.

 Boris plays Nahum Whitley, a wheelchair bound curmudgeon living in a creepy old mansion in the English town of Arkham. Nick Adams is Stephen Reinhart, summoned by Nahum’s bedridden wife Letitia (Freda Jackson) to take daughter Susan (Suzan Farmer ) away from the strange happenings occurring at the house. Nahum keeps demanding the young man leave., as he’s been experimenting with a weird, radioactive meteor and tampering with forces beyond his control.

This all leads to Steve and Susan sneaking into Nahum’s mysteriously glowing greenhouse, where they discover giant vegetation growing – Susan is even attacked by a strangling plant! The ill Letitia becomes a monster, and attacks the two, then Nahum takes an axe to the meteor, unleashing horrors from the Other Side, and turns into a mutated demon out to kill. He is then killed himself and the movie ends with the obligatory Cormanesque conflagration as the house burns down.

Karloff at age 77 still commands power as Nahum, even though he’s confined to his wheelchair through much of the film. The King was still The King, an actor of great presence dominating every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, he’s not given a lot to do except skulk about and looks mysterious. His mutant monster is actually a stunt double, as arthritis and emphysema had taken their toll on his body, but even without much mobility, Karloff’s the best thing in this one.

Nick Adams was Oscar-nominated just two years before for TWILIGHT OF HONOR, but personal problems had caused his star to swiftly fall; from here, he went on to star in kaiju eiga movies in Japan. Farmer has nothing to do but look pretty and say “Oh, Steve” about ten times too often. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! goes for cheap chills (a tarantula, bats attacking Adams, weird noises) instead of Lovecraftian horrors, and winds up as just another “old, dark house” movie with a radioactive twist, falling far short of its source material. Haller made another Lovecraft-inspired film, 1970’s THE DUNWICH HORROR , before turning to TV; it took twenty years and Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR to finally do cinematic justice to H.P. Lovecraft on the screen. For Boris Karloff fans, DIE, MONSTER, DIE! stands as a flawed failure, interesting only because of The King.

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE DUNWICH HORROR (AIP 1970)

THE DUNWICH HORROR is another film I saw when it was first released, on a double bill with the Spaghetti Western GOD FORGIVES, I DON’T. Unfortunately, this one fails to stand the test of time, with it’s trippy special effects and a somnambulant performance by Dean Stockwell , who was pretty obviously stoned out of his gourd during the shooting.

Professor of the occult Henry Armitage is lecturing on the Necronomicon, a book said to hold the key to the gate to another dimension, where a race of monsters known as “the old ones” dwell. Creepy Wilbur Whateley, great grandson of occultist Oliver, shows an abonrmal interest in the book. In fact, Wilbur wants to possess the Necronomicon to bring “the old ones” back to rule the Earth once again. To achieve this, he pretty much kidnaps and drugs student Nancy Wagner, hoping to use her in a bizarre sex ritual that will unlock that gate. Nancy’s friend Elizabeth, concerned about her well-being, goes to the Whateley house to find her, only to be attacked by Wilbur’s twin brother, who’s a demon from beyond!  Some nefarious doings cause the townspeople to storm Wilbur’s property, where Armitage and Whateley engage in an occult battle that results in the end of the Whateley line… or does it??

This wasn’t director Daniel Haller’s first shot at helming a film based on the writings of H.P. Lovercraft. In 1965, Haller directed his first film, DIE, MONSTER, DIE, based on Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, starring the immortal Boris Karloff. THE DUNWICH HORROR features color filters and distorted lens to convey the horrors from the other side, but they come off like bad outtakes from executive producer Roger Corman’s LSD extravaganza THE TRIP , causing the film to feel dated. Though there are some scary scenes, they’re few and far between.

Stockwell sleepwalks through the role of Wilbur Whateley, as he did for most of his performances of the era. That’s understandable, as during this time he was involved in the hippie/drug scene and hanging out with the likes of Dennis Hopper and Neil Young. Sandra Dee (Nancy) is equally dull, although she has an excuse, her character having fallen under the spell of Wilbur’s occult powers (and drugs!). Dee makes the movie seem like it could be subtitled GIDGET GOES TO HELL! This was the last film for veteran Ed Begley (Armitage), who at least lends some dignity to the proceedings, despite spouting gibberish in that fatal final battle with Stockwell. The same can’t be said for Sam Jaffe, playing Wilbur’s grandpop, who overacts mercilessly.

Other Familiar Faces include Donna Baccala, Lloyd Bochner , AIP stalwarts Beach Dickerson and Barboura Morris , Talia Shire (her 2nd film appearance), and Jason Wingreen. I really liked THE DUNWICH HORROR when I first saw it, and wanted to like it again. But I just can’t recommend it; there are tons of other, better horror films to watch this Halloween season. Unless you’re as stoned as Stockwell was when he made it – then you just may dig it!

“Yog-Sothoth!!”