Tuesday, January 5, 2016

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL

Terence Fisher, 1960
Starring: Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee

"Lust and violence feed the weaker man. That is why there are so few saints and so many sinners. Will you cut evil out of man with a scalpel, Henry?"

Dr. Henry Jekyll believes that man’s good and evil natures can be separated and distilled. He begins experimenting on himself with a serum that transforms him into his alter ego: Mr. Hyde. And while the nondescript doctor is a workaholic who neglects his wife, Kitty, Hyde is a libertine ready to explore the excesses of debauchery and violence. Hyde soon runs into Paul Allen, a friend of Jekyll’s, and he learns that Jekyll pays off Allen’s gambling debts and that Allen is having a passionate affair with Kitty. Maliciously, Hyde decides that he must have Kitty for himself, regardless of the cost.

After sexualizing the Count in The Horror of Dracula and the good doctor in The Curse of Frankenstein, it is perhaps no wonder that Hammer turned to a more erotic interpretation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Hammer was fond of this theme, adapting the story fairly directly three times with The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, but also exploring a similar dichotomy of good and evil existing in one person who transforms between the two with films like Frankenstein Created Woman and Hands of the Ripper.

This film with a solid script from Wolf Mankowitz is actually one of my favorites in the Jekyll and Hyde canon — second only to the 1931 version of the film with Fredric March — because Markowitz and director Terence Fisher make such smart choices when it comes to Jekyll’s use of science and his motivations, as well as the portrayal of Hyde. Jekyll seeks to create a super human and his utopian ideals make more sense to me that those provided in Stevenson’s original story. Somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein, it is Jekyll’s idealism that strips away his humanity and isolates him from those around him. Jekyll also becomes more unattractive as the serum’s side effects begin to manifest themselves.

On the other hand, this Hyde is so much different than the original, bestial, monstrous Hyde — an apelike man who loves violence for its own sake. This Hyde is not a monster, but an opportunistic predator, a spoiled child who has no regard for consequences. He’s also something of an antihero. He has a charismatic side and it’s easy to see why he is so desired by many of the other characters: he can be friendly, generous, flattering, and fun. Paul Massie (Orders to Kill) is great in dual roles as the soft spoken, bearded Jekyll and the charming Hyde. There is certainly a little overacting, but it works for Massie and I honestly wouldn’t expect anything else from Hammer. As with The Man Who Could Cheat Death, there is a touch of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray about the character — particularly because he becomes more handsome and charismatic as he becomes more hedonistic, amoral, and eventually evil. 

This is really more of a dark drama that peers into the ugly facets of human nature than an outright horror film, but it has so many surprisingly bleak moments that I can’t believe it got past the censors. For instance, there’s a very sexually suggestive scene where one of the girls in the club does a snake charmer’s dance, a surprisingly erotic sequence that involves putting the snake in her mouth. SPOILERS: And even more shocking, when Kitty won’t come to Hyde of her own accord — or as a trade with Paul — Hyde rapes and murders Kitty and then frames Jekyll and, incredibly, it seems like he might get away with his crimes in the end.

Not to be outdone is Christopher Lee, who gives one of his best non-villainous performances here as Paul, a gambler, womanizer, and hapless hedonist who is counting on his best friend — Dr. Henry Jekyll — to pay off his gambling debts, but he’s having a passionate affair with the man’s wife. All of the film’s characters are utterly unlikable, but it is Paul who acts as a sort of moral compass for Hyde. Whatever debauchery and evil deeds Paul stumbles into, Hyde is always eager to go further and he actually finds Paul’s hard limit: selling Kitty to Hyde in exchange for Hyde paying off all his debts. And this is probably Paul’s one redeemable quality: for all his faults, he seems to actually be in love with Kitty.

There’s a lot to love about The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. It comes highly recommended and I can’t understand why it’s one of Hammer’s most criminally neglected films. In terms of their early efforts, it’s one of the most exploitative and edgy, while maintaining a lush sense of color and stylish sets. Keep your eyes peeled for a young Oliver Reed in his first role for Hammer as a bouncer who unwisely confronts Hyde. Also named Jekyll’s Inferno and House of Fright, you can find this film in the Icons of Horror Collection along with other neglected entries like The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, Scream of Fear, and The Gorgon.

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