November 24, 2012

The Incredible 2nd Anniversary, Diabolic Dual Personality Double Feature

Today marks the second anniversary of this blog. At the beginning, I wasn't sure how long I'd run with it, but I've had so much fun (and discovered so many other like-minded people who still appreciate these old films), that I've gone ahead and elected myself to another two year term of posting about my favorite moldy-oldy, underdog genre films.

Happy anniversary! Two years and counting...
For those of you who are new to the blog (and for those who've read a post or two and are thinking, "why does he write about movies no one's ever heard of?"), Films From Beyond the Time Barrier is a salute to the movies I watched in my youth on the old black and white TV, at downtown theater matinees, and at the drive-in (which works out roughly to stuff made between 1930 and 1980). If you peruse the lists of categories and titles to the right, you'll see mostly sci-fi, fantasy and horror, but I also post about mystery-thrillers, film-noirs and even the occasional western.

As much as I love the true classic sci-fi and horror films such as Forbidden Planet and Bride of Frankenstein, far better and more insightful people than me have written a ton of material on these titles, and I could scarcely add anything else to the treasure trove. I prefer to dig up movies that have largely escaped the attention of (or been studiously ignored by) mainstream reviewers and even vintage B movie fans. They tend to be low-budget, black and white occupiers of the bottom half of double bills, with no-name actors and cheap effects. But in spite of their flaws, I find something to like about them -- an unusual plot twist here, a surprisingly good performance there, or just an interesting behind-the-scenes story. Even in this age of ubiquitous online streaming and cheap DVD releases, they're not always easy to find, but perhaps worth the trouble if only to take a break from the unending parade of multiplex blockbusters that come, make their billions, and then get out of town to make way for the next blockbuster.

In honor of the second anniversary, I thought I'd double the action and double the fun with a special double feature post. And then double down again by featuring two of the better and more underrated adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of dual personality, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. According to one source, there have been over 120 film adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde (only Dracula and Sherlock Holmes seem to have inspired more filmmakers). There's been a son and daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a Sister Hyde, and even a blaxploitation Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde. Whatever the variation, our fascination with humanity's dual nature ensures that the good doctor and his cruel opposite will return again and again to the theater, movies and TV.

Poster for The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (aka House of Fright), 1960
Now Playing: The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (aka House of Fright, 1960)

Pros: Unique take on the Jekyll/Hyde story; Christopher Lee is a convincing good-for-nothing upper-crust sleazeball
Con: Hyde's good looks take the edge off the character

We seem to be living in the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde age. Hardly a day goes by without some upstanding pillar of society revealing an ugly dark side on the omnipresent 24 hour news cycle. One by one, once-respected people and institutions fall spectacularly -- Rod Blagojevich, John Edwards, Joe Paterno, the Boy Scouts, Jesse Jackson Jr. -- and always the reaction is the same: "But they seemed so upstanding, so caring, so charismatic…"  Mass media keep feeding our delusions, keep encouraging us to conflate appearances with reality and attractiveness with virtue. Then zing -- some new high-and-mighty celebrity gets caught, and the media revel in their depredations and our gullibility. And the cycle begins anew.

Hammer Films' version of the classic tale is a particularly apt one for a society that's so susceptible to pretty faces. Two Faces adds a neat twist, making the good Dr. Jekyll look almost like a caveman with a bushy unibrow and unkempt beard, and turning Hyde into a suave and devilishly handsome member of the upper class. (The tagline: "Sometimes, Terror has a Handsome Face!")

Paul Massie as the reclusive Dr. Jekyll
Dr. Jekyll (Paul Massie) is about to
undergo an extreme makeover.
The film opens with the homely, obsessive Jekyll (Paul Massie) discussing his work with his friend and colleague Dr. Ernst Litauer (David Kossoff). He's been working with deaf-mute children, observing how they act out more than normal children due to their inability to express themselves verbally. Jekyll wants to chemically isolate the part of man that is "beyond good and evil," the primitive, unrestrained energy. It seems Jekyll has been drummed out of the scientific community for such cockamamie ideas, and has since been living and working as a near recluse. Ernst chides him, "Why not try to bring out the good?" Jekyll mutters something about needing to understand the flip side in order to better understand the good.

While sad-sack Jekyll has been immersing himself in his work, his beautiful but no-good-unfaithful wife Kitty (Dawn Addams) has been stepping out with Jekyll's upper crust slacker friend Paul Allen (Christopher Lee). Jekyll is the ultimate cuckold-- Paul has been coldly hitting Jekyll up for handouts even as he's been carrying on with his wife. When Jekyll takes his serum and frees the Nietszchean superman in himself, the dashing, blonde, blue-eyed and clean shaven Hyde visits a bawdy music hall and promptly discovers his wife and friend together. In between beating up the lower class locals, assignations with exotic dancers, and general mischief and depravity (not to mention fighting off Jekyll's personality trying to take back his body), Hyde concocts a scheme to cover the incorrigible Allen's gambling debts in exchange for Kitty's favors. As Hyde's depravities begin to catch up with him, he devises yet another plan to suppress the Jekyll part of him for good.

Paul Massie cleans up quite well as Mr. Hyde
Mr. Hyde looks forward to a night on the town.
Hammer's master craftsman Terence Fisher directs a typically sumptuous looking production on a relatively low budget. Paul Massie chews the scenery outrageously as Hyde, but then, if ever there was a character that called for scenery-chewing, this is it. Dawn Addams as Kitty is yet another alluring, red-haired Hammer leading lady in the mold of Barbara Shelley and Hazel Court (someone in the Hammer executive suite apparently liked redheads). The biggest surprise is Christopher Lee, who at the time of Two Faces was neck-deep in horror films: his breakout Horror of Dracula was released a couple of years earlier; he was wrapped in bandages as The Mummy in 1959; and he made two other horror films that were released in 1960, The City of the Dead and The Hands of Orlac. Lee nicely plays against type as the dissolute, conniving Paul, casually fleecing Jekyll while making out with his wife, then feigning outrage when Hyde offers him money for Kitty's favors. (Observant fans will also notice Oliver Reed in a small, pre-The Curse of the Werewolf role as a young tough who gets pummeled by the gleeful, sociopathic Hyde.)

Two Faces is one of Hammer's better non-Dracula/Frankenstein remakes, and boasts one of Chris Lee's better non-Dracula performances for the studio.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

"Here is the century-old horror classic filmed as it has never been before!"

Poster for the TV movie, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968)
Now Playing: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (TV movie, 1968)

Pros: Bravura performance by Jack Palance; Authentic production design
Con: Shot on videotape

Strange Case is a more straightforward retelling, although it still takes liberties with the source material. All the familiar elements from Stevenson's story and earlier film adaptations are there: the hostile reception by his medical colleagues to Jekyll's theories; the drinking of the potion and the agonizing transformation; Hyde's savage beating of an unarmed gentleman with his cane; his possessiveness and terrorizing of an attractive dance hall girl; the suspicion of Jekyll's friend and solicitor that Hyde is blackmailing the good doctor; and Hyde threatening to permanently take over Jekyll's body as the supply of reverse potion runs out.

Jack Palance as Dr. Jekyll in an early lab scene
Dr. Jekyll (Jack Palance) hesitates before
drinking the potion for the first time.
This made-for-TV version greatly benefits from Jack Palance's energy and dynamism in the role of Jekyll/Hyde. Dick Smith's Hyde makeup accentuates Palance's already unique, chiseled features, making him look like a Satanic prince. Palance clearly relishes the role and bounces all over the sets with an animal physicality,  brandishing his sword-cane, howling with glee as he beats up assorted London low-lifes, and racing through dark back alleys, his cloak flapping behind him.  (According to the IMDb entry, the role was a bit too physical.  Palance broke his arm in one of the chase scenes -- sharp-eyed viewers will note that he uses only one arm in later scenes.)

Palance also hits just the right notes as Jekyll (which is not necessarily easy, as Palance looks pretty intimidating even as the refined Dr. Jekyll). The character traces a sort of bell curve through the film-- anxious and under attack by his colleagues at the beginning, intoxicated by Hyde's perverse joie de vivre in the middle, and worn out and hopeless at the end. He is a true addict. At one point, he tells his friend Devlin (Denholm Elliott), "Hyde has no hold over me. Whenever I want to get rid of him… [downs the rest of his drink] … I can do it just like that." Spoken like a true junkie.

Jack Palance as Mr. Hyde looks dashing and diabolical
Mr. Hyde has his sword-cane ready for muggers and
other assorted London low-lifes.
The other star of the show is the production design. Art Director Trevor Williams takes some Toronto locations and sound stages and turns them into a very dark, very convincing London. The costumes, the dance hall, Jekyll's lab -- all are impressive for a TV production and seem to have been meticulously researched. It's a shame that the whole thing was shot on videotape -- a true film treatment would have looked spectacular.

There's one bit of business that's almost a throwaway, but adds to the authenticity of the Victorian London setting and is chilling in its own way. As a constable walks along the darkened street, he looks up at a lighted window, from which a woman's screams are emanating (Hyde is beating his dance hall companion). He pauses, then vaguely smiles and walks on. No prosecutions for domestic violence in this Victorian-era London!!

Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows and Kolchak: The Night Stalker fame produced. Fans of either or both will immediately recognize the signature soundtrack. I was a big Dark Shadows fan at the time, and I remember counting down the days to the debut of Curtis' Jekyll and Hyde on network television. I wasn't disappointed. The Emmy's were similarly impressed that year, giving it 4 nominations, including Best Dramatic Program. It's held up remarkably well, and is worth tracking down.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

"It has been said that many men have found their way from the valley of violence to the palace of wisdom. But if all men must learn wisdom tomorrow from violence today, then who can expect that there will be a tomorrow?"


  1. Happy Anniversary!

    I saw the Palance Jekyll & Hyde many years ago on A&E and recorded it on VHS, but it was a bad copy which I tossed, thinking that surely it would be out on DVD. Not so! I didn't get a copy until two birthdays ago. Even 20 years after seeing it the first time, I still think it's terrific. You're right about the videotape, which gives it that 1970s "live television theater" look, but it's still wonderful.

    I've been a fan of Kolchak forever and I didn't even connect that Dan Curtis with THIS Dan Curtis! I feel really silly now. I did get a copy of the Vanessa Redgrave "Turn of the Screw" from this same Curtis-produced series, and can't wait to watch it.

    1. Thanks Stacia!

      I haven't seen Turn of the Screw or Curtis' version of The Picture of Dorian Gray with Shane Briant (didn't even know the latter existed until just recently).

      I notice from Curtis' resume that after Jekyll and Hyde in 1968, he was busy for several years with the Dark Shadows movies, the Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. Then in '73 he returned to the "classics," knocking out Dorian Gray, Dracula with Jack Palance, and The Turn of the Screw by the end of '74. A very interesting career!