16 December 2008

Movie Review: The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll

After some delay, the last film from Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films DVD set:

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee.

Hammer Films used the Universal catalog for their first color horror movies, but Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde is one of classic movie monsters that the black-and-white Universal films hadn’t touched. The famous 1931 movie starring Frederic March was made by Paramount. MGM produced a slicker (and less effective) version in 1941 with Spencer Tracy—and almost destroyed the Paramount film just to keep it from competing with their new movie. Thankfully, MGM failed in their search-and-destroy mission, and the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to date remains the best-known filming of the novel, with its simian Mr. Hyde becoming the iconic image of the dark side of human nature unleashed. Oh, and it’s a great film, overcoming the restrictions of early sound movies under the ingenuinty of director Rouben Mamoulian.

When Hammer got around to doing their own version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (that’s right, no “The”), the studio was firmly entrenched in outrĂ© gothic shockers, and Terence Fisher was the #1 director for the genre. However, in terms of violence and shock, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll comes across as sedate. The social aspects of the story seem more important to screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz and director Fisher than the horrific ones. It makes for an intriguing film, but not much of a shocking or exciting one, especially when compared to Fisher’s other horror movie of 1960, The Brides of Dracula.

The Edward Hyde of this story isn’t the ogrish killer of other versions of the story, but essentially a Victorian libertine. The repressed Dr. Jekyll unleashes a “perfect” Mr. Hyde who is “beyond good and evil” and works his free sexuality on a stuffy population. It looks quite tame to us today, and probably was even in 1960, but it does make a change in the story that fits with more sexualized style of the Hammer series.

Hyde isn’t a creature of make-up and prosthetics, but handsome and dapper. It was an unusual reversal to have the actor playing the dual role to wear the make-up as Dr. Jeykll instead of the monstrous Hyde. (How the transformation gives Dr. Jekyll a shave each time it occurs, I’m not sure.) Jekyll is almost as unlikable a man as Hyde, since he neglects his wife and friends in order to focus on his experiments, and radiates no warmth and empathy. But this negativity reaches to all the characters in the story; there isn’t a truly likable individual anywhere. Kitty Jekyll (Dawn Addams) is a scheming manipulator who is sleeping with her husband’s friend Paul Allen (Christopher Lee), a wasteful gambler who mooches off Jekyll to pay off his numerous gambling debts.

The story is wandering as the predatory Hyde enjoys his nights on the town while Jekyll keeps trying to keep his other side down. Hyde slowly builds up a plan using Paul and Kitty, which is quite clever when he at last reveals it, but there isn’t enough foreshadowing to keep it interesting. It just feels as if Hyde is playing around to no particular purpose.

Actor Paul Massie rips into the Hyde role, and his wicked smile is the most chilling thing in the film. His Dr. Jekyll is much weaker, and Massie overdoes his limpness and comes up with an absurdly silly deep voice that seems even stranger when he has to do the scenes of arguing with himself in the finale. The conceit of bickering with an image of Hyde is a mirror works well, but Massie standing solo and talking to himself is unintentionally funny.

Christopher Lee appears in the atypical role of a victim. He would seem ideal for the part of Jekyll, and isn’t suited to the role of profligate man-about-town. Lee’s charisma is hard to deny, but you can hardly imagine that Mr. Hyde could ultimately get the better of him.

I’m also unsure how Hyde was able to beat down a bouncer at a restaurant, considering that the bouncer is played by a then unknown Oliver Reed. Hyde, you think you’re a partier? See if you can out-drink this bouncer!

Like any Terence Fisher film, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll has a lush and colorful design. The most striking set is the bedroom of exotic dancer Maria (Norma Marla) whom Hyde seduces, decorated in a faux-Oriental style. Fisher also pulls off some clever scenes, such as a Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation that occurs while Jekyll is writing in his diary, suddenly switching to a different handwriting. But there isn’t enough of Fisher’s pyrotechnics to keep the film afloat among its mostly staid action. The Two Faces of Dr. Jeykll is more philosophical drama than horror thriller—it’s intriguing, but not really exciting.

James Bond spotting bonus: The music is from Monty Norman, who composed the music for Dr. No and receives credit to this day for the James Bond Theme.

Recapping the four films in Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films:
  • The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll: Interesting take on the story, some good performances, but not much of a thriller.
  • The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb: Boring, trudging Mummy flick that doesn’t have anything new until the very end.
  • Taste of Fear: Clever little psychological thriller with some genuine surprises.
  • The Gorgon: A Hammer classic so good, it’s the only reason you need to buy the set.