Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Reconsidering Cinema Past (Part Two)

The other film I rewatched over the weekend which has undergone a critical reappraisal over the years was Hammer's Two Faces of Dr Jekyll.  By the time of its original release in 1960, Hammer had already enjoyed considerable commercial success with its versions Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, so it seemed only natural that they should tackle another classic monster with an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Their treatment of Jekyll and Hyde turned out to be an even more radical reinterpretation of the source material than they had previously meted out to the other classic horror monsters.  This time, however, the treatment seemed to leave both critics and audiences cold.  Indeed, for its US release, Columbia passed the film on to AIP for distribution, with it playing variously under the titles House of Fright, or Jekyll's Inferno.  This was an ignominious fate for what Hammer had clearly seen as something of a prestige picture, having brought in noted author Wolf Mankowitz to script the film and, eschewing its regular stars, cast stage ator Paul Massie in the title role.

For many commentators it was the presence of Mankowitz and Massie which were the problem, blaming the former's overly complicated script and the latter's variable and sometimes somewhat hammy performance.  In retrospect, the film's 'problems' were rooted in the fact that it frustrated the expectations of critics and audiences, who were expecting another gory Hammer gothic horror.  What they got was a far subtler psychological thriller which, as its title implies, explores the duality of human nature.  The film doesn't even deliver the usual crowd-pleasing transformation scenes, as Jekyll turns into Hyde and vice versa.   Mankowitz's script ditches virtually everything other than the central character(s), the Victorian setting and the central conceit from Stevenson's novel, instead opting for a convoluted plot in which all of the main characters mirror, to some degree or other, Jekyll and Hyde's duality.  Jekyll's wife, for instance, is outwardly a prim Victorian lady, supporting her husband's work, but is revealed to actually be a sensuous woman enjoying an affair with Jekyll's best friend.  The best friend, (a fine, against type performance from Christopher Lee), is revealed as a gambler, forever in debt and borrowing money from Jekyll to pay off creditors.  Interestingly, his debauchery is eventually shown as being largely an affectation - he is unwilling and unable to descend to the depths of depravity enjoyed by Hyde.

The most radical alteration lay in the portrayals of Jekyll and Hyde.  Here, the Doctor is portrayed as bearded, taciturn and anti-social, wheras his alter ego is younger, clean shaven, handsome and outwardly personable - a reflection of director Terence Fisher's obsession with the surface attactiveness of evil.  In contrast to more traditional tellings of the story, which seek to absolve Jekyll of direct responsibility for Hyde's crimes, presenting the latter as an externalisation of Jekyll's dark side, in Two Faces Jekyll is allowed no such get out.  Instead, he is keenly aware that far from being some seperate entity motivated by evil, Hyde is actually an aspect of his own personality and that the depravities he commits are merely an expression of Jekyll's own sublimated desires.  Whilst Jekyll is effectively impotent in the face of his wife's betrayal with his best friend both figuratively and literally, his rage is internalised and it is clearly impliedthat he is unable to satisfy his wife sexually - Hyde is not only able to exact violent revenge on Christopher Lee, but also to sexually dominate and huniliate Jekyll's wife, dressing her as a whore and raping her.  The film posits the question of which is worse: Hyde's wild, amoral abandon, acting neither with conscience nor regard for consequences, or Jekyll's emotionally repressed life, incapable of expressing his passion or even empathy for his friends and family, starving them of affection and understanding.

Clearly far more complex than most horror films of the era, in retrospect Two Faces of Dr Jekyll has much to recommend it.  Sure, the plot becomes incredibly convoluted, as Hyde attempts to frame Jekyll for the killings of his wife and her lover, before faking his alter ego's death to ensure that Jekyll must remain sublimated.  There's also no doubt that Massie's performance in both roles is sometimes a bit over-the-top, (the scene where, as Jekyll, he argues with himself, switching between the voices of Jekyll and Hyde is more than a little risible).   But overall it is a handsomely mounted film, with director Fisher effectively contrasting 'respectable' society with the depraved gin joints, whore houses and opium dens of the 'underclass', which, like Jekyll and Hyde, coexist, the former generally refusing to acknowledge the latter.  For many years this was a difficult film to see, rarely turning up on TV (I don't ever recall it being part of any of BBC2's 'Horror Double Bills' in the 1980s), although recently it has turned up on the Horror Channel several times as part of their Hammer seasons.  This undoubtedly reflects the fact it has undergone a reappraisal and seems to be regarded as a flawed, but fascinating, part of the Hammer canon, which boldly tried to do something different both with its source material and the Hammer formula.  



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