Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Handsome Mr. Hyde

It is coming up on the one-year anniversary of this blog (March 26, 2011) and of the publication of the book on which it is based, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films. To mark the occasion, I can't do better than direct you to Jon Towlson's positive review of the book in Starburst.

And now on to today's subject: Mr. Hyde, the evil creature into which the otherwise normal scientist Dr. Jekyll transforms himself by chemical means. The tradition in most film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is to present Dr. Jekyll as handsome and Mr. Hyde as hideous (Fredric March's portrayal in the 1932 adaptation) or at least unpleasant-looking (Spencer Tracy's portrayal in the 1941 version). The idea is to take some good-looking actor and then, in special-effects heavy transformation scenes, slather on ugly makeup to turn him into a brute.

What never makes sense in these movies is why Jekyll would want to take a chemical to make himself look worse. In real life, as the cosmetics industry and fitness centers attest, people go to great efforts to make themselves look better, not worse. If they do end up looking worse, it is by accident of the aging process and behaviors such as overeating.

That is why The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, the 1960 Hammer Films adaptation, is so refreshing. Here Dr. Jekyll (Paul Massie) is a bearded, aging, rather plain-looking man who, when transformed into Hyde, becomes young, clean-shaven, and handsome. His low, weary voice becomes light and airy. And all this happens without the benefit of elaborate special effects. With a little editing, the camera simply cuts away from Jekyll (who, this time, is the one wearing the heavier makeup) and cuts back to Hyde.

Of course, Hyde is evil. He indulges in all sorts of wanton, lascivious pleasures, and he has a violent streak that issues in several murders. But at least one can figure out why Jekyll keeps turning himself back into Hyde. As Hyde he is youthful and good-looking, in addition to being able to fulfill any fantasy he desires. Hyde even has an interesting philosophy, based on "energy and reason."

The movie is not quite as good as I may be making it sound. No movie version that I have seen has fully captured the horror of Hyde in Stevenson's novella, including Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. Even with the presence of Christopher Lee as a debauched friend and the lover of Jekyll's wife, the film is a little ponderous. But it is worth seeing if only because it presents a Hyde who makes physical sense.

George Ochoa


Jon T said...

George, the review of Deformed and Destructive Beings also features in this month's print issue (iss. 375). Anyone who wants a copy can order from their website.

George Ochoa said...

Thanks, Jon.