“My God, Jekyll. What you’ve done, it’s satanic!”
For many, Jack Palance is only remembered as the old cowboy from City Slickers or as gangster Carl Grissom from Batman. However, he left his mark on the horror genre not once but twice in two interesting television adaptations from director/producer Dan Curtis. The first of these was 1968s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At two hours long, it remains one of the longest variations on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic.
The overall premise of the story is similar. Dr. Jekyll is the cool and reserved scientist working on a serum to split the good and evil in man. Here, Jekyll has no fiancée and is quite reserved. Hyde is described at one point as a “one-man orgy”. Hyde goes on his murderous rampage, releasing his long-subdued inner desires upon the unsuspecting London. Gradually, Hyde begins his takeover, transferring from Jekyll at will. Jekyll is played by Jack Palance, who gives a demanding performance. He excellently displays the dual personalities. His makeup as Hyde was reminiscent of Spencer Tracy’s, subtle yet distinctive. The ever-present Dr. Lanyon was played by Leo Genn (Circus of Fear), a bit older and more proper than we’ve seen in other versions. An altercation between Lanyon and Hyde is an interesting twist. Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the Lost Ark) played George Devlin, friend of Jekyll much like Utterson in some other versions. In some cases, his character takes the place of Lanyon. Hyde’s love interest here is Gwyn Thomas (Billie Whitelaw), who serves the role of punching bag well. There are some interesting differences, such as Jekyll visiting Gwyn to tell her Hyde is gone rather than the other way around. Gwyn tempts Jekyll more than an hour into the movie rather than in the opening as in other versions. There is also a great debate at the beginning of the film between Jekyll and the group of doctors that ultimately convinces Jekyll to proceed with his experiments as the doctors are practically ready to lynch him for his beliefs.
One major difference is the length of time our story takes to develop. Jekyll suppressed Hyde at about 75 minutes into the film and our story jumps six months ahead. Abandoning his research, Jekyll has reclaimed his teaching status and seems to have slipped back into his old and comfortable life. Then Gwyn returns to seduce Jekyll and cure him of his shyness, an act which ultimately brings Hyde back to the surface. Of course, she regrets that decision and the story plays out pretty much like we’d expect at this point. There is a unique twist on the moral lesson in which Jekyll is viewed as the cause of the problems rather than a victim.
The key difference between The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other films lies in the overall production and presentation. It was filmed entirely on videotape, giving it the look of a BBC presentation such as Doctor Who. Sadly, it comes across looking a little cheap and limits the overall effectiveness of the story. At times, there is some great camera that we’d never find on Doctor Who. Then, we are delt some odd camera work that makes it feel like a staged production. Reportedly, much of the music comes from Dark Shadows. It doesn’t deter from creating atmosphere but it sounds too much like a poor television production rather than a theatrical soundtrack. Effective at times but too inconsistent. The videotape presentation is not the best quality. There is only so much restoration you can do to videotape from this era. However, there appears to have been little work done so there is room for improvement should this ever get another official release.
The one main problem is the movie’s length. At two hours long, it would have run in a two and a half hour block when it originally ran on television. It really needed some better editing as some scenes tend to drag on. It almost plays out like a soap opera with the some of the wordiness found in certain scenes. However, there are moments where Jack Palance delivers lines in eloquent fashion, allowing us to forget for the moment that the movie is stalling. Overall, I can forgive the movie’s length in exchange for the twists to the story it offers along with Jack Palance’s masterful performance. I still prefer Fredric March but Palance has claimed the number two spot amongst my favorites.
We can’t forget to mention producer Dan Curtis. As a writer of Dark Shadows, that soap opera style clearly influenced him in how he chose to produce this movie. While he didn’t direct this film, he would go on to direct his vision of Dracula in 1974 with Palance in that lead role as well. He also gave us such classics as Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offerings. So Curtis is firmly etched into the minds of all horror fans.
This flick is easy to find on DVD with the best bet being the double feature set that also includes Dracula (1974). It’s worth adding to your collection and I’m glad I finally sat down to watch it after several years of it sitting on my shelf. Just make sure you have a little patience to sit through some of the longer scenes.
Next time, we travel back to 1955 for Michael Rennie and his television take on Hyde. We’ll also take a look at some memorable cartoon adaptations and even a quick glance at a young Stan Laurel.