Part of Indicators fourth Hammer box-set, Faces of Fear, The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll is the last of the set that I have watched, mostly because I thought it was the lesser film of the four (the others being The Revenge of Frankenstein, Taste of Fear and The Damned), and I’ll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It actually turned out to be a quite sophisticated retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale: less of the monster movie I expected, and more a tale of decadent excess and sexual politics. Like their 1958 Dracula (also directed by Terence Fisher) the old familiar tale is updated by Hammer for contemporary audiences – Hammer certainly seems to have been more ambitious with these movies than I thought. These Gothic horrors tend to be talked about with some disdain nowadays, considered to be horribly dated by some, and indeed much of my own affection stems from childhood viewings on the old Friday night horror slots on television in the 1970s, but there does seem to be more to them than might initially meet the eye. These Indicator box-sets (a fifth, likely final set, is due next month I think) have really taught me a lesson or two about just how good Hammer films were, proving to be an institution we Brits really should be more proud of (or at least be afforded more respect today).
So The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll is certainly a very surprising film. Paul Massie stars in the dual role of the ill-fated, foolish Doctor Jekyll and the charming Mr Hyde. Dr Jekyll is an introverted, obsessed scientist rather withdrawn from society- indeed, neglecting his wife Kitty (a fabulous Dawn Addams) so much that she is off having an affair with his best friend Paul Allen (Christopher Lee in, for me, one of the best roles I’ve seen him in), who keeps coming to Jekyll for money as he is always getting into debt from his extravagant excesses.
The main Hammer ‘twist’ on the familiar old tale is that Jekyll is portrayed as a backward, almost monstrous figure in appearance, and middle-aged (something the make-up isn’t really up to, failing to convince and looking odder than intended), and his alter-ego Hyde is a young, dashing, and charismatic socialite. Jekyll is emasculated and unable to satisfy his wife (or moreover apparently unwilling), his eventual overtures towards her awkward and ham-fisted, rendered impotent. Hyde is all confidence and charm, wit and virility, totally shameless and without the self-loathing that Jekyll inflicts upon himself. “I’m free!” Hyde repeatedly announces, the film clearly showing how he feels unchained by the limitations of Jekyll’s own psyche. As Hyde exerts more control, Jekyll begins to visibly age, as if Hyde’s domination is draining him of life.
The world that Hyde revels in is one of all-night debauchery, pleasures of the flesh (after an argument with Kitty, Paul casually turns to two prostitutes for his diversions) and gambling and drink. Everyone seems bored, eager to find some new thrill and fascination. An exotic dancer Maria (Norma Maria) becomes a particular draw, a raven-haired beauty whose erotic dance with a snake ends with a few shots overloaded with such innuendo that it makes me wonder how it got past the censor. Thwarted by Kitty’s fascination with Paul, Hyde turns to Maria who is bewitched by his unwavering confidence and charm- a woman, of course, who wouldn’t consider Jekyll for an instant.
Of course, the tale does not end well for anyone at all- indeed, there is an almost noir-ish feel to the film as each character seems to hurtle towards oblivion, trapped by their own urges and obsessions. Kitty is doomed by her foolish love for Paul, Paul is doomed by his gambling and debts, Maria is doomed by her fascination in Hyde, and Jekyll doomed by his hubris in pursuing his scientific experiment. . Sure, the pacing betrays the films age somewhat, but on the whole its very well made with great art direction and cinematography. The very good cast actually raises the films quality above what it might otherwise have been, making the very most of the script- Christopher Lee, as I have already mentioned is an absolute joy to watch. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable, richly rewarding film. Bravo, Indicator, yet again- I’m certainly looking forward to that fifth volume in this series of box-sets.