Friday, July 25, 2008

"I'll show you what horror means!"
DR. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1932)

So we watched Paramount's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932) and again I was struck with how much I enjoy this film. In the wake of the success of Universal's DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN the previous year, several other studios jumped on the brand new horror genre, but none with the gusto and downright nastiness of Paramount. The pictures the studio churned out during this period, including JEKYLL, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and MURDERS IN THE ZOO are full of gut-wrenching, chill-inducing material that packs a wallop even today.

Produced before the studio censorship crackdown of 1934, the Paramount Horrors contain frank sexuality, gore and general grisliness that many find surprising in a 1930s film. JEKYLL pulls few punches in its depiction of Mr. Hyde (Frederic March) and his abusive relationship with Ivy the prostitute (Miriam Hopkins). By the time the picture wraps up, Ivy has been through hell and the viewer along with her. Sure, it's a monster movie with monster make-up, but the film is also a solid depiction of a good man's descent into animalistic narcissism. The story is ripe for metaphoric interpretation. Jekyll's misbegotten forays as Hyde, staying away from home for days at a time while he wallows in excess and cruelty, clearly suggests a drug addict or alcoholic off on a bender.

By the end, Jekyll can no longer keep his "good" and "bad" selves separated. He begins to regress into his Hyde form spontaneously. His actions as Hyde begin to seriously affect his life as Jekyll. The message of the film seems to be that man is necessarily made up of both noble and base instincts. The two sides temper and complement one another. Separating these two selves results in a loss of humanity and sanity. We cannot separate our selves physically, psychically or morally from the consequences of all our actions.

Frederic March took home a well-deserved Best Actor award for this at the Oscars. Nothing like that would happen again until Anthony Hopkins in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS 60 years later. The performance is fantastic. He plays the two "selves" so distinctly, it would be easy to believe that there are two separate actors at work here.

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932) is a surprisingly adult and literate horror film, often put on the shelf with FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA and the other monster movies of the period. It's comparative raciness, though, resulted in the film only being available in chopped up, crackly video releases for years. A much more complete DVD version is now available and is recommended highly for the next time you're in the mood for something classic.

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