The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1968 Canada/USA)

First broadcast on Canadian TV, this is a very strong production, and given that it’s shot on videotape with a period setting mounted on fog-bound studio sets, it all comes off very well indeed thanks to Trevor Williams’ excellent art direction. Horror great Dan Curtis produces here and also shares directing duties with Charles Jarrott. Composer Robert Colbert’s music is properly spooky too, alive with jabs of tense foreboding. But obviously, we’re all here for the mean and mighty Jack Palance, and he is very good as both Jekyll and Hyde.

He gives a wonderfully warm performance as the kindly, though obsessed Dr Jekyll, but as Mr Hyde, he gives us a thoroughly repellent, cruel and sadistic fiend. Much like Dick Smith’s convincing make-up, big Jack never goes too far and makes Hyde a frighteningly real being. Aiding Palance, is a very fine support cast, many of them great British character actors whom you’ll recognize immediately, such as Denholm Elliot as Jekyll’s best friend and savior Devlin, the aged Leo Genn as Lanyon, while Hyde’s squeeze is played by the ever lusty Billie Whitelaw. The film actually has that tight, closed claustrophobic feel that studio-shot television drama can create, and rather than simply feeling low budget, the stagey-ness actually works well with the horror material. In fact it looks like a BBC period drama.

While  most adaptations often present Jekyll as an idealist who looses control over his experiment, this version actually ends up blaming Jekyll and presenting Hyde as his creation. It makes considerable efforts to demonstrate that Jekyll uses Hyde to act out his desires, desires that he can’t act upon or acknowledge as Jekyll. Hyde is not the dark half from which the idealist cannot escape; but that which the idealist creates to disown his desires. Indeed, the story both opens and closes with a line from Devlin (Jekyll’s lawyer) which undercuts the normally idealistic claims of Jekyll’s research: “It has been said that many men find their way from the valley of violence to the palace of wisdom; but if all men must learn wisdom tomorrow through violence today, then who can expect that there will be a tomorrow.”

Jekyll may attain wisdom in the end (maybe not!) but his science is violent and destructive, and may involve an irresponsibility that threatens the very future of humanity. At the end, Devlin even reverses the normal values of the story when Hyde seeks to preserve himself by warning Devlin that “if you kill me, you’ll be killing Henry Jekyll”, a warning that Devlin dismisses in a most surprising way: “You don’t understand, do you? Jekyll deserves to die – he’s the one who’s responsible, not you.” This fine television production would have looked terrific shot on film, but as mentioned earlier, and probably due to budgetary reasons, it was done on videotape. But don’t allow this, or a lack of pace, to put you off. Watch it as a gothic play, full of inevitable tragedy and grandeur. This one ranks high as far as screen adaptations of the book are concerned and it is thoroughly absorbing for its entire two-hour running time.

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