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Monday, May 17, 2010

DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE -- DVD review by porfle

Check out the DVD cover for DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (2002). Pretty cool, huh? Well, this is one time when the movie not only lives up to the cover art, but surpasses it. This version of Robert Louis Stevenson's oft-filmed story, in fact, ranks among the best, thanks mainly to a remarkable performance by writer-director Mark Redfield (CHAINSAW SALLY, THE DEATH OF POE) in the title role(s).

We all know the basic storyline by now: in Victorian London, a respected doctor named Henry Jekyll theorizes that a man's soul composed of two distinct yet interlocked halves, one purely good and the other unremittingly evil, which can be separated by chemical means. He downs a potion conceived to do just that, turning himself into the bestial Mr. Hyde and indulging in his most animalistic impulses for lust and violence, which wreaks havoc on his life as Jekyll. Soon, like a hopeless drug addict, he is unable to control his increasingly-dominant Hyde persona, leading to death and ruin for himself and those around him.

Based on the stage adaptation of Stevenson's 1886 novella by Redfield and Stuart Voytilla, this version is faithful to the original story while containing elements concocted for other filmings throughout the years and coming up with a few of its own. There's a particularly interesting new scene in which Hyde secretly slips some of his transforming potion to an already-evil character who intends to kill him, the vile pimp Jack Little (Robert Leembruggen). This brings Jack's undiluted "good" side to the fore and turns him into a simpering weakling to be easily dealt with by a gloating Hyde. It's an intriguing and well-rendered idea.

Also, as in many previous versions, this film explores the dichotomy between two women who represent opposing ends of the moral spectrum: Jekyll's upper-class, "good" fiancee', Miriam Carew (Kosha Engler), and Claire Caine (the exotically beautiful Elena Torrez), a prostitute who becomes the object of Hyde's lascivious attentions and is ultimately terrorized by him. And Redfield's screenplay gives Jekyll a fascination with a new toy: a moving-picture machine that he purchases from the Lumière brothers, which figures importantly in the stunning conclusion.

Shot on video, it initially comes across as a cheap-looking production, until one gets used to the blue-screen exteriors with their miniature houses and superimposed elements and settles into the storybook quality that this conveys. The interior sets are very well-done--some are constructed on a soundstage while others are well-chosen actual locations, and Redfield's imaginative direction and design give each scene a rich, atmospheric quality.

Redfield also pays homage to his distinguished predecessors--in one shot that is supposed to represent Jekyll's family photographs, we see framed portraits of three of the most famous purveyors of the role: Richard Mansfield, who starred in the first stage production in 1887; John Barrymore, of the excellent 1920 silent version; and Frederic March, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1932 Paramount classic, which is still probably the finest version ever filmed. Spencer Tracy, whose 1941 portrayal was less successful, is absent.

Barrymore's Hyde had a spider-like quality, while March's iconic makeup was distinctly simian. Redfield, on the other hand, looks absolutely demonic in the role, with jagged teeth, pointed ears, and contact lenses that make his irises appear as glaring pinpoints. (He has more in common, in fact, with Jack Palance's portrayal in Dan Curtis' 1968 TV version.) He has a field day performing the hunched, maniacal fiend with a "strong feeling of deformity" whose total surrender to his most depraved impulses fills him with a horrible glee.

As in other versions, the makeup grows progressively more hideous as Hyde's increasingly monstrous evil side physically manifests itself like a disease. But Redfield never goes over the top or lapses into caricature--he's a skilled actor who handles the role with just the right touch at every turn. The rest of the cast, including Carl Randolph as Jekyll's lawyer and concerned friend Utterson and R. Scott Thompson as Miriam Carew's Jekyll-hating brother Mordecai, perform admirably as well. Mordecai, a new character created by Redfield and Voytilla, is particularly useful in ratcheting up the tension between Jekyll and the Carews, and is an interesting substitution for another character in one of the story's most familiar and shocking scenes later on.

The full-frame DVD includes deleted scenes, a "making of" featurette, and an audio commentary by Mark Redfield.

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a worthy successor to the many versions of the story that have come before it, easily surpassing quite a few of them, and should be a welcome addition to any horror fan's DVD library. It appeals strongly to the "classic horror" fan in me, yet is intense enough to keep younger Monster Kids occupied. Good Dr. Porfle says "Check it out, friends!", while evil Mr. Porfle adds "Shut up and watch the stupid thing already, ye bloody gits!"

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