As I’ve noted elsewhere, the science-fiction content of versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde varies enormously. One of the main reasons is that Stevenson never really had an SF story in mind. The good Doctor’s formula was no more than a plot gimmick to tell the story he had in mind.
That said, this is one of the most science-fictional versions of the story I’ve seen, one which starts with Henry Jekyll presenting his theories to a group of fellow doctors and scientists, only to be mocked. His presentation gives us references to evolution, and identifies man’s darker impulses with his animal origins. What’s more, not only does he reject any talk of the soul, but he sees his formula as a way to free man of his darker side.
Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Jack Palance’s performance: I always thought of him as a one note actor, perhaps because he did get rather typecast as a movie heavy. But here he gives a remarkably subtle performance as the soft spoken Jekyll, and manages to make his two characters notably different.
One of the things I particularly liked about this version is that it includes one of the aspects of the original story often ignored by other films: it is not just that it gets harder and harder for him to suppress Hyde once he’s been released, nor it is merely that Hyde is in many respects like an addiction, something Jekyll craves, but that Jekyll’s moral character gets corrupted as well. In this version we actually get the suggestion that he may have deliberately used Hyde to deal with a few awkward people.
This one was a TV movie, released back to back by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and ABC. Curiously, its quality reminds me of a BBC series from the Seventies, with video used indoors and limited use of film for exterior shots. The legendary Dan Curtis – creator of Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker produced this film during the run of his famous soap opera – and one does have to wonder if he filmed it the same way he filmed his TV series. Certainly it looks cheap.
It was the first of an impressive number of TV movies, many involving horror or fantasy themes, which he would produce over the next two decades. In those days it was a lot easier to sell a TV movie to the big networks than it is now (see my comments on A Cold Night’s Death) which may be why a number of intriguing SF and horror films made their way to the small screen.
There isn’t much resemblance to the original story, but then, it would be hard to maintain the suspense of the pursuit of the mysterious Mr. Hyde when we all know who he is and where he came from. Rather, this is a handsome and well-written version of the story which explores a number of elements of the story which have been ignored in other versions.
Some have called it the best version of the story – frankly I have my doubts – but what is true is that it is a very solid and watchable version, and it remains consistently entertaining.
And there’s a lot to be said for that.