The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968)

I recently rewatched Dan Curtis’s 1968 adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and found it surprising in a number of ways. I had remembered it as a (largely) faithful adaptation of the original story, and one that was concerned to demonstrate respectability and restraint. However, rewatching it, I was struck by how distinctly unfaithful it was; how it was explicitly intended as a re-interpretation of the original story. I was also struck by how much it didn’t feature the production values of later made-for-television films, but looked instead like a BBC quality drama of the period. It seems to have been entirely shot in the studio and looks very stagey.

Not that being stagey is a problem here. The film actually has that tight, closed claustrophobic feel that studio-shot television drama can create, and rather than simply feeling low budget, the stageyness actually works well with the horror material. The lack of naturalism in the sets somehow works with the fantastic elements of the story, and makes the monster look less ridiculous – it was often a problem in the late 1960s and 1970s that horror monsters were frequently dumped into settings that were modern and/or  naturalistic, a context in which the monster could look quite odd. Certainly this juxtaposition could be used to great effect, as in The Night Stalker, or the fabulous Time After Time, in which Jack the Ripper escapes from 19th Century England to 1970s San Francisco (using H. G. Welles’s Time Machine) where he finds that he fits right in (‘ninety years ago I was a freak; today I’m an amateur’); but this juxtaposition could also seem incongruous, as in Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 (although I must admit a fondness for The Satanic Rites of Dracula, which seems to neatly side step the problem).

However, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also notable for its interpretation of the story, which starts with an idealistic Dr. Jekyll being attacked by his blinkered fellow scientists, but soon starts to demonstrate that Jekyll may actually be the problem. While adaptations often present Jekyll as an idealist who looses control over his experiment, this adaptation 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 Delvin (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 (which is questionable anyhow) but his science is violent and destructive, and may involve an irresponsibility that threatens the very future of humanity. At the end, Delvin even reverses the normal values of the story when Hyde seeks to preserve himself by warning Delvin that ‘if you kill me, you’ll be killing Henry Jekyll’, a warning that Delvin 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.’

The adaptation is full of great performances, too. Jack Palance’s Dr Jekyll is terrific, and my only complaint is that the Hyde make up is a disappointment, and that Palance could probably have pulled off a wonderful Hyde (that was clearly distinct from his Jekyll) without the use of any make up. Billie Whitelaw (who at the time was regularly appearing in Samuel Beckett plays on the British stage and, whom the playwright referred to as ‘the perfect actress’) gives a wonderfully subtle and complex portrayal of a ‘dancer’ who becomes the center of Hyde’s villainous obsessions. Its worth watching the film if only for her confused emotions. Oh, and along the way we have various excellent turns by others, including the ever wonderful Denholm Elliot as Delvin.

In short, this is a really interesting made-for-television horror film and if you haven’t seen it, I would strongly recommended it and, if you have, it may well deserve another look.

Dan Curtis

Dan Curtis has had a wonderful and diverse career but it is as a producer of made-for-television horror films that I most admire him. While working as executive producer for Dark Shadows, he produced his first made-for-television horror film, an adaptation of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968) starring Jack Palance. In 1970 and 1971 respectively, he then made two film versions of Dark Shadows, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, after which he returned to television with the fabulous made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker (1972).

These various examples represent the key features of Curtis’s productions. If Dark Shadows was Gothic and campy, Curtis’s later productions can largely be divided into two key types. On the one hand, there were a series of Gothic adaptations, along the lines of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and on the other were a series of films in which classic monsters (vampires, werewolves, etc.) prowl the twilight zones of contemporary America. If the first type usually sought to evoke a sense of literary prestige, restraint and respectability, the second were less restrained and often humorous or campy.

Following The Night Stalker, Curtis made a rare excursion into the female Gothic with The Invasion of Carol Enders, in which a young woman is possessed by the spirit of a murder victim; but soon returned to type with a sequel to The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, a film that borrowed heavily from horror classics such as The Man in Half Moon Street (1945: which was later remade by Hammer as The Man Who Could Cheat Death, 1959), and featured a man preys upon the living to prolong his own life.

The success of these productions lead to The Norliss Tapes, which seems to have been designed as the pilot for a television series that was never made (unfortunately), and featured Roy Thinnes (from The Invaders) as an investigator into weird paranormal cults. Certainly there are preposterous things the movie but Thinnes has a wonderful presence and the device of telling the story through taped recording that he has made and are the only clue to his ‘disappearance’ helps create a real sense of atmosphere, mystery and menace.

An adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray followed as did another modern day horror story, Scream of the Wolf, and adaptations of both Dracula and The Turn of the Screw. But by the late 1970s, Curtis was beginning to diversify his made-for-television horror productions. Both Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night were anthologies that featured several different stories but Curse of the Black Widow was yet another monster on the loose in contemporary America.

However, by the early 1980s, Curtis had moved into the production of prestigious historical mini-series such as The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, although he would also receive credits when Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker were briefly revived on television.

However, it is for his productions of the late 1960s and 1970s that he will be best remembered and it is an impressive body of work. Although the films associated with Richard Matheson, who wrote many of his made for television films, are the most respected examples, some of his other films have their own pleasures. I have a particular fondness for Curse of the Black Widow, which has a kind of weird, batty charm – hey, it stars Patty Duke (Neely O’Hara from Valley of the Dolls) and Donna Mills (Abby from Knot’s Landing) as rival sisters, one of whom also finds that she is cursed to become a killer spider at regular intervals! The question is: which one? The other question is of course: how can you resist such a premise? I know that I can’t.

Made-for-Television Horror Films

The made-for-television horror film is an odd object. It gets a fairly dismissive treatment in Greg Waller’s essay on the subject (in his collection American Horrors) where he claims that it is preoccupied with the ‘child-less, married woman, twenty to twenty-five years old, who is before all else identified as a wife’ or the figure of the ‘psychic investigator’. Of course, the latter type is a rather strange one to take issue with as it includes examples like the rather wonderful exploits of figures such as Carl Kolchak, the protagonist of Matheson’s truly wonderful made-for-television horror film, The Night Stalker, which most people agree to be a classic (and not just a classic of television horror but of horror more generally)!

The former type is also interesting but in a different way; and is based on an explicit preference for stories that do not ‘overwhelmingly adopt a narrative form based on the personal adventures of an individual protagonist or small group’ and in which ‘the horror is [not] localized, identified as a single incident’. However, this preference is also a gendered response. In other words, this response relies on an established options between the public and the private, in which the public is seen as ‘properly social and political’ while the private is ‘relegated to the realms of “escape”‘, the realms of the ‘localized’ and the ‘individual’. However, as Angela Partington claims, such a distinction is ‘a consequence of the critic’s class and gender-specific notions of’ politics, a notion that is quite at odds, for example, with ‘experience of working-class women’ for whom the social and political are experienced as precisely ‘private and emotional’ and vice versa: the ‘private and emotional’ are therefore deeply social and political.

Furthermore, such a position seems to oddly reject precisely those kinds of narratives that one might see as heirs to a long tradition of female Gothics. Consequently, if Waller is right about its prominence within made-for-television horror film, this category would benefit from a lot more discussion, and I hope to return to this in later entries. However, I am not at all convinced that made-for-television horror films are dominated by such types and, even if they are, there are still a wide range of other types.

The Night Stalker and its sequel, The Night Strangler, were examples of the psychic investigator, as was The Possessed, a rather weird made for television horror film in which James Farentino plays a mysterious figure who wanders the earth confronting evil and finds himself battling dark forces in a girl’s school. However, there was also a series of classic horror adaptations produced by Dan Curtis. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula (again written by Matheson) the terrifically tragic Jack Palance starred as the respective monsters, while The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw were built around other actors.

It should also be remembered that Stephen Spielberg started off in television and that his first film, Duel, was a made-for-television horror film (yet again written by Matheson) that was only given a theatrical release after its reception on television. The film tells the story of an ordinary man who, while traveling across country in his car, is menaced by a mysterious truck.

In short, there is a rich and diverse body of work within the made-for-television horror film. Some examples, such as The Possessed, are preposterous but fun. Others such as Duel or The Night Stalker are acknowledged as classics. And yet others, if Waller is right, represent a prolific, if largely forgotten, body of female Gothics.

Of course, the made-for-television horror film is very different from the made-for-television mini-series which I will discuss on another occasion but is another rich tradition that includes examples such as The Dark Secret of Harvest Home and numerous adaptions of Stephen King novels including Salem’s Lot (twice), It, The Tommyknockers, The Stand and The Shining. But that is for another day.