Saturday, September 9, 2017

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

(1920) Directed by John S. Robertson; Written by: Clara Beranger; Based on the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Starring: John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst, Charles Lane and Nita Naldi;
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the two natures in man could be separated – housed in different bodies!” – Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Barrymore)

“All things therefore seemed to point to this: that I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.” – Dr. Henry Jekyll (excerpt from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson)

A tip of the beaker to Christina Wehner (visit her website at: and Ruth of Silver Screenings for hosting the Movie Scientist Blogathon, taking a look at the good, the mad and the lonely scientists in cinema. Naturally, a classic theme deserves a classic film, with John Barrymore’s portrayal of Dr. Jekyll, and his nefarious counterpart, Mr. Hyde.

First published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s venerable tale of duality, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, has been interpreted and re-interpreted for the big and small screen countless times. No matter how many permutations of the source material, it never seems to lose its relevance. Over the years, filmmakers have taken some license with the formula, with some amusing comedies (the Stan Laurel short “Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde” and the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Hyde and Hare” are notable examples) or  Hammer’s entertaining, gender-bending take, Dr.Jekyll and Sister Hyde. The vast majority of interpretations have chosen to go the more traditional route, sticking with Stevenson’s original story as canon. The year 1920 saw two different versions appear in the theaters. The Paramount version, with Barrymore, has stood the test of time, while the other has faded into obscurity.

We’re introduced to the virtuous Dr. Jekyll as he toils in his laboratory, intent on unraveling the mysteries of humanity. This doesn’t sit well with his older, more conservative colleague Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane), who cautions about tampering with the laws of nature. Of course, our intrepid young doctor decides to meddle, because, we wouldn’t have a story otherwise. When he’s not in his lab doing science-y things, he immerses himself in charity work. After a fateful meeting with his more seasoned cronies, who encourage him to experience the baser elements of life (“A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying its impulses. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”), he sets out for a taste of the life he’s been missing all these years. The conversation, along with a late-night visit to a more disreputable side of town, helps plant the seed for his experiment. Jekyll promptly retires to his lab to find a way to split the two sides of himself, while keeping his separate identities. In the ensuing scene, which has become a necessary, albeit clichéd component of Jekyll and Hyde lore, he drinks the potion which will bring out his other half.  

Hyde, as he appears in Stevenson’s story is vague and indistinct in appearance, but with an unsavory air about him. The burden has fallen upon filmmakers and actors to imagine the rest. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll’s alter ego transforms into a hideous creature with a simian gait, long fingers, pointed nails, scraggly hair, and a pointed scalp. But Hyde is much more than makeup – he comes alive through Barrymore’s facial expressions and movement. He exudes menace from every pore, an expression of Jekyll’s id, wielding his phallic cane like a weapon. When Dr. Jekyll becomes enamored with Gina (Nita Naldi, in her film debut), a dancing girl in a seedy London music hall, his inhibitions keep him in check, but as Hyde it’s a different story. Gina meets him with revulsion, but succumbs to his forceful overtures. Almost as quickly as Hyde claims Gina for himself, she’s discarded. In one unsettling scene, Hyde denigrates her in front of another woman that strikes his fancy, but we know his new object of infatuation will meet the same awful fate.

Barrymore turns out a sympathetic performance as a well-intentioned researcher who travels down the rabbit hole and can’t find his way out. His experiment is the culmination of his hubris that he could split his psyche into two separate identities. If they enjoy a separate existence, the arrangement is short-lived. As we soon learn, one can’t help but influence the other. As time goes on, Jekyll and Hyde begin to merge, until they become inseparable. This fractured duality is reinforced in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a nightmare sequence, in which Jekyll grapples with his unconscious. A hideous apparition of a spider with Hyde’s face appears on his bed, reminding him they are one and the same. It’s simple effect, done well – enough to give even seasoned horror fans the creeps.

Many versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have come and gone, but few approach the raw energy of Barrymore’s masterful performance (the 1931 Fredric March version is my personal favorite, but this one comes awfully close). It’s only a matter of time before some enterprising young filmmaker decides to take a crack at this enduring story again (hopefully without the use of CGI), but one can learn much from Barrymore’s virtuoso interpretation of one of fiction’s most intriguing dual roles. It’s a firm reminder, if we needed more proof, that elaborate makeup and expensive special effects are no match for great acting.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Golem: How He Came Into the World

(1920) Directed by: Paul Wegener and Carl Boese; Written by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen; Starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Ernst Deutsch, Lyda Salmonova and Lothar Müthel; Available on DVD

Rating: ****½

“Venus enters the constellation Libra. The time is favorable for the invocation. From the dreaded spirit Astaroth I must wrest the life-giving word that will bring the Golem to life to save my people.” – Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück)

Much like Frankenstein, The Golem, or its full title, The Golem: How He Came into the World (aka: Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam), concerns a powerful creation, made in man’s image, gone amuck. Various incarnations of the myth have appeared on stage and screen over the years, but none perhaps, approached the material with the same level of fervor as co-director/co-writer/star Paul Wegener. Wegner’s fascination with the 16th century lore* led him to create three films over a five-year span. Unfortunately, the 1915 and 1917 versions are lost to history, but I like to think the third time’s the charm.

* Look here for more information on Golem folklore and its origins.

The Golem is set in 16th century Prague, at least a stylized version of the city. The story opens with Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück), his eyes cast to the heavens, as he uncovers a disturbing prophecy (“The stars foretell disaster.”). Meanwhile, the emperor (Otto Gebühr) declares an edict, calling for the expulsion of the residents of the Jewish ghetto. Knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) sets off, on the emperor’s order, to deliver the edict. The officious knight initially shows nothing but disdain for the residents of the ghetto, but after he makes goo-goo eyes with the rabbi’s daughter Miriam (played by Wegener’s then wife, Lyda Salmonova), it’s love at first sight. While his daughter has a forbidden love affair behind his back, Löw sculpts a hulking figure out of clay, the Golem. With a little help from the malevolent spirit Astaroth, he brings the Golem to life. He requests an audience with the emperor, where he manages to save the day for the royal court and the Jewish ghetto. But of course, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, as the Golem turns against his creator. The only way to stop the rampaging figure is to remove the star-shaped amulet, or “Shem” (containing a magic word on a scroll), from its chest. Unfortunately for Löw and his community, stopping the Golem proves harder than he thought.   

Wegener’s performance as the title creation is a real standout. In his portrayal of something neither living nor dead, he finds the perfect balance in his movement, somewhere between a robotic gait and a fluid, human-like stride. In less capable hands, the Golem would have come across as a caricature, rather than the imposing figure of destruction that appears in the film. He set the standard for decades to come, starting with Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin in The Terminator. The Golem stands along with Count Orlock in Nosferatu and Maria in Metropolis as some of German silent cinema’s greatest inhuman characters.

Over the years, The Golem has invited debate over its intentions, with some viewing the film as a fable about creation run rampant, while others finding a more derogatory interpretation. Although I can’t summarily dismiss all the criticisms, it’s difficult to accept that Wegener and crew’s choices were made from malice. At worst, the film is told from a naïve perspective that perpetuates certain myths and stereotypes, with the residents of the ghetto living closely with mysticism and astrology. A more measured interpretation would be that the film is best taken as a fable, rather than a pseudo-historical document of life in 16th century Prague. The decision by Löw to unleash the Golem is not taken lightly, but as a desperate effort to save the Jewish community from further oppression by a decadent ruling class.  

A minor quibble with The Golem is that the Rabbi’s assistant (Max Kronert) is let off the hook far too easily. When Löw realizes the destructive potential of his creation, he aims to destroy it. Before the Golem is smashed into bits, the assistant, in a fit of jealousy, reactivates the statue to drive Knight Florian away from Miriam and out of the village. (SPOILER ALERT) Considering his actions result in the Golem killing Florian,* destroying the rabbi’s house and almost succeeding in burning down the ghetto, it’s a tall order for him to request her forgiveness.

* Even though Knight Florian was an insufferable twit, he didn’t deserve the cruel fate of being thrown off a tower. Oddly enough, the emperor doesn’t seem to miss his knight. Perhaps he was just as annoyed by him as we were?

The Golem* is an enduring classic about good intentions gone astray. In an effort to save his people from exile, Rabbi Löw nearly causes their annihilation. The theme about an immensely powerful creation taking its own initiative continues to be explored, in endless permutations. One doesn’t need to look very far to find The Golem’s influence in many science fiction and horror films, from The Colossus of New York, to The Terminator, to Ex Machina. I also couldn’t help but wonder if the film also served as an unconscious template for the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Fantasia (commonly credited to a poem by Goethe), with the impulsive rabbi’s apprentice usurping his master’s creation to satisfy his own whims. The Golem was a giant leap forward in genre film that will continue to reverberate as long as movies exist.

* Fun Non-Sequitur Fact: The film features stunning cinematography by Karl Freund, who went on to a long career in Hollywood. He was also a fine director in his own right, with The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935).

Saturday, September 2, 2017

August Quick Picks and Pans

Deathdream (aka: Dead of Night) (1974) Director Bob Clark and writer Alan Ormsby (the same team that worked on Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things) best collaborative effort uses the real-world nightmares of the war in Vietnam as a backdrop for their horror film. John Marley and Lynn Carlin play Charles and Christine Brooks, parents mourning the loss of their son Andy. They’re elated when he suddenly appears on their doorstep, but puzzled to discover he’s not the same person they knew. His arrival also coincides with a series of strange deaths in the small town.

Richard Backus impresses as the blank and impassive Andy, who spends much of his time sitting in a chair, staring into space. When he smiles, it’s truly unsettling. Deathdream really gets under your skin, exploring the effects of PTSD, and how grief can manifest itself with maladaptive coping mechanisms (Andy’s father turns to alcohol, while his mother shields herself with denial). The film also features sparing but effective makeup effects by a young Tom Savini, which add to the disturbing experience.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Dementia 13 (1963) Some movies stay in your consciousness for years, yet continue to pass you by. After hearing so many mixed things for so long, I decided to give Dementia 13 a try, and was pleasantly surprised by this Roger Corman production, directed by Francis Coppola. This atmospheric mood piece fits nicely in the vein of Hammer and William Castle thrillers from the period (such as Paranoiac and Strait-Jacket), and thematically falls somewhere between Psycho and Carnival of Souls. Hoping to cash in on a family inheritance, Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) travels to the family castle in Ireland, where she’s met by in-laws plagued by mental illness and haunted by the specter of death. Some highlights are the eerie cinematography by Charles Hannawalt and standout performances by Patrick Magee as a meddling family doctor, and William Campbell as Louise’s temperamental brother in law Richard. Even if the climax was a bit predictable, I enjoyed feeling on edge with this exercise in style and madness.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

Demonlover (2002) What the hell did I just watch, and what was all of that about? I’m willing to entertain other’s suggestions. French director Olivier Assayas incorporates   French, English and Japanese dialogue into his film, and like the eclectic mix of languages, it’s an odd stew of ideas, blending drama, intrigue, sex and torture. Connie Nielsen stars as Diane, a spy tasked with infiltrating one of the premier computer game companies. The title refers to a RPG website that deals in sadomasochism. The deeper she gets, the more she places herself at risk. The story goes off the rails at times, and most of the characters aren’t remotely relatable, but it’s not boring. I kept wondering what was going to happen next, if only to quell my growing confusion. While most of the corporate espionage plot meanders, the ending packs a wallop with some pointed commentary about society’s casual acceptance of violence and degradation of our fellow humans. Oh, so maybe that’s what Demonlover was trying to say.  

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Aaaaaaaah! (2015) With the exception, perhaps, of the opening scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’ll wager you haven’t seen anything like this before. People (in an alternate universe?) behave like apes. They speak in grunts, and exhibit territorial behavior with various excretions, and fight each other for dominance – you see, we’re all nothing but apes in disguise (like we didn’t already know that). The film features a veritable who’s who of British comedy actors, including Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Steve Oram (who also wrote and directed) and Alice Lowe. If you scan the reviews on Amazon UK, you’ll learn it’s a love it or hate it affair, with ratings either five stars or zero stars, and no middle ground. I opine it’s not as terrible, nor as brilliant as either assessment would lead you to believe. It’s a unique concept that almost works, but its worst offense is it just isn’t very funny. Intrepid viewers might want to give Aaaaaaaah! a shot, but good luck finding a copy in the States. Ask for it by name.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2)