Dracula / The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde DVD

Curtis TV horror on disc

After the runaway success of his gothic TV soap opera Dark Shadows, producer Dan Curtis sought to expand into made-for-TV movies. To further mine the vein of horror, he decided to produce films based on classic (and affordably copyright free) terror tales. For his initial effort, he chose Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of the division of Good and Evil within Man.

I recall seeing this 1968 version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde when it was first broadcast, and was not impressed with it. Curtis’ penny-pinching approach is immediately apparent — if it weren’t shot in color, you might think that this is a kinescope of a live TV production from the 1950s. Shot on video, the image often looks blurry or washed out. Director Charles Jarrott (The Other Side of Midnight) gets his cameras moving around, but the obviously stagebound production still feels cramped. The transformation scenes take place off camera, like those in the first few silent versions. One can occasionally hear the hum of the lights on the dull mono soundtrack. And at two solid hours, the story is just stretched too long.

These complaints aside, this tele-version has much to offer. Number one on that list would be star Jack Palance in the title roles. Up to that time, though some were aware of his impressive stage work, most people thought of Palance as a heavy in a long line of Westerns (Shane) and thrillers (Sudden Fear). On TV in the late ’60s, Palance got the chance to stretch a bit.

As Jekyll, he overcomes his size (6 foot 3 inches) and appears mild-mannered and dedicated. He’s first seen addressing his scientific colleagues seeking support for the work he’s been doing, with little success. Screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter takes an interesting view of the material, tying Jekyll’s work in with that of Darwin. This Jekyll doesn’t separate Man’s will into Good and Evil, but seeks to isolate his animal nature from his more evolved soul.

It should fail to surprise any viewer that Jekyll decides to experiment on himself, taking his own de-evolutionary potion. This part of the story has always vexed me — what sort of scientific method is this guy following? Well, that’s show biz.

Jekyll awakes the next morning with no recollection of what happened following his test, but is delighted to learn through a bit of investigation that a certain Mr. Hyde had a high time spending his money in the less respectable saloons of London. This presentation doesn’t make Hyde a full terror right away — in fact, he’s merely free from the bounds of society, having all the fun Jekyll never dared have. But later, Hyde’s freedom lets loose an increasingly nasty nature, ending in torture and murder.

As good as Palance’s Jekyll is, his Hyde is even better. Though the makeup is light, only emphasizing the cruder aspects of Palance’s face, he’s still almost unrecognizable under it. He’s made himself into another person completely, even singing and dancing on a music hall stage at one point.

Curtis went on to make some feature films, but returned to horror television in the early ’70s, making the Night Stalker films, among others. These TV movies were so successful he decided to make his most ambitious project yet: a new version of Dracula, shot in Europe from a script by respected horror author/screenwriter Richard Matheson, and reuniting Curtis again with Jack Palance.

His version suffers somewhat from Curtis’ own direction. Even though the show boasts some great locations and fine period detail, Curtis wastes many opportunities. He has a TV eye — a penchant for zooming into close-ups and pacing with only commercial breaks in mind. And almost all of his films have the same distinctive music by Bob Cobert, who has a tendency to recycle cues. There are a lot of cuts made to the material¬†— the cast is severely pared down, Dracula can’t turn into mist or bats, his voyage to England (one of the novel’s best parts) is eliminated, etc. One gets the impression that this could have been a much stronger film with the chains taken off the production.

However, this version adds aspects from the original Bram Stoker novel that had rarely, if ever, appeared in a Dracula film, and there are some effective shocks. Also, the connection to Vlad Tepes is made for the first time in any English language version. Palance is physically well suited for the lead role, passionate and powerful, although a bit too sympathetic to be really scary. The main flaw in the script — and its greatest diversion from Stoker — is that Dracula comes to London seeking Lucy (Fiona Lewis), whom he sees as the reincarnation of his lost love. This plot point is stolen outright in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, although Matheson and Curtis use it more effectively.

As ever, the story tends to plod along a bit through the middle, but picks up considerably for the race back to Castle Dracula at the end.

Each film is presented on its own side of the disc. The transfer of Jekyll & Hyde probably looks as good as it ever will, considering it was designed to be seen on screens 20 inches in diameter and smaller. The print of Dracula shows some speckles and scratches. The Dracula side also has a few extras. A trailer for the European theatrical release is included. There’s also a brief interview clip (circa 1990) in which Curtis pats himself on the back, and another in which Palance talks about how the role of Dracula actually frightened him, and reveals that at the time he still hadn’t seen the film.

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