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Monday, May 19, 2008

The Many Faces of Hyde (originally published 7/03)

Ever since humankind became self-aware, it seems that we have been fascinated with the duality of our own psyche. Given the undeniable fact that we are capable of reaching astonishing heights of nobility and altruism, it is remarkable that we are simultaneously capable of plumbing the depths of depravity. Even more amazing is the fact that this incredible range of personal attributes can be found within a single individual.

The best known work of literature that explores this duality of the human spirit is, of course, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson. It has been adapted for the screen literally dozens of times, ranging from versions that follow the original story closely to those that transmute the basic theme into very different settings. The most recent of the latter type is "The Hulk," in which the Hyde character takes the form of an unstoppable green-skinned goliath born of anger, which is traditionally regarded as one of the seven deadly sins. For a sampling of how earlier films have explored variations on the Jekyll and Hyde theme, look for these titles on home video.

"Before I Hang" (1940). Boris Karloff stars as Dr. John Garth, who has been convicted of what was then called a "mercy killing." Today, in the age of Kevorkian, we'd say "assisted suicide." While awaiting execution, he is permitted to continue his research on a youth serum. He tries the formula on himself (as a condemned man, after all, he has nothing to lose) and discovers that it works. There is, however, one unfortunate side effect. The younger version of the gentle Dr. Garth is a homicidal maniac.

"Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde" (1976). Director William Crain attempts to repeat the success of his earlier film, "Blacula" (1972), by giving us an African-American version of Dr. Jekyll. Former NFL running back Bernie Casey stars as Dr. Pride, a black physician practicing in a free clinic in Watts. When an experiment backfires, he is converted into a raging killer. Ironically, his "Hyde" personality is white-faced. This film is also known as "The Watts Monster."

"Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953). One surefire variation on a horrific story, of course, is to turn it into a comedy. During the late 1940s and 1950s, that territory was pretty thoroughly staked out by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who encountered virtually every one of the Universal Pictures stable of monster characters. Dr. Jekyll is portrayed here by Boris Karloff.

"Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype" (1980). Here's another comic twist on the Jekyll and Hyde story. It was written and directed by Charles Griffith, who used to write for B-movie king Roger Corman. His credits include the scripts for Corman's black comedy classics "Bucket of Blood" (1959) and "The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960). Oliver Reed stars as a singularly unattractive podiatrist who decides to end it all. His suicide potion, however, turns him into a dashingly handsome fellow instead of taking his life. Unfortunately, his good-looking alter ego turns out to be up to no good.

"The Nutty Professor" (1963). The definitive Jekyll and Hyde comedy may well be this Jerry Lewis classic. Lewis plays the mousey and awkward Professor Julius Kelp. As in "Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype," his formula transforms him into a handsome alter ego, who goes by the name "Buddy Love." This Hyde personality is not a murderer, however. He's just a creep - an attractive, charismatic creep. Inevitably, there are those who have seen Buddy Love as a particularly mean-spirited portrayal of Dean Martin, Lewis's estranged partner. Others suggest that Lewis didn't need to look any farther than the mirror to find Buddy Love.

Actually, however, the suggestion that the inspiration for such an unsavory character must himself be a reprobate misses the whole point of the Jekyll and Hyde theme, whether in Stevenson's original version or in any of its many variations. The point is that each of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can find the loathsome Hyde lurking in the mirror, patiently waiting for his opportunity to taint the better angels of our nature with degradation and shame. It's both a perfect formula for drama and a universal affliction. No wonder, then, that dramatists return to it again and again.

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