Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

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Kirk Douglas looks at Donald Pleasence’s offerings in a scene from the television movie ‘Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde’, 1973.

Sometimes you stumble upon a film that seems so weird and unique that you just have to watch it even if you know, deep down, it’s going to be awful. This is what brought me to the British made-for-television film Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1973). I mean, when you see that there’s a musical version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel starring Kirk Douglas and Donald Pleasence how can it go unseen? And, to top it all off, the songs were composed by Lionel Bart of Oliver! (1968) fame.

Lionel Bart’s contribution to this project is what makes it such an unusual experience. Bart’s songs are so light and cutesy that they seem wholly at odds with the basic premise of the piece. For instance, Kirk Douglas, believing his alter ego is dead, breaks into a saccharine song beneath his lover’s balcony pondering why he ever performed his experiment when he had the love of Susan George. But this scene follows the rape and attempted murder of a woman who had been held hostage by Hyde. This isn’t the Hugh Wheeler approach, but an oblivious and unintentionally disturbing take on the book.

This juxtaposition between horror and sappy kitsch is further compounded by the performances of the actors. Everyone hams it up as if they were on stage with absolutely no variation to performances during close-ups. Granted, acting in television was much more theatrical at the time, though usually the actors and the director (in this case David Winters) know to vary the expressive qualities of performance shot to shot. The result of the acting in conjunction with Bart’s numbers makes Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde a savagely sadistic spectacle of high camp.

Under these circumstances it doesn’t really matter that Kirk Douglas cannot sing or that Bart’s lyrics are painfully idiotic. There’s nothing redeemable about Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde except for the fact that it is a most singular experience. Personally I find it difficult to imagine Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde airing on television. Viewers who had no intention of seeking out this unhinged musical are suddenly confronted with its spectacles of delighted, irresponsible horror right in their own living rooms. This is definitely a film to revisit around Halloween to be disturbed all over again.