The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll / Jekyll’s Inferno / House of Fright (1960) ****

One of the most shocking films of its day with its unusual focus on sex and violence, this takes the famed Robert Louis Stevenson tale down a different direction in that Dr Jekyll enjoys the base animal instincts he has unleashed with his experiments rather than expressing remorse or guilt. Evil has never been more demonstrably enjoyed.

Dr Jekyll (Paul Massie) is a shy cuckolded scientist when he takes the magic elixir that diverts his dull personality towards a more dynamic, if ultimately perverted, destination. From being fearful of life, he begins to sample its more exotic pleasures under the guidance of louche best friend Paul (Christopher Lee) who is carrying on an affair with the good doctor’s wife Kitty (Dawn Addams).

Not only does the reincarnation of Jekyll as the lusty Hyde consort with prostitutes and manage to snare exotic dancer Maria (Norma Marla), a beautiful woman who would normally be way out of his league,  he develops a fetish for violence, almost beating to death a hooligan (Oliver Reed) in a dodgy club, only prevented from committing his first murder by the intervention of his friend.

Sure, there’s some philosophising about the nature of good and evil and whether violence is inborn or nurtured and there are moments when guilt rears its ugly head, but these are pretty fleeting to be honest, and most of the time he can hardly wait for another draught of his poison in order to shake off his insipid persona and revel in the new creation.

But magic will only take you so far. Believing he is now irresistible to women he fancies his chances with Paul’s amour, who is of course none other than his wife, but she will have none of it, finding him a poor alternative to the charming Paul. In one of the most controversial scenes of the day, and perhaps only ironically acceptable at the time, Hyde proceeds to rape the resisting Kitty. This skirts so close to the edge of taste, not just the worst type of domestic abuse (though husband assaulting wife would be no less unusual in Victorian times than it is now), but almost the neanderthal man taking what he wants, that it makes for uncomfortable viewing, especially as it is presented as a come-uppance for the adulterous hoity-toity Kitty.

Perhaps more interesting is that having won over the cold Maria, a trophy lover on a par with the higher-born Kitty, that’s not enough for Hyde.

Also, for the time, is an extremely risqué scene involving Maria and her snake, especially when having completed the usual survey of her curves, the reptile ends up down her throat. That the Victorians were masters of the art of hypocrisy comes as little surprise, but the extent of it takes the viewer aback.  

There’s another twist. When it becomes apparent that his crimes are about to catch up with him the cunning Jekyll attempts to blame Hyde.   

Sumptuously mounted by Terence Fisher (Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966) and with nary an attractive character in sight – none of the innocent victims of the vampire sagas, for example – to leaven the sight of such unmitigated wickedness, the director offers an unique vision of how easy human beings will degenerate given the chance. At the outset Paul appears the most obvious villain, leeching on his friend to pay his gambling debts, while at the same time making hay with his wife. But initial audience sympathy for a wife, presented as a beautiful woman who for the sake of security has made a bad marriage and who needs an outlet for passion, soon dissipates as her true character is revealed.

The refusal to temper the ongoing degeneracy with one good character is a bold choice. Budgetary restrictions eliminated the usual transformation scene but that was probably for the best, since Hyde merges as though from a chrysalis into a stronger personality rather than undergoing some body-wracking physical change. It’s almost as if the director is determined to show how easy, given opportunity, a good but essentially weak man will embrace the dark side.

Accusations that Fisher has failed to bring sufficient suspense to the film I find unfair. Certainly, there’s not the tension of the will-he-be-found-out vein, but since the story is so well-known that appears a redundant course sensibly avoided. The director replaces that with ongoing friction between Jekyll and his friend on the one hand and his wife on the other, both of whom are unaware that the man they know as Jekyll is aware of just what a fool has been made of his alter-ego.

The emphasis instead falls on how and when the cuckold will take his revenge. And although the rape scene is unwelcome, there’s a certain ironic sadness for Jekyll to discover that his new persona is no more attractive to his wife than his old one.

Paul Massie (Call Me Genius, 1961) is of course far removed from an actor like Spencer Tracy (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1941) and he relies overmuch on rolling the eyes but even so this is a decent performance. Christopher Lee (Dracula, Prince of Darkness) is the revelation, creating a very believable insidiously charming man who never quite approaches outright villainy. Dawn Addams is excellent as the spoiled entitled wife.

One of the unusual aspects of the picture is that where Hammer had been and would remain a breeding ground for new stars – Christopher Lee a most obvious example – everyone else featured here came to, in cinematic terms only I assure you, an untimely end.

This turned out to be Paul Massie’s only starring role – he only made another three films during the entire decade – and was soon relegated to television. Dawn Addams only managed another nine and, apart from House of Sin/The Liars (1961), spy flick Where the Bullets Fly (1966) might be counted the peak.

David Kossof only made another four, and none beyond 1964. And this was the final film in an extremely brief two-picture career for Norma Marla. Only the uncredited Oliver Reed (Women in Love, 1969) and of course Christopher Lee (Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966) went on to bigger and better things.

As did Terence Fisher who helmed most of the best Hammer pictures of the decade. Wolf Mankowitz (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961) wrote the script.

Generally dismissed at the time, this has for good reasons acquired a substantial following and is well worth a look.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Contender for worst title of this and any other year, this old-fashioned biopic covers both too much and too little of the life of the eponymous cat illustrator who ended up in a mental asylum. In addition, it’s afflicted by a breezy voice-over that you think belongs to one of the participants until all potential suspects have been killed off and you realise that for no apparent reason the narrative is being delivered by the ubiquitous Olivia Colman. The voice over also serves to cover up what director Will Sharpe fails to properly dramatize.

These deficiencies aside it’s a captivating story with some brilliant acting. Both Benedict Cumberpatch as Wain and Claire Foy as his wife Emily avoid the “strained seriousness” that they fell prey to in potential award-winning projects The Power of the Dog (2021) and a Very British Scandal (2021) in favour of more natural performances that bring both characters to charming life.

As well as inventor, all-round illustrator and amateur boxer Wain became the unlikely poster boy for an emerging generation of cat lovers. The movie also touches on some aspects of Victorian society which provide an interesting contrast to today’s more gender-equal times.  For although the man was the undisputed master of the household, the entire financial burden of bringing up a family fell to him. In Wain’s case, this was inherited, his father having died and left him in charge of a widow and five sisters, with expectations of maintaining a certain standard of middle-class life, and none of the siblings having the decency to get married to alleviate the financial strain.

And all very well from a male perspective if you could take advantage of such a position, with females on hand to meet your every need and never challenge your opinions. Not so easy to maintain if you were of an easy-going disposition with poor business skills and scandalized your siblings by marrying someone below your class, in this case an impoverished governess.

The strain of meeting family obligations, especially with a sister only too willing to remind him of his shortcomings, clearly proves too much for Wain, his earning power diminished by  interest in many other non-remunerative activities. Quite where or when electricity entered the equation is never quite made clear though ongoing nightmares about drowning and imagining he can overhear cats speaking certainly jeopardised his mental health.

By pure accident, at a time when dogs were the prime household pets and cats kept only for the purpose of catching mice, Wain’s cat illustrations became a phenomenon. He would have been wealthy had he retained the copyrights. He fell in love with the thankfully more direct governess and for a time they lived happily together. Ever after was not on the cards once she contracted cancer. The film takes on a different hue once she departs the scene. But eventually his obsession with electricity overcomes him and he ends up in a mental asylum.

The movie covers way too long a period, from his emergence as an artist in 1880 to his commitment in the 1920s. Although Emily features large in the trailer, she is gone too soon and the picture struggles to dramatize his later life. That said, that these shy human creatures emerge from their complicated circumstances to fabricate their own cocoon in the countryside with their beloved cat Peter is a touching tale. The madness that afflicts him may well run in the family, not just in their rampant entitlement, but with one sister carried off to the asylum and the older one a tad neurotic.

Cumberpatch is far better here than in The Power of the Dog where I found his character already too set. Both charming and lacking the guile required to maximize his earning potential, but with a manic nature he can no more soothe than his hair, he dominates the screen so well you are almost taken in by his bizarre theories. As good as he is in love, he is devastating as a man adrift on his own demons. Foy is excellent as the governess doomed to a lifetime of loneliness save for chance encounter with Wain.

Andrea Riseborough (Possessor, 2020) also strikes a chord as the neurotic sister determined to keep family and errant brother together. Toby Jones (Dad’s Army, 2016) plays Wain’s benefactor. The sisters include Sharon Rooney (Dumbo, 2019) and Hayley Squires from television series Adult Material (2020). Putting in a surprise turn as H.G. Wells is musician Nick Cave.

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