Night 15: ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1931)

This is part of the ‘’31 Nights of Horror Classics’ series, which I’ll be doing for Halloween 2017. Every night of this month, I’ll be watching a horror film made before the 90s and I’ll be posting a short review here.

When the mask of civilization falls, is our true self finally revealed?

The handsome Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) is interested in separating the darkest part of the human soul from the rest of it. After inventing a potion, he finally succeeds in his experiment. However, he will face horrible consequences, as the monster within causes havoc in the city.

By now, there are many book-to-screen adaptations of R.L. Stevenson’s story, and in many of them Dr. Jekyll is quite an unlikable character. He is often portrayed as pretentious, fanatical and detached, much like Dr. Frankenstein in most versions of Mary Shelley’s book. What I enjoyed the most about this particular interpretation is that Jekyll was actually good. He cares about his patients, he dismisses social events in order to keep working for them, he is a faithful man, he steps in to stop eruptions of violence… He’s a ‘good guy’, and you feel for him –at least, up until a certain point from which his actions are simply too terrible.

This makes his fall even more disturbing and effective. His unfortunate hybris soon sends him on a spiral of disgrace that ends up shattering the world he had built. And even when his monstrous self is absolutely irredeemable, a part of me wished he could be held accountable on his own. Still, the Doctor’s inaction, and his willingness to keep experimenting even if it means mistreating Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) make him just as guilty.

The movie also benefits from some really great secondary characters that were not even in the original story. Ivy, for example, was too forward for my taste at the very start of the film. Yet, by the end, I was rooting for her and wishing she could get away from the entire mess. Hopkins’ noteworthy performance really deserves the credit for such a change!

Another impressive achievement of this version is its use of surprising special effects. The transformation sequences were very well done and smartly completed for the time.

Unfortunately, the design of the monster itself is not at all that scary –although he makes up for it with violence and manipulation. Also, although the point was to make him look like a Neanderthal, some of the stylistic choices could set the ground for some accusations of racism.

An additional fault of the film can be found in its characters. On one hand, Dr. Jekyll never reflects about what Mr. Hyde does to Ivy after he has released him. He, apparently, has no issue with it until his betrothed returns. Additionally, the female characters have no life of their own. They are shown as either victims or consorts, but not individuals, as their lives revolve around Dr. Jekyll.

Despite these weaknesses, it’s a very good adaptation with some interesting embellishments that work –at least most of the time.

Grade: 6/10. Enjoyable. Very good characters and effects.

Scare Factor: nothing particularly scary.

Gore/Violence: not too graphic.

Nudity/Sexual Situations: hinted at. You will see some ankles, though.