Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

How do we approach a modern setting in which the names “Jekyll” and “Hyde” are unknown? With a dual character so mythical and universal absent from the collective consciousness, we have to wonder who else the people are unaware of: Dracula? Hitler? O.J. Simpson?

It’s an issue for any story adapting an archetypal monster to a modern setting. But these tales often ignore the problem and choose to reintroduce what already resides in our psyche. The wiser storytellers will refresh the characters with a new twist, as Stephen King did with the vampire myth in ‘Salem’s Lot and the haunted house tale in The Shining. These two horrors seemed inventive, but their influences weren’t hidden away, either.

Any character possessing a sinister urge that is channeled into another, monstrous self brings to mind Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, especially Lon Chaney Jr.’s tortured Larry Talbot and Bob Arctor of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Do we really need to call him Jekyll anymore?

But this made-for-TV movie does, in an attempt to bring Victorian associations to modern Boston (though shooting took place in Canada). Here, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Dougray Scott), a physician by day, toils away on a personal experiment at home, to no viewer’s surprise. Once his caretaker, Mrs. Poole (Danette Mackay), believes that Mr. Hyde is in fact the other’s cousin, the film strains to use a device from the source novel, as it does later with a confessional letter.

Scott’s heavy-browed presence is enough to channel a tortured Jekyll. He makes his character into a living zombie when Jekyll’s suicide attempt in front of a moving truck seems more like a duty than madness. Yet Hyde – here, a serial killer – appears through a devious smile and a refined voice, as if Hannibal Lecter has realized he has been reincarnated. The connection doesn’t seem accidental, either: when Scott says “Hello, Claire”, the film steals from another, more modern archetype, as if heavy-handedly naming the character Jekyll weren’t enough.

Claire, played by Krista Bridges, is a lawyer to whom Jekyll goes for help. He is so bent on confessing his – or should we say, Hyde’s – multiple murders to the doubtful Claire that he leaves her evidence, a necklace torn from his last victim. At first concerned, Claire grows attracted to the tortured Jekyll. Maybe it’s a maternal instinct, or maybe she wants the beast brought out upon her at bedtime. At any rate, Bridges seems to have a handle on what this muddled project needs, and the actress is a refreshing choice in that she looks like an average woman. In a universe of female performers cast more for the perfection of their looks than uniqueness, Bridges’ presence adds personality to the role, while she’d usually be restricted to a quirky side player.

While Claire eventually helps Jekyll, she isn’t convinced he’s the killer he says he is until she breaks into his study. When he finds her, he looks over to his display case of artifacts and explains how he became two men. The intriguing, original Jekyll attempted to contain his own dark side by localizing it to a new personality. But this version stumbled across a mystical flower in the Amazon, and let’s just say that the concept hasn’t gotten any fresher since used similarly in 1935’s Werewolf of London.

The natives claimed the flower could bring eternal sunshine, while Jekyll’s experiments with it produced the opposite, and he now uses DNA research in attempts to right his potion. With the DNA device, the film strains to use science to deconstruct a classic monster, as novelist Richard Matheson did successfully for the vampire myth in I Am Legend. (I’m not sure about that new Will Smith version.) However, this attempt merely leaves Jekyll obsessing over computer patterns, while Hyde is too kitschy to be menacing.

After so many tellings of the tale on screen, the transition from Jekyll to Hyde calls for a swift hand. Here, director Paolo Barzman’s is not. As if compensating for not using makeup on Hyde, Barzman has his effects team overlay green on Scott’s eyes during the transformation, which creates more of an instant makeover than a doppelganger. Other aspects of the production suffer, namely the bright lighting that stifles any sense of dread. Even if many scenes take place during daytime, the film should have depicted how Jekyll, especially this version, is benighted.

The DVD’s only extra, an interview with Scott, depicts a trained professional who began on the stage and one day found himself in a permanent role on Desperate Housewives as Susan’s (i.e., Terri Hatcher’s) boyfriend, Ian. (He notes that one season was plenty.) Since someone forgot to edit this interview, again we’re reminded that a poor production has had its way with an able performer.

RATING 6 / 10