Part Hound of the Baskervilles and part An American Werewolf in London, the legend of the Black Shuck is a captivating gothic tale with a twist.
Jekyll and HydeAirtime: Sundays, 7pm
Cast: Tom Bateman, Christian McKay, Amelia Bullmore, Kevin Eldon
Subtitle: Series 1, Episode 5 - "Black Dog"
Air date: 2015-11-29
Last week, the first arc of the series was abruptly concluded with the spectacular and unexpected death of sneering Captain Dance (Enzo Cilenti), leaving the destiny of Tenebrae unknown; Jekyll’s (Tom Bateman) more attuned to his inner Hyde, the MIO ready to step out of the shadows, Maggie’s (Sinead Cusack) supernatural resurrection inviting suspicion, and the truth about Lily (Stephanie Hyam( and her mother being one step closer to being revealed. Sexy new characters, such as Olalla (Wallis Day) and the Priestess, were briefly introduced into the fray, and some of the more redundant characters (cough, Hils [Ruby Bentall], Bella [Natalie Gumede], and Ravi [Michael Karim], cough) were pared back. It was an exciting and original adventure that signaled a strong direction for a show that’s taken its time to get going.
This week, before the airing of Jekyll and Hyde, ITV cunningly scheduled a rerun of The Mummy Returns -- an action adventure film that taps into the same pulp and pseudo-mythological vein as the old Universal and Hammer films. Considering the complaints debacle of the first episode of Jekyll and Hyde, I’ll be interested in reading how many irate parents complain about the content, as at around 6 in the afternoon you could watch people drowning in quicksand for comedic effect, a woman eaten alive by magical scarabs, and an acolyte being quartered by the freshly awoken Scorpion King (master of waking up grumpy, it would seem).
So, after all this build up, what do we find? A bloody "monster of the week" weredog story, that’s what; no Tenebrae, no MIO, and no real consequences to the events of last week. As my girlfriend will often say to me when I’ve eaten all the freshly baked cookies: "I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed".
And yet, if we roll that sorrow up in an old carpet, give it a hefty kick, then toss it in the river (figuratively -- I’m not still talking about my partner), "Black Dog" is darn good fun. The storyline is far more streamlined than we have come to expect; and rather than offering a multi-threaded fractured narrative, it just gets on with unfurling its gothic delights.
The opening scenes, for example, involve canted establishing shots, the occasional first-person angle, fog machines turned up to 11, and wooded graveyard exploits. When a curious explorer explains to a woman who has just appeared that he was "just looking for the old Roman temple. It’s on some of the mediaeval maps", he is met with fanged teeth and a snarling "Run or die". Unfortunately for him, both options are not mutually exclusive.
From there, the story is drawn towards the mystery of Old Shuck, a gigantic black dog from the East Anglia region of England, with reported sightings stretching as far back as 1127. For me, the decision to use Black Shuck is brilliant, because it could have been just one more homogenized werewolf tale (which it is to some extent, just as much as it’s a variation on Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles). But, when the distinctly British ghost story draws from An American Werewolf in London for it’s landscape shots and local public house flavoring, then incorporates the ancestral home and filicidal antics of the 1941 classic, The Wolf Man, and filters this all through the old and new competing mythologies of Jekyll, we have a captivating -- if largely predictable -- iteration on a familiar theme that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Extra lashings of kudos must also be handed out to the production team this week. I’ve commented before on how well the 1930s theme has been executed, especially with the MIO and Tenebrae bases, but the gothic mansion in "Black Dog" is absolutely crammed full of genre props and incidental details. All of the rooms feel livable yet living; like a budget Crimson Peak, where the candle-lit faded surroundings reflect the psyche of the inhabitants: one-part Miss Havisham manically pushing people away, to one-part Count Orlock, inviting people in to meet their doom. This is a house where secret letters fall out of hidden drawer compartments; locked chests contain desperate answers; and the family crypt feels more frequented than the dusty dining room -- but I still want to spend more time in there.
One design flourish that I especially enjoyed occurred just as Jekyll was leaving at the end of the episode. Next to him was a side table, which from left to right ran a framed lithograph of a horned figure (possibly Pan), then a central mirror, followed by a happy family photograph. The metaphor of Jekyll’s life, reflected back at him are obvious; but it also makes me want to revisit the house to see what I missed on first glance.
Last week, I mentioned that we finally had motivation; this time, hidden amongst the catacombs of plausibility, we also have our weekly incentive. Gather around, for you see, Jekyll’s family name was originally Jezequiel, until the Jekyll’s split from the main branch at the beginning of the 1800’s. Jezequiel or Jezequel, the French surviving version of the Celtic name Iudicael or Judicael, also survived in many other variations, including "Jekyll"; and when a family tree -- which really should have been introduced weeks ago -- is brought to light, Jekyll realizes that he has three distant relatives: Renata (Amelia Bullmore), Gideon, and Brant Jezequiel (Duran Fulton Brown). Well, Renata and Brant have survived; Gideon, less so.
The names Renata, Gideon, and Brant don’t seem particularly significant, meaning "rebirth", "destroyer", and "sword", until you consider that Renata mentions "There’s a sword in the chapel. A weapon to fight back against the darkness. We keep it safe until it’s needed". By luck, Hyde appears to discover a blue glowing sword in one of the crypts, and Max (Christian McKay) runs it through Brant, where the sword inexplicably shatters; but what if Jekyll was being too literal in his understanding, and Brant was the weapon? It would make sense given the final scene in which a blue spirit emerges from the wall and drives downwards, where a clawed hand bursts up into the frame, grasping at the air like a resurrected zombie weredog, in the exact same place that Brant (and Max) died.
Poor Max. Maybe I’m grasping at straws with the naming conventions, but at least I’m not clutching daisies like Maxwell Utterson. Jekyll’s friend finds his joie de vivre, precisely one day before he’s eviscerated in front of the woman he quite fancies (whilst killing her son) -- which made his imminent departure all the more tragically predictable, given the parameters of the horror genre and the stark comparison with Maggie, the former recluse who was injected with Hyde’s blood last week, and now claims “I haven’t felt this alive in years” and “it’s brought my youth back”. Maybe the show operates a one-in/one-out door policy. Max’s constant lady-chasing -- even when the lady in question is bound to a chair -- and laughter in the face of terror had absolutely begun to win me over despite some overworked exposition about an inherited heart condition.
The rest of the cast also entered into the spirit of the episode, even if they were a little underutilized at times. I have no doubts that as the pub landlord, comedic character actor Kevin Eldon could’ve been a little more "lurkel" than "local". Amelia Bullmore’s Renata, on the other hand, perfectly conveyed a character whose family had fallen from grace, both financially and spiritually. Shuttered off and bare-footed like Heathcliff’s Cathy, Renata has become her own haunted presence and guardian of the family secrets; which would be fine were it not for her son roaming the countryside like a feral beast, consuming simple townsfolk for supper.
In an interesting overlap with another gothic ITV production currently on air -- The Frankenstein Chronicles, in which a character pointed out last week that "Cave Baestiam" means "Beware the Beast" -- in Jekyll and Hyde we hear the phrase "Cave canum": "Beware the dog". Okay, so we’re aware of the monsters that we know of, but what about the others? Handily, Renata’s family have been collecting cuttings, sketches, anatomical sketches, and all manner of useful documents within a single leather volume. For those of you that watch Grimm, this might pale in comparison to the flammable wiki-trailer of death, but this tome will likely dictate the direction that the next episodes will take and how the encountered monsters are dealt with. My money is still on the Hyde Hulk-out one-man knockout punch tactic, but hey, we haven’t seen much of cannon-fodder Ravi recently.
Furthermore, whilst I’m still annoyed that the entire previous four episodes worth of storylines were largely dropped in favor of a monster of the week set-up; unlike the absolutely detestable Cutter nonsense, I would happily enjoy some more bracketed-off excursions with mythological creatures or folk-tale monsters now that Jekyll and Hyde has demonstrated that it’s capable of adapting to the atmospheric and narrative requirements of the genre, and not just having a wobbly costumed fool trip over the set and growl.
Hopefully, the family book will also elucidate the connection between, Jekyll/Hyde, the other monsters, and Pan, as the goat-horned god that Dance brought up last week now has a portrait mural at the back of the family chapel. Pan is inescapable, it would seem, just as Jekyll was told at the outset of this week’s adventure that Hyde is “in the blood” as he “was born with it”, and at the close is reminded that the Jekyll’s and the Jezequiel’s are “creatures who change” and that he has to accept that it’s part of who he is.
Which leads us to this week’s theme: Sons dealing with their family inheritance. We’re not quite hit over the head with constant referencing this time, but in a TED Talks PowerPoint of a jiffy: Jekyll has inherited Hyde from his father, and he has to concede that Hyde is a permanent part of his physiology; Max has inherited the same weak heart as his father, and has to understand that if he doesn’t start acting like his father in other aspects -- especially the part about "embracing life" -- then he will never be happy; and Brant has killed his father, turned his back on his centuries-long family legacy, and ultimately gets slain in the process.
Referring to his inheritance, Max offers that he’d "rather have a stamp collection, wouldn’t you?" Well no, Max, to be honest I think I'd like more of the same, thank you very much.