How many versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have been released on film? It’s an astounding number at 123 film versions. It may not be quite as many as Dracula or Frankenstein, but it’s in the running if not right on their cape tails. Each age of in horror history attempts to lay its own claim to this tale of chemistry meets the modern scientific man meets the MONSTER. Who of us can forget Frederic March with his near pompadour hairstyle slightly hunched over with eyebrows all-a-caterpillar? How about Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde; that was Hammer getting cheeky with all of us who had decided that simply redoing Universal horror stories wasn’t good enough in 1971. So what happened between 1886 when Stevenson first unleashed his epic literary tale and the 1970’s when Dr. Jekyll became Dr. Black and the symbolism that encapsulated the character of Hyde transformed into a more racially charged subtext. Only William Crain knows for sure.
Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde was released in 1976 during an age where Blaxploitation cinema was flourishing. After the success of Blacula which had also been directed by Crain, American International Pictures green lit this take on the Stevenson source reference but with some updates. First of all, Dr. Jekyll had a new name, Dr. Henry Pryde, and the historically Caucasian actors that played him were traded in for Bernie Casey, an African American actor who would later help out a few nerds get a fraternity sponsor and teach a couple future rock stars a lesson in history (whoa!). He had starred in an early Blaxploitation genre classic, Cleopatra Jones but can also be found in the classic film, Cornbread, Early and Me.
And so the story goes…
Dr. Henry Pryde is attempting to discover a medicinal cure for cirrhosis affected and damaged livers. His work yields some positive results in laboratory rats, but with a couple minor side effects. Upon being exposed to the test remedy the rats not only turn from dark colored to albino white, but also become increasingly aggressive. While this result doesn’t go unnoticed by Dr. Pryde, his desire to see his experiment tested out on humans gets the better of him and he begins with its first human trial… on himself. After taking the test drug he transforms into an aggressive, monstrous man who just happens to have white hair, eyes that have the appearance of cataracts and whitened skin. Dr. Pryde becomes the Blaxploitation version of Hyde, a devious, madman who feeds on his own power… oh and he’s white. That transformation and a few pieces of choice dialogue set the stage for interracial commentary for which the Blax genre is famous.
Once Dr. Pryde begins transforming into Mr. Hyde with more regularity he begins to do what Mr. Hydes do best in nearly every version of the tale; he begins killing prostitutes and even attempts to further test his “remedy” on one of them. After several murders Mr. Hyde is discovered attempting to cover up his identity and keep secret the powers of his new wonder drug. He is stopped dead by the local police in a very King Kong meets the Empire State Building fashion.
Now that you have some grasp of what we’re dealing with here let me give you some tidbits about this. For one Stan Winston worked on the make up for Mr. Hyde. Yes, that Stan Winston. While it was not his first trip to the cold cream container having already worked on Gargoyles and several other TV features, Stan Winston gave Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde a monster that while not entirely as scary as his creature creations for Aliens, definitely had the audience feeling uneasy. His use of contact lenses and zombifying skin make up made Mr. Hyde a ghoul to be reckoned with. This was probably just a stepping stone in Winston’s career, but his works is memorable and eerie even in its simplicity and hint of camp.
William Crain may not have directed many full length features, but he did two of the Blaxploitation genres flagship works: Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde and BLACULA. Blacula may as well have opened a flood gate of horror related Blax features and brought the genre into the American spotlight as a viable source of revenues. Few Blaxploitation works are as memorable as Blacula and not simply because it takes a piece of literary, Universal horror and transforms it into a film for the 1970’s. Blacula was a quality film with a production value that lent credibility to other works in the subgenre and pulled the Blax focus out of criminal, drug stories and into the world of monsters.
Rosalind Cash, Dr. Billie Worth, costarred as the ethically conscious scientist who worked alongside Dr. Pryde and eventually attempts to unmask his illegal, sinister trials. Ms. Cash appeared in countless television programs and also acted alongside Bernie Casey in Cornbread, Earl and Me. Her stunning vision of post apocalyptic woman in The Omega Man opposite Charlton Heston and role in Klute push her far outside the boundaries of type cast in any one genre or role. Her vision as an African American female actress was to transcend roles that demeaned black actresses and opt for roles that portrayed women and African Americans as role models.
My first experience with this picture was at the 2011 Exhumed Films 24 Hour Horror-thon. Somewhere in the early hours of the morning between cat naps this film graced the screen and… sent me right to sleep. No doubt it is a quiet film, the print we viewed was less than perfect and of course, it was a dark theater somewhere near the wee hours of the morning. This is the time where you might catch an offbeat Hercules journey to the Underworld or find Udo Kier among a sea of Lesbian scenes. I didn’t get a chance to fully appreciate it on 35mm although I recognized Bernie Casey instantly from Revenge of the Nerds and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The generous helping of nudity that accompanied the film kept me aroused… um… awake for a while, but soon I found myself, neck back and listening to the audio from the movie in between Z’s. I won’t call it a mistake to have dozed through this picture, but after re-watching it recently I can safely say that it has flourished in my mind not unlike Blacula had.
I won’t say that I realized that it was William Crain in the director’s chair at first. Finding out that Crain had done both Dr. Black and Blacula definitely didn’t come as surprise though. Some of the shots felt familiar to me especially as Mr. Hyde makes his way into the discos of the late 70’s. The propensity for racially charged dialogue that either screamed of Coffy or Foxy Brown or might as well have been found in an after school special for children in the ghetto rang mysterious notes of familiarity. Crain seems to have loved to have shared a positive message of aspiring to be greater than the negative forces around you while embracing some of the colloquialisms of the time that might help the audience identify with the characters. This was part of the beauty of Blaxploitation in general.
Johnny Pate crafted the music for Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde in true funk fashion. The score varies from light hearted jazz riffs to full on boogies that will get your ass moving. Pate is also the man behind the score for Shaft in Africa and a personal B movie favorite, Satan’s Triangle. He acted as the conductor for the music from the original Super Fly (not the composer). Street cred all around for Pate. It won’t be the memorable of Blax trax you’ll ever hear, but it won’t leave you feeling like you bought the full album and only like the 45 rpm single either.
This film is full of some pretty amazing zingers and one liners, some more racially charged than others: How’s this for a pick up line,“Your needle is the only one I want stuck in my ass”. … Are you serious!? That’s a friggin’ hot line. How about the prostitute essentially calling Dr. Pryde an Uncle Tom by offering, “if I was white, I just might have a chance,” with Dr. Pryde. Or how about “Brother man, this situation is rapidly becoming insalubrious… meaning: We’re about to stomp a mudhole in your ass! “ What does that even mean!? Perhaps the most apt description of Stan Winston’s make up job on Mr. Hyde comes for a Lieutenant, “That’s a cross between The Abominable Snowman and Willie the Werewolf. “ Who the Hell is Willie the Werewolf!? I think we watch Blaxploitation cinema for this reason. It’s the same reason we watch standup comedy, to hear truths or social commentary summed up in small, manageable phrases that catch us off guard and let us know it’s okay to laugh at ourselves or the crazy situations into which society loves to cram us. Dialogue like this is honest, but it’s not derisive.
This picture may be best summed up in the tagline, “A screamin’ demon rages inside, turnin’ him into Mr Hyde… don’t give him no sass or he’ll kick yo’ ass!” Well, it rhymes and it’s not entirely false. Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde can give you a creep out if you let it. You have to let yourself laugh when the jokes are told and you have to get serious when the “Abominable Snowman meets Willie the Werewolf” goes on the prowl. “A Monster He Can’t Control Has Taken Over His Very Soul!” and I would add to that with soul. And if we must go here, we must “The Fear of the Year is Here!” I’m pretty sure that Carrie might take the monster of the year title handily, but if she doesn’t, Damian Throne just might. In a year when Rocky and Taxi Driver were released do you think that Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde would get an Academy Award nod? Probably not, but boy does it have some great tag lines. It sure does have a feel all its own even if it borrows from the films of its genre and generation. So does Stevenson’s story get the proper literary adaption for the 70’s in this picture? I’d say that just shy of the Pimp vs. Mr. Hyde battle the film actually comes across as a very typical mad scientist story with leanings toward the African American community and battles faced post-Johnson administration. I mean, or it’s just a funny movie with a bunch of lines that will make you laugh and really has some low brow nods based on stereotypes that are highly manufactured by filmmakers trying to get asses in the seats and much less based on the reality of people living in much of America. I mean… it’s one or the other, right?