History of Horror: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Dir. John S Robertson, USA, 1920

This is the first of three adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella to be released in 1920. It’s a shame that FW Murnau’s version, Der Janus-Kopf, has not survived. Robertson’s picture is notable for the star performance from John Barrymore as Jekyll and Hyde, but at 79 minutes lacks the Tales of the Unexpected style mystery/twist of the source.

Even in 1920 it’s fair to assume that the audience would already be sufficiently familiar with the twist that Hyde is the base side of Jekyll’’s personality deliberately unleashed to indulge all of the doctor’s perversions without bringing his character into disrepute. However, stripped of this mystery the film becomes basically a stodgy pie casing with very little meat, a means to incorporate three astonishing sequences and Barrymore’s sulphurous performance in an otherwise fairly dull movie.

Introducing all the major characters (and their player) with a pithy intertitle, the film takes quite some time to warm up. We see Henry Jekyll’s beneficence to the local poor, which is roundly mocked by his prospective father-in-law Sir George Carew. Spurred on by Sir George’s taunts, Jekyll begins to experiment, which finally culminates in the production of a serum that transforms him into his own dark side, Edward Hyde.

The first transformation scene is astonishing, and probably hints at Richard Mansfield’s famous ability to effect the change through posture, expression and movement (from the 1887 Broadway production). For most of it, Barrymore contorts his face and body, implying that some buried evil is surfacing. His eyes glint, his smile becomes seedy and sly, then he finally hunches over at which point we’re treated to a camera dissolve of Jekyll’s hands turning into Hyde’s filthy talons. Barrymore also dons some vaguely simian makeup – with a large conical head – that points the way to future versions.

Hyde is a loathsome creature, moreso because he delights in his wickedness. And with each successive transformation he becomes more dissolute and grubby. His dalliances at a dance hall are relatively innocuous – if this really is Jekyl’’s darkest nature, it’s not particularly shocking. However, Robertson does include a nasty scene lifted straight from the novel in which Hyde knocks a small boy to the ground, and tramples him: an act of petty evil that begins to unravel Hyde’s identity and results first in the murder of Sir George, who has become suspicious of Hyde’s connections to Jekyll and stumbles across the truth, and ultimately in Jekyll’s suicide to prevent Hyde committing more atrocities.

However, this does not happen before the most unforgettably grisly scene in silent horror, as a sleeping Jekyll begins to convulse in a nightmare, and glimpses a vile fusion of Hyde with an enormous spider. Like something from an MR James story, this vaporous spider Hyde scuttles across the bedroom floor, crawls onto Jekyll’s chest and thrusts itself into Jekyll’s face. It’s an indelibly horrific image that transcends the drag of much of the picture.

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