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Barker’s Monsters – Part Three

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Sharon Ring

Before I began writing these posts I asked a few genre-friendly people to name monster / bogeyman icons from the last decade or so of mainstream horror cinema. The only two candidates who came up with any degree of regularity were Jigsaw from the Saw movies and Ghostface from the Scream films. This wasn’t particularly surprising. Horror movie tropes have gone through a good many incarnations since the early days of cinema: each generation has brought its own fears and troubles to the screen, each generation endeavouring to create new monsters that best illuminate the human condition at the time. The past decade has seen far fewer monster icons, the trends being more inclined toward unseen fears and a particular liking for more voyeuristic, surveillance and documentary-based  film-making.

When Barker’s early films were hitting the cinemas, however, the slasher and stalker sub-genre was hugely popular. The modern trend for this kind of film had begun with Black Christmas (1974), though it was not the first acknowledged slasher movie; as far back as 1932 movies would occasionally take on the theme, more often than not attempting to tackle socio-political issues of their time concerning race and class. The turning point for slasher cinema came with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978. From here on in, horror cinema was rife with stalker bogeymen armed with hooks, knives, chainsaws and any other tool capable of delivering the killing blow.

This craze for deranged killers was, in part, the reasoning behind Barker calling Nightbreed a troubled movie. Though the novella had been primarily about its protagonist Boone and his relationship with Lori, and the film was directed to be more about the inhabitants of Nightbreed, much of the actual marketing for the film concentrated on Cronenberg’s character, Decker. Morgan Creek’s attempts to turn Nightbreed into a slasher film, with one executive at the company saying, “If you’re not careful, some people are going to like the monsters”, showed a distinct lack of understanding of Barker’s unique vision of the world of monsters.

Candyman and Helen Lyle

Far more sympathetic to Barker’s vision was the writer and director of Candyman, Bernard Rose. Rose approached Barker with a view to shooting one of his short stories, The Forbidden being a particular favourite of Rose’s. He was keen to highlight the social issues Barker had put into the original short story and, where the story was set in a rundown Liverpool housing estate, Bernard, in order to gather the required funding to make the film, changed the setting to a housing project in Chicago, Cabrini Green. This wasn’t an invented housing project, either. Cabrini Green was (most of it has now been demolished) for many years one of the most feared housing projects in America and at one time had the highest murder rate per square foot of land in the entire world. Almost all the exterior shots and stairwell scenes at Cabrini Green were shot on the actual estate; the production team had to negotiate with the project gangs in order to film at the location and many of the extras you see milling around the hallways and stairs are the gang members of that time.

Urban myth is a major theme in both the short story and the eventual film. Rose’s choice of location for Candyman allowed him to document both his interest in disenfranchisement and urban decay, and also the fundamental need of people living in such communities to create myths and mores which serve to bind them as a community and act as a warning to those from outside their environment. The film’s protagonist, Helen, and her friend, Bernadette, are studying urban myths for their doctorates. Helen’s husband, Trevor, has one scene where he is teaching a roomful of college students about urban myth, calling them, “our unselfconscious reflection of the fears of urban society”.

Candyman / Daniel Robitaille

After Helen and Bernadette hear about the Candyman story being linked to Cabrini Green they travel to the project to check out stories of a local murder attributed to him. Again, Rose took elements of Cabrini Green history to push the Candyman myth. In the film the murder of Ruthie-Jean is said to have happened as part of a design flaw in the building of the apartments. By removing the bathroom cabinet and pushing through the cabinet in the adjoining apartment, the murderer was able to climb into Ruthie-Jean’s home and kill her. This was an actual design flaw in the real Cabrini Green buildings, a flaw which had allowed a murder to take place some years before the film was made.

As with all the best urban myths there is a back story to the world of Candyman. Before he was Candyman the killer mythologised by the Cabrini Green tenants was known as Daniel Robitaille, the son of a slave who had grown up in polite society. Working as an artist, creating family portraits, Daniel met and fell in love with the daughter of a landowner. When the woman became pregnant with Daniel’s child, the landowner paid a group of men to torture and kill Daniel, the final act of Daniel’s punishment for crossing the boundaries of race and class to scatter his ashes across Cabrini Green. Everything needed to create the Candyman myth is present in the telling of Daniel’s story: a tragic love tale, the breaking of ‘the rules’, the sawing off of his right hand (to be replaced by a hook, essential slasher tool), being covered in honey (‘Sweets to the sweet’), being stung to death by bees (bees feature prominently in later scenes between Candyman and Helen), the funeral pyre and, finally, the scattering of his ashes to cement Candyman’s eternal connection with the land on which Cabrini Green stands. Candyman revels in his own mythology, telling Helen, “I am rumour. It is a blessed condition, believe me, to be whispered about at street corners, to live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.”

The three films I’ve covered in these posts are all strong love and seduction stories. In Hellraiser we have the story of Frank and Julia; in Nightbreed we have Boone and Lori’s story; and in Candyman we have the legend of Daniel and his original lover plus the seduction tale of Candyman and Helen. The theme of seduction is, perhaps, most overt in this last film. Daniel becomes a mythical killer, the slasher monster of the movie, because of love but he must be invited into the world of each victim for that killing to take place. The empty apartment covered in graffiti, the razor-laced candies, the stories of death and fear are all the means by which Candyman is both reviled and revered by of the Cabrini Green residents.  Several times he asks Helen to surrender to him, to be his victim. Asking for surrender is his means of asking for complicity in the act, reflecting his desire to be worshipped by the residents of Cabrini Green, and especially by Helen, who has lessened him in the eyes of his “congregation”.

The religious subtext is equally strong in Hellraiser and Nightbreed. The ascetic qualities of the Cenobites, who are all a part of the Order of the Gash, and the lost tribe mentality of the Nightbreed, who worship a deity called Baphomet, are comparable to Cabrini Green’s worship of Candyman. The Cenobites are governed by rules set by The Engineer, chaining them to the machinations of the Lament Configuration. The Nightbreed have survived into modern times because of their adherence to laws set down by Baphomet. The residents of Cabrini Green have, through over a century of rumour and fear, created a minor deity of their own, complete with his own rules of reverence and summoning, transforming a murdered lover into an eternal bogeyman.

Transformation is at the heart of much of Barker’s fiction. In a South Bank special on Barker, aired in 1994, he said, “I usually paint people in some transformed state or other. Either they’re on their way to being transformed or they are transformed.” I’d say this is true no only of his written work but also of the adaptation of his work from prose to cinema.

In Hellraiser we have a quartet of transformed creatures whose calling is to transform the flesh of pleasure-seeking humans. We also have Julia transforming from unhappy wife to love-struck killer as well as Frank’s transformation from flesh to a beating heart under the floorboards then back to flesh. In Nightbreed many of the Breed are able to transform at will, showing their more human faces at times, turning to smoke or demon at others, their protean flesh unbound by the laws of the naturals. There is also Boone’s transformation from natural to Breed and Decker’s seesawing between trusted doctor and messianic murderer.

In Candyman the transformation takes the form of deification. Rather than leave the viewer hanging on until the end of the film to discover the history of Candyman, it’s only thirty minutes into the narrative when Daniel’s brutal torture and murder is related to Helen. The creation of the Candyman myth is the story of how both gods and monsters (entities with far more similarities than differences) are made and it is told with the unhidden pleasure of making us, as with the Nightbreed, care about the monster. Candyman, in turn, transforms Helen, making her both monster and legend as he tells her, “Our names will be written on a thousand walls, our crimes told and retold by our faithful believers.”

Sweets to the sweet.

These three films, and the original stories on which they are based, represent much of what makes Barker’s take on monsters so very special. Starting with Hellraiser he creates confusion over who we are meant to see as the monster, even creating a sense of ambiguity and alluring mystery around the flesh-tearing Cenobites. In Nightbreed we move on to a more open siding with the monsters; our sympathies are deliberately steered in their favour as we are shown that sometimes the real monsters exist in our own world, in the very people we believe we can trust. Finally, in Candyman, we’re shown that not only do monsters exist in our own world but we act as their creators through our own monstrous behaviour; we give birth to the very things we fear the most and then feed those fears through myth and storytelling.

We are, perhaps, a little bit in love with monsters, even jealous of their abilities and dismissal of the usual rules of society. As one of the Nightbreed says, “To be able to fly, to be smoke, or a wolf… To know the night and live in it forever, that’s not so bad. You call us monsters but when you dream, you dream of flying and changing and living without death. You envy us and what you envy…”

[With thanks to Phil and Sarah Stokes. Their website has proved an invaluable resource for the writing of these posts.]

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Barker’s Monsters – Part Two

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Sharon Ring

Clive Barker’s next outing as a director was with the movie Nightbreed (1990), based on his novella, Cabal. In Hellraiser Barker had loaded the film with morally ambiguous characters, getting them to commit monstrous acts but leaving the viewer with nagging doubts about just who was the real monster in the film. With Nightbreed there was no ambiguity: Barker knew exactly where he wanted us to place our sympathy; with the creatures living under the cemetery at Midian, the Nightbreed.

Working with the make-up and effects team who had brought Frank Cotton and the Cenobites to the screen in Hellraiser, Barker created a spectacular grotesquerie for the inhabitants of Midian. This was imagination unleashed, with Barker and his team enjoying the process of creating these characters so much that they continued to come up with new ideas and creatures right through the film shoot.

Shuna Sassi


When the film’s protagonist, Boone, arrives for the first time at Midian we’re left in no doubt that he is viewed as an undesirable, a natural. He’s not wanted and is, as a natural, considered by one of Midian’s residents to be nothing more than meat. Boone has journeyed to the cemetery in the hope of finding somewhere he can belong, with people who will accept him for the killer he believes himself to be. To discover he has no place here, among this most dispossessed of communities and more, to find out he is not even a murderer, places him between two worlds. Shunned by the world of monsters, hunted by the world outside Midian, Boone’s death at the cemetery gates comes hot on the heels of his rejection by the Nightbreed.

Though the shots which kill Boone are fired by police officers, the man behind Boone’s death is his psychiatrist, Dr Decker (played by David Cronenberg). Decker is a serial killer who has been grooming Boone to take responsibility for the murders he has committed. The life he leads in the public eye is of a charming and sophisticated doctor, concerned for his patient and attempting to bring Boone to justice with no further bloodshed. Behind this façade is Decker’s other personality, one which comes fully to life when he dons a mask to commit his crimes, Ol’ Button Face.

Decker’s rage at the world leads him to kill indiscriminately, slaughtering entire families in his desire to rid the world of those he believes have no right to exist, “I’ve cleaned up a lot of breeders. Families like cesspools: filth making filth making filth.” Although Decker is the real monster in this film there are plenty of other characters who fit the role of monster quite neatly. The lynch mob mentality of the local police and the brutal condemnation of Boone as an abomination at the hands of a priest set them apart as the modern embodiment of what the Nightbreed have had to deal with throughout their existence. The world is conditioned to trust what it knows, the institutions of civil society such as the medical profession, the police, the priesthood: it’s also conditioned to revile and destroy that which is not known or which doesn’t fit the norm, hence the Nightbreed’s withdrawal into a subterranean sanctuary of its own making.


Dr Philip K. Decker / Ol' Button Face

As an aside, in the novella, the priest, Ashbery, was actually a transvestite being blackmailed by the local police chief, Eigerman. The studio was adamant that this be changed and so Ashbery became an alcoholic, as this was deemed more acceptable to US cinema audiences. It proves the point somewhat that we condemn what doesn’t fit our idea of what makes for a normal person and refuse to allow it in our society. Alcoholism is just fine because “everybody loves a drunk” but to depict a priest with a penchant for wearing ladies’ lingerie was a step too far in a film containing a crazed serial killer?

In the short documentary, Raising Hell, Barker says Nightbreed was “a very troubled movie even though it’s a movie I actually kind of like.” I couldn’t agree more. It is deeply flawed but, for all its imperfections, it ties in beautifully with Barker’s innate ability to make us take a fresh look at the mythology of monsters. You can’t help but think of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) when you watch this film: the deep-seated capacity for cruelty demonstrated by humanity in the face of what it deems undesirable and unwanted runs riot through the movie and it is plain to see that Barker wants to evoke project a similar atmosphere in Nightbreed.

“In the Thirties you felt sympathy for King Kong and the Frankenstein monster, but there haven’t been many movies like King Kong and Freaks and Bride Of Frankenstein lately. There’s no trace of that earlier, much richer tradition and that’s what the inhabitants of Midian represent.”

So, we began with Hellraiser and the issue of just who is the monster here. The Cenobites, Frank and Julia all took on the monster moniker to some extent but their monstrosity was questioned at every turn in the narrative leading us to contemplate the boundaries between love, death and the limits of human experience. In Nightbreed Barker took his audience a step further, showing us a darker side of ourselves as a species as opposed to the individual cruelties of Frank and Julia. The history of the human race teems with persecution and genocide: what we cannot tame or neuter we will always seek to destroy.

In part three I’ll be talking about Candyman and the politics of transformation.

[With thanks to Phil and Sarah Stokes. Quotes in this article from Clive Barker can be found on their website.]

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Barker’s Monsters – Part One

written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Sharon Ring.

I’ve always had something of a fascination for Clive Barker. When the Books Of Blood were released in 1984 and 1985 I felt I’d discovered a whole new world of horror writing. Here was a man who enjoyed playing with the definitions of monster and monstrous in ways I had barely come across until this point. These definitions had been flirted with in classroom readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but, with Barker, I was given a fresh set of eyes with which to redefine my own thoughts on what constituted both a monster and monstrous behaviour.

In 1986 Barker’s novella, The Hellbound Heart, was published in Dark Harvest Magazine: HarperCollins published it two years later following the success of the Hellraiser movie. 1988 also saw the publication of Barker’s novella, Cabal, later made into the film, Nightbreed. It is within these two novellas, along with one of the short stories from the Books Of Blood and their subsequent films, that much of what I love about Barker’s monsters can be found.

Barker had been disappointed, and rightly so, by the 1985 and 1986 films, Underworld and Rawhead Rex. As he put it himself, “Everything that could have been wrong with the way that they handled the stuff was wrong.” At the time of these films’ releases The Hellbound Heart was written and published: Barker began almost immediately on the screenplay, determined to retain control over his vision as the production progressed. And so Hellraiser hit our screens in 1987.

Barker wasn’t content with the movie monsters of the time. The three big cinematic monsters in the eighties, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, were already some way down the road of endless sequels and not far off becoming vehicles for self-parody. Myers and Voorhees, hidden behind their masks, remained the silent, constant stalkers of sluts, jocks and nerds: Krueger, hidden behind his scarred face, was firmly entrenched as the wise-cracking intruder of teenagers’ dreams.

Sketch of Pinhead by Clive Barker - courtesy of Phil and Sarah Stokes.

In Hellraiser Barker offered the viewer something entirely different; the Cenobites. This was our first major look at the character of Pinhead, though Doug Bradley’s interpretation of the lead Cenobite was not to be credited as such until the second film. Pinhead’s eventual naming came from the nickname used on set and in the make-up departments. The imagery seen in the movie, both in Pinhead’s prosthetics and in the skinned version of Frank Cotton, are concepts which Barker had played with for some years, as far back as the early seventies when Barker was making Salome and The Forbidden, home movies made with almost non-existent budgets. These two short films depicted skinned men and nail-covered boards, erotica and Faustian pacts; all elements which played a strong part in Hellraiser.

What mattered in Hellraiser is that Barker refused to let us watch with the comforting notion of knowing exactly who the monster was. Yes, we had the Cenobites in all their scarified glory. They were creatures from an existence beyond our known world, tied to a puzzle box which offered its owners access to unparalleled experience. “The box. You opened it, we came.” is Pinhead’s opening line in the film, spoken to Kirsty, emphasising the rules by which the Cenobites play. Unseen footage from the film shows each of the Cenobites in their monastic cells, the walls adorned with fetishes related to their work, as they wait to be summoned to perform their duties. What they do is monstrous but, being left with the unresolved mystery of just who they are and how they came into being, we are stuck with the crucial element of a pact being made between the solver of the puzzle box and the world of the Cenobites. They perform their duties without passion, without joy; merely the means by which the puzzle-solvers can access the pleasures of Heaven or Hell.

So perhaps Frank, the puzzle-solver, is the monster in this film. He certainly looks monstrous; a skinned man slowly rebuilding himself in order to escape recapture at the hands of his tormentors. He coldly uses Julia’s feelings for him in order to acquire the blood needed to restore his body. He intimates all too clearly his incestuous desire for his niece, Kirsty, and, when he tells Julia how he came to be in his unmade condition, he says he believed he had gone to the limits, leaving the viewer to determine for herself just what those limits might have been. Still, as monsters go, he doesn’t quite fit the bill. He wants to be human again, to experience the simplest of pleasures, such as smoking a cigarette. That he can persuade Julia to kill for him shows him to be a manipulative, parasitic creature, but that manipulation works on the viewer almost as much as it does Julia. To Frank, the Cenobites are the monsters, not him.

In Simon’s earlier review he marks out Julia as the “one true monster in the film.” I’d have to disagree with this opinion. Julia is, admittedly, a petty and bitter woman, particularly in the original novella but to call her a monster because she is the one holding the murder weapon is just a little too easy. In the film, Julia displays her discomfort in what she does much more visually; we also see her attempting to keep Larry away from Frank’s presence for much of the film, despite professing to not care for him. At first repulsed by the creature calling itself Frank she soon learns to equate her original passion for her husband’s brother with the semblance of the man before her. She promised him once that she would do anything for his love and, as much as she believes she is in control in agreeing to kill for him, Julia is almost as much a victim in the narrative as Larry (Frank’s brother) or Kirsty. She is driven by what she feels certain is love, that she would do anything for her man, despite Barker pressing home the point in the novella that the sex between Frank and Julia had been as cold and calculating as rape. What Julia does in the name of love is truly monstrous but does not automatically mark her out as a monster. She struggles with the thought of playing along with the seduction of another man, though whether this is out of fidelity to Larry or Frank is open to debate. The first murder leaves her shocked and frightened, scrubbing her hands in the bathroom sink in true Lady Macbeth style. By the second murder the viewer sees her growing more accustomed to the act of killing. She is seen calmly sipping a drink whilst Frank is draining the corpse of blood in the room upstairs, a sly smile crossing her lips. Again, I am not convinced this is the smile of a monster contented with its work. This is more the smile of a woman descending into madness and unable to comprehend the fact.

Barker and Pinhead - courtesy of Phil and Sarah Stokes.

Hellraiser, then, gave us our first cinematic taste of how Barker wants us to view his monsters. He doesn’t make it easy. There are redeeming qualities and persuasive reasoning behind all the main characters and we are all capable of understanding that reasoning, regardless of whether we condone or condemn the actions of either Frank and Julia or the Cenobites. If the viewer is made to feel uncomfortable by being able to empathise with *the monster* or to see a little of ourselves in them, then I believe Barker is getting his point across. As Barker once said, “I think there’s a certain kind of fascination with The Monster: there’s love and revulsion.” This is a concept to which we’ll return in Part Two when I discuss Nightbreed and Candyman.

Part Two coming soon.

[With thanks to Phil and Sarah Stokes. Quotes in this article from Clive Barker can be found on their website. Images in this article appear with their kind permission.]

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Hellraiser – Review

Written by: Simon Marshall-Jones

What are the monsters of our imaginations but simply reflections of ourselves and the evils that potentially lurk within? Genre cinema is liberally littered with examples of monsters that have sprung from the fertile imaginations of writers and directors – but how often is it that, in a film featuring both humans, and their worst nightmares, it is the human that appals more than the monsters?

One such film is Hellraiser (1987), based on Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, which originally saw publication in November 1986 in the third volume of Dark Harvest’s Night Visions anthology, and subsequently re-published by HarperCollins as a standalone title. It’s a deeply disturbing, gritty and unrelentingly dark film, and it also bequeathed to us one of the most iconic monsters of the last quarter of the 20th century – Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley), along with his companion Cenobites from the Order of the Gash, all of them terrifying visions of mutilated, pierced, bloody and ruined flesh.

The starting point for the film is the search for pleasure, or rather, the ultimate experience of it. Rumours have abounded for years that there is a means by which those who are prepared to go to any length to obtain that experience may gain access to endless ecstasies. One such seeker is Frank Cotton, who manages to track down the necessary key to admission to an antiques dealer in Morocco. That key is the Lament Configuration, a strangely designed and crafted puzzle-box, possibly not of this world. After solving the puzzle, the Cenobites make their first appearance, and drag the unfortunate Frank to what most people would consider Hell.

This is one of the central points that Hellraiser makes – pain and pleasure are essentially the very same thing; just different aspects and reflections of each other. The tortures that Pinhead and company inflict are, in their eyes, the ultimate experience, the most exquisite pleasures and ecstasies that anyone could possible go through (or want). In real life, there are many who would more than agree with that sentiment – the sexual underground is alive with people who equate the two words very closely. Sex and death have always been inextricably linked, and one can almost say that for some it borders on almost being something of a religious experience (and, I would venture to posit, that some religious experiences [and practices] are very similar in both tone and result). It is no accident that Barker named them the Cenobites – a definition of the word is,

‘a member of a religious order, living in a convent or community’, and the religious symbolism displayed in the film can be overt at times, even if it is twisted. Pinhead himself says that they are ‘angels to some and demons to others’ – how much more overt can it get?

Demons to us they may be, but they are simply acting according to their natures, and their behaviour is constrained by that nature. As much as we want to call them monsters, there is one true monster in the film that doesn’t belong to the realm of the Cenobites – Julia (played by Clare Higgins), ex-lover of Frank, wife to Frank’s brother, Larry, and step-mother to Kirsty (Ashleigh Laurence). On the day Larry and Julia move into the old Cotton house, Larry tears his hand on a nail as he attempts to carry a bed upstairs: in search of Julia he proceeds to bleed on the floor of the very room where Frank was killed. This sets in motion Frank’s resurrection and the events that follow, wherein the partially resurrected Frank convinces Julia to bring him the blood he needs in order to fully return to a flesh and blood state. Julia willingly complies by luring lonely, single men back to her house, where she coldly bludgeons them so that Frank may feed.

‘The blood is the life’ indeed – a phrase that has both vampiric and religious overtones. While it could be seen to have some darkly twisted religious significance, akin to the transubstantiation of the Catholic mass, it is the coldly calculating way in which Julia obtains that blood that marks her out as the monster. She falls quickly under the sway of the newly arisen body and personality of Frank, and appears not to harbour any qualms about trawling the streets for vulnerable men to entice to their doom. A reunion with Frank, who is the exact opposite of the staid, unadventurous Larry, is her apparent motivation. In some sense she looks upon Frank as being her ‘saviour’ from a lacklustre marriage, but ultimately he represents her ‘fall’ as well, as in one of the scenes towards the end of the film, Frank (disguised as Larry) confronts and attacks Kirsty but accidentally stabs Julia instead. She then becomes his final victim, draining her of blood to complete his resurrection.

The symbolism of all this is deeply complex and labyrinthine, and one could ultimately write a lengthy thesis on the many layers of meaning on show in this film. It isn’t necessary, of course, to discern all this complexity and deconstruct it to enjoy the film – at the time of its release I considered it one of the best British horror films to have graced the silver screen in many a year. It’s a dark, gritty film imbued with a dirty sleaziness which is entirely appropriate to the themes being explored. Luckily, I saw it at the local fleapit within months of it being released and its effect on the big screen was quite devastating. It also confirmed for me the immensity of Clive Barker’s fertile imagination – here were a set of demonic beings, for instance, who made a lasting impression on this film-buff; beings who were far and above the most terrifying I’d come across in some time. The standard ‘monsters’ of the cinema (Dracula, King Kong, Frankenstein, the Wolfman etc.,) had been well established a long time before I was born and, although I loved the Universal horrors greatly, had, in some senses, become tired and formulaic. The Cenobites, however, were more in tune with the prevailing attitudes of the time. On top of that, it portrayed humanity as being deeply flawed and just as bad as, if not worse than, the demons. It put things in an entirely different light and perspective.

There have been more than a few sequels since then, each sadly diluting Barker’s vision more and more with every celluloid iteration. And now, there’s talk of a remake of the original film. Judging by many of today’s glossy Hollywood. MTV-style ‘re-imaginings’ directed by ad-men weaned on creating toothpaste commercials for TV, I don’t hold out much hope for it quite frankly (no pun intended). For sheer atmosphere positively dripping with dankness and malice, there’s no better version than the very first film in the franchise – the original and best.

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931): Man as Monster

Written by literary agent and editor: Sharon Ring

I must have seen the 1931 film version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde half a dozen times over the past week. I also watched the 2007 BBC adaptation and continuation of the original story starring James Nesbitt. I even tried to watch the 2008 made-for-television version starring Dougray Scott (it was so bad I had to stop watching). In all, there have been over one-hundred and twenty film versions of the story which was originally written by Robert Louis Stevenson. I haven’t seen them all, yet.

Like the majority of film adaptations, the 1931 film (directed by Rouben Mamoulian) loosely followed Thomas Sullivan’s stage play which opened in Boston in 1887. Sullivan’s play had added a ‘love interest’ to the story, a role which had not been present in the original novella. With love comes sex, and Mamoulian’s film, initially released as the Motion Picture Production Code (Hay’s Code) was coming into effect, is teeming with scenes focused on love and lust. So much so, that when the film was re-released a few years later, eight minutes footage was removed to spare the sensibilities of the cinema-going audience.

Passion is paramount in this movie. Dr Jekyll, played by Fredric March, is a passionate man. He is a dedicated scientist and surgeon, willing to miss a dinner engagement with his fiancée, Muriel (played by Rose Hobart), in order to perform emergency surgery on a patient in the ‘free’ wards (oh yes, those class issues are still very much to the fore). He’s devoted to Muriel, madly in love, and is determined to beseech her father for a bringing forward of the wedding date. Thwarted, he leaves for home with his friend, Lanyon (played by Holmes Herbert), complaining bitterly at being forced to wait to be married to Muriel and declaring he wants to be ‘drunk on love’.

It’s here he meets Ivy, a prostitute he rescues from an assault in the street; and it is here Jekyll‘s fidelity to Muriel is first tested. Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins, teases him, stripping and climbing into bed with a deliberate flash of both leg and breast, before drawing him in for a kiss. Lanyon berates him, calling his conduct ‘disgusting’; Jekyll’s response is to call into question the difference between our actions and our instincts. Our actions, he says, may be controlled but not our impulses and, for a good man to be truly good, he must rid himself of these impulses by separating his good side from his bad side. This is, of course, a repetition of the speech given by Jekyll at the beginning of the film but, coming hot on the heels of his encounter with Ivy and the indignation of Lanyon, it’s given fresh impetus, reminding the audience of Jekyll’s plans just before launching into the first appearance of his alter ego, Mr Hyde.

Most people, regardless of whether they have read the novella or seen a film adaptation of the story, know what comes next. The dashing doctor drinks the potion and begins his transformation: out goes Jekyll, in comes Hyde. So well known is this image that it is now part of our popular culture: we talk of people who suffer from mood swings as having a Jekyll and Hyde personality, or of people who start bouncing off the walls after one too many glasses of white wine of having unleashed their Hyde side.

From here in on, each film adaptation plays out more or less the same. Hyde drinks the potion to return to his Jekyll form, Jekyll must drink the potion to transform into Hyde. After a while the potion is no longer needed, the transformations cannot be controlled, and Jekyll’s world falls apart.

As someone reminded me a few days ago, this version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was released just four years after the ‘talkies’ made their way into the cinemas. For me it is an astonishing movie, in many ways. It was filmed and released in one of my favourite time periods of cinematic history: special effects and make-up were being experimented with in exciting new ways. The make-up for Hyde was, in part, based upon images of Neanderthal man, an idea which had been suggested by Mamoulian. Wally Westmore (not Perc Westmore, as the ever-useless Wikipedia would have you think) was the chief make-up artist for the film. He worked closely with Fredric March who was concerned about the make-up making him look ‘silly’ and the amount of time he’d have to spend in the chair being made up for each scene.  Unlike Jack Pierce and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein who perfected the make-up by practicing directly on Karloff, Wally chose to have a plaster cast mould of March’s head made on which he could experiment. The teeth, of importance here as Hyde had a good deal of dialogue to work with, were worked on by Wally’s own dentist, Dr Pincus. The resulting look for Hyde was exactly what Mamoulian had hoped for and March’s fear of looking ‘silly’ remained unfounded. One of my favourite trivia tales about the film is of Wally driving March (in full Hyde regalia) to the day’s shoot location. Calling in at a gas station, they waited on the attendant, who is said to have taken one look in the car, screamed then fled the scene.

The transformation scenes were shot using a series of coloured filters, each filter matching a slight change in the make-up. All the Hollywood studios worked hard to maintain their special effects secrets, Paramount included, and the trick of the filters was not revealed for some years until Mamoulian himself decided to reveal his methods to the world. Another, less secret, method employed by the director in the first transformation scene was to allow it to be shown directly through the ‘eyes’ of Jekyll. He stares into a mirror as he drinks the potion and we see the early physical changes before being whirled off with Jekyll into a dizzying blast of faces from his life as the good doctor, friends vying for his attention with warnings of losing control and a barely-covered Ivy imploring him to visit her again.

Each telling of this tale, whether in cinema or on the stage, has a wealth of themes on which to draw. The period in which any adaptation is produced will always play a part in deciding which of those themes come to the fore most prominently. In Mamoulian’s 1931 production, it’s all about sexual repression. Good and proper behaviour is all-important in Jekyll’s world and, as he tells his valet, Poole, when he suggests his master venture out to sample the delights of London, a gentleman such as himself has to be ‘careful of what they do, and say’. Not so for Hyde.

It is perhaps very telling that in March’s portrayal of Hyde, two scenes in particular stand out in my mind. Immediately after the initial transformation, Hyde stretches out his arms, moves back to the mirror, and speaks his first words as a monster, ‘Free! Free at last!’ After the second transformation Hyde takes his first steps into Jekyll’s London and his first act outdoors is to stand in the rain, delighting in the feel of the water on his skin. Hardly the actions of a monster.

Which brings me to my conclusion. We love our monsters. We especially love our human monsters; those film and television characters who have a good and decent alter-ego, or whose ‘evil’ side is capable of great humanity. From comic-book superheroes right through to characters such as Dexter, the influence of Jekyll and Hyde is ever-present. The 1931 adaptation, though one of many, takes pride of place in my mind as the best retelling of the original tale.

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