Silents in the Castle: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Earlier this year, the renovated Newcastle Castle threw their doors open after a £1.67m refurbishment which saw the much-loved Keep joined by new attraction the Black Gate, the Castle’s ancient gatehouse.

Working to transform the historic site into a place to be entertained as well as educated, the Castle team followed up their unforgettable sold-out screening of 1922 horror classic Nosferatu with an even earlier slice of cinema history – one starring Drew Barrymore’s granddaughter to boot – 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

the tale of two men living in one body drew upon Victorian obsession with good and evil

Based on Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella published a scant 34 years earlier, the tale of two men living in one body drew upon Victorian obsession with good and evil, the conflict between the effete Henry Jekyll and the violent Edward Hyde showcasing the duality of man and the hidden horrors we all suppress within.

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“Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is all about the dark underbelly of Victorian society” the Castle’s Peter Cumiskey told us, “and by the 19th century the Castle ruins had essentially become a slum community, home to all sorts of shady businesses and taverns of ill repute, so Mr Hyde would probably have felt right at home.”

Writing the original book while bed-ridden and sick (or high on cocaine and ergot depending on which biographer you believe), Stevenson’s strange tale was an immediate sensation which become a classic of literature, inspiring over 123 adaptations to date in film alone, with the sixth now finding a suitably unnerving home in the Great Hall of the Castle Keep.

Peter promises this isn’t the last we’ll see either.

“We’re hoping to make this a regular thing, particularly during winter when the weather is dark and gloomy. It can be chilly, but if you wrap up warm the Keep more than makes up for it in atmosphere.”

With its low set wood-beamed ceiling, imposing brick-backed fireplace, thick stone window frames, and glass cabinet full of suitably arcane tat, the top floor of the newly-renovated Black Gate played suitable host to the sixth of countless film adaptations over the past century, one in which John Barrymore delivers an emotionally and technically stunning performance that carries a reasonably straight-laced take on the iconic novella.

all good men have a dark side, and Dr. Henry Jekyll is no exception

With his famously swooned-over profile and stage-earned acting chops both in full force, Barrymore is absolutely captivating. Earning our sympathies as the idealistic, pure of heart Dr. Jekyll, we wince as his fiancée’s father pokes at his good nature, attempting to prove – apropos of nothing aside from paternal suspicion and a desire to impress his gin-blossomed drinking buddies – that all good men have a dark side, and Dr. Henry Jekyll is no exception.

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Obsessed by the idea that man does indeed have dark and light sides locked in a lifelong Cold War for the soul, Jekyll retreats to his laboratory to break the Gordian knot of mutually-assured destruction, developing a potion that transforms him into the hideous Mr. Hyde, a bizarro version of himself fuelled by base desire and diabolical intent, enabling him to finally to embrace his dark side while leaving his eternal soul unscathed.

Playing out the initial transformation sans-makeup and entirely through a series of stunning facial and bodily contortions, Barrymore slowly deteriorates over the course of the film as his dark side consumes him, malformed by ever-more gruesome prosthetics and practical effects.

the story continues to resonate as it forces us to ask ourselves to confront our own dark side within

With rape and murder heavily implied as Hyde grows ever more nefarious, this is not a sympathetic creature in the same vein as Nosferatu or Frankenstein’s monster.  Instead, the revolting aberration of Hyde makes us long for the good of Dr. Jekyll to win out, overturning  the cynical ploy to make him ashamed of his goodness and long for a knowledge of evil.

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Worth seeing for Barrymore’s enthralling performance alone, the film is bolstered by terrific special effects work, particularly during the transformations themselves and an unforgettable dream sequence featuring a nightmarish spectral spider.

At it’s heart, the story continues to resonate as it forces us to ask ourselves to confront our own dark side within, and question whether we’d embrace it given the opportunity to do so without consequence, eternal or otherwise. The answer may be more uncomfortable than any of us would like to admit.

Leigh Venus at Newcastle Castle, 6 December 2015

Originally published in two parts at Narc Magazine Online