Monsters are bad enough, but how about all those relatives?
For cinema, the postwar period – particularly the 1950s when atomic consciousness became a permanent part of America’s psychic landscape – was a time of generic mutations and permutations. Where the ’40s gave us The Werewolf, the ’50s gave us I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Every classic monster from the previous decades got a generic makeover in the ’50s, whether it was the Invisible Man resurfacing as the Invisible Boy or Dracula reappearing as a teenage girl in Blood of Dracula. This often had unintended comic effects when monsters were pitted against historical figures (Dracula Vs. Billy the Kid), and relatives of monsters, especially sons and daughters, were endlessly corralled onto movie screens. Female monsters were particularly common. This is not too surprising, since fears about women’s repudiation of the domestic role were rife in the wake of a war that showed they could be every bit as industrious, work-minded, and “serious” as their men. The Leech Woman, The Astounding She Monster, The She Creature, Frankenstein’s Daughter, Wasp Woman, et al. indicate a deep level of paranoia about what women were capable of in a postnuclear era.
Most of the above films were routine efforts churned out by second-rate directors at low-budget studios. What to make, then, of a work like Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, directed by “the heir to Murnau,” Edgar G. Ulmer? The fourth and latest entry in the ongoing Ulmer DVD-fest from All-Day Entertainment, Daughter fits the paranoia mold quite nicely, with a goody two-shoes girl (Gloria Talbott) returning to claim an estate in Ireland, a trip that convinces her, and a group of murderous villagers, that she’s the evil spawn of Dr. Jekyll.
As expected in the hands of Ulmer – responsible for a number of low- or no-budget classics including Ruthless, Bluebeard, Strange Illusion, The Strange Woman, and the seminal Detour – what is basically an anonymous spook show is dressed up with flashes of strangeness and poetry that lift it above its generic origins. The film’s primary attraction is the intermittently powerful atmosphere, though some viewers won’t notice it amid the hokey acting and confused script. Miniatures figure prominently in Ulmer’s career, and they’re always eerie and disturbing even when it’s clear they’re fakes. (See Ruthless and Strange Illusion for good examples.) Daughter of Dr. Jekyll opens, after a hilariously weird pre-credit scene, with a miniature of the Jekyll estate, and with its gnarled surrounding vegetation and creepy-castle look, it sets an otherworldly tone for the entire film.
The opening is worth mentioning as one of the more genre’s most memorably campy. It features one of Ulmer’s trademark fogs swirling around a few laboratory bottles. While the head of Irish character actor Arthur Shields revolves slowly in the mist until it faces the camera, a voiceover talks about werewolves and Robert Louis Stevenson and, giving away the film’s ending, says “the evil thing would never prowl the dark again.” Shields, with an evil grin and a few puffs of werewolf hair pasted on his cheeks, says in a high-pitched “fiend” voice, “ARE YOU SURE? HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE . . . ” before revolving back into the mist. To add to the fun, the words aren’t at all matched by the mouth movements. Ulmer apparently enjoyed this little touch so much that he repeated it at the end, though it’s a sign of the film’s sheer weirdness that a different voice is employed for the character the second time. In one of the DVD’s many extras, Ulmer’s daughter makes it clear that Ulmer and Shields loved this bit, no doubt as a relief from the second-rate script and general foolishness of the project.
Gloria Talbott lends some much-needed credibility to the role of Janet, the ingénue with a cursed bloodline. The plot pivots on convincing us that she is indeed as monstrous as her ancestor, creeping out at night to attack, particularly, some of the local young women. (Unfortunately, the quasi-lesbian nature of these assaults isn’t really exploited.) These scenes are by far the film’s most notable, fabulously weird montage sequences of an anima – clearly not Talbott but some sexier, darker vamp – chasing various village women to their doom. Ulmer uses noirish lighting and double-exposures to give these sequences the tenor of a nightmare, enhanced by Talbott’s convincing hysterical screams when she wakes up with blood on her hands and a shredded nightie.
John Agar’s stolid boyfriend George provides wooden support to Janet as she becomes increasingly unhinged, but Arthur Shields steals the show as Dr. Loomis, the seemingly kindly doctor whose over-attentiveness to her masks a morbid interest and more. Shields was Barry Fitzgerald’s brother; both appeared in Ford’s The Quiet Man. But Shields, less famous than his brother, is in some ways a more interesting actor, consistently credible in a thankless role. His elegant delivery and ability to navigate through a dual identity keeps the film watchable even in such foolish scenes as the fight sequence in the crypt, where Shields’s stunt double is twice his size and not remotely believable. Ulmer’s allegiance to the outsider, even a monstrous one who murders, is happily evident here. One of the film’s strongest sequences is Shields’s agonizing transformation from Dr. Loomis to the real Dr. Jekyll. Ulmer shoots the scene mostly in close-up, with Shields’s face undergoing increasing distortion that impart a powerful sense of physical and psychic dislocation. Purists may not appreciate the film’s blithe attempts to dovetail all sorts of monsters – vampire, werewolf, warlock – into the character of Dr. Loomis. After all, Dr. Jekyll was not a werewolf, or either of the other two. But Shields manages to make whatever kind of monster it is he’s playing simpatico and even to some extent tragic.
In the Ulmer canon, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll occupies the middle range. It’s better than dreck like Isle of Forgotten Sins or St. Benny the Dip but decidedly worse than Ruthless or The Strange Woman. All-Day’s DVD makes it as palatable as possible with a slew of extras: interviews with John Agar and Arianna Cipes Ulmer; an isolated music and sound effects track; the original theatrical trailer; and a photo archive. The print is for the most part excellent. The interiors are razor-sharp; “exteriors” (also interiors in a sense, since this is a totally studio-made movie) have some compromising grain and soft focus that appear to be a problem of the original rather than of the transfer, so this is undoubtedly the best version we’re likely to see.