Saturday, February 22, 2020

Revisiting Charles B. Griffith’s Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype




DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!
 
I’ve recently been holding my nose and reading some of my earlier blog posts and realizing I was shortchanging many of the movies I’d written about.  When I first started, I’d knock out the post on a Friday night – usually while watching the film I was discussing.



There was one film, however, that I wanted to revisit and show significantly more love to than my original post provided – both because of the quality of the film and my immense respect for the creative genius that brought the film to fruition – Charles B. Griffith; the wonderfully inventive Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype.



Before we get started, I want to discuss Griffith. I found while compiling my research for this essay some believe the Roger Corman we all know and love was only as successful as he was due to the many talents of Griffith.  Tom Weaver is quoted in the October 3rd, 2007 LA Times obituary for Griffith as saying “Griffith’s scripts were very imaginative and often quirky and kind of subversive, and when you look at any list of Roger Corman’s early pictures, those were the ones that put Corman on the map”. (https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-oct-03-me-griffith3-story.html). Ronald Bergan’s obit in The Guardian said it better by referencing The Little Shop of Horrors when he wrote “In a way, Corman kept screaming "Feed Me!" to Griffith, who supplied his producer-director with a flow of more than 25 witty, bizarre, fast-paced and often subversive screenplays between 1956 and 1980..." (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/nov/09/guardianobituaries.obituaries2)




I honestly believe I can take it a step further.  I genuinely believe if not for the amazing depth and breadth of Griffith’s work we might have missed out on Sam Raimi, Fred Olen Ray, Jackie Kong and, perhaps, even Andy Milligan. I don’t mean to suggest the talent of those artists were reliant on Griffith, but, I do believe the early films of Griffith both laid the foundation for the works of the other greats who followed as well as showing that irony, horror, comedy and tragedy could all co-exist in the same brilliant film.



Griffith was born in Chicago on September 23rd, 1930 into a show business family.  Early in his career he began writing radio scripts for the program Myrt and Marge, a show which also featured Griffith’s mother and grandmother. He would go on to note his ability to write screenplays so quickly came from his days in radio where program scripts had to be produced on a fast turnaround schedule.



Eventually Griffith befriended Jonathan Haze (Seymour Krelborn from the Griffith scripted The Little Shop of Horrors) who showed some of Griffith’s work to Roger Corman. This would lead to a decades long collaboration with Corman which neared its conclusion with the classic Jaws inspired Up from the Depths. Griffith was not the writer of the film but had been contracted to direct the picture and Griffith would note the film was a terrible experience and said “I think Roger did it to punish me, to send me out to The Philippines where I didn't know what I was getting into.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_from_the_Depths)  Griffith would direct the Corman produced Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II as his final Corman collaboration.





A year after the trauma that was Up from the Depths, Griffith would move on to Cannon films to write and direct the woefully under-appreciated Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype.   Regarding this picture, I have found over the years since I first wrote about this film, there are three types of people. 1) Those who have never seen the movie…but don’t like it, 2) Those who have seen it…and for some reason don’t like it 3) Those who have seen it…and love it. Obviously, count me in group three.


Not content to simply rehash the famous Stevenson novel, Griffith turns the story on its head by telling the story of a kind-hearted, but physically malformed Dr. Heckyl who becomes a cruel monster when he is the debonair Mr. Hype ala The Nutty Professor. He then proceeds to take the human obsession with beauty and the superficiality and tear it shreds.  One can only imagine what Griffith would think of the “Social Influencer” and Instragram society we live in forty years after the film’s completion.



Oliver Reed plays the dual role of Heckyl and Hype, but, in a 2004 interview Griffith noted “Oliver Reed used to get me drunk but I liked him. I didn’t want him originally. I had wanted Dick Van Dyke, but he was out on the road doing a play. Menahem hired Oliver because he was there. I had to redo the entire picture in my head when he was cast, because it was a zany slapstick comedy and I got Oliver Reed – with that face and that voice! So I made it more lyrical.” (http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/conversations-with-filmmakers/charles_b_griffith/)   

This was a fascinating revelation for me.  In retrospect, I can see Van Dyke in the role, but, the transformation of the soft spoken and caring Heckyl with his interesting accent and hunchback into the suave Oliver Reed seems an ideal juxtaposition of characters.  We meet Dr. Heckyl in the opening scene of the film with these sentiments as he walks up a flight of steps and into frame – “I don't have to see the fear in their eyes, I can feel them cringing. I can feel them shrinking from my face.  My one and only old, unfortunate face. What they never see is the beauty behind my eyes.”  During the opening sequence, where we see the regrettable doctor shunned by both a blind man (well, a man posing as blind in any event) as well as the daily commuters at a bus stop, we find he waits every day to watch the beautiful Coral Careen (portrayed by the late and talented Sunny Johnson) board the bus.




After the opening sequence where we meet the ugly on the outside, beautiful on the inside Dr. Heckyl the scene shifts gears a bit as the good Doctor, a podiatrist, arrives at an office which also houses Dr. Hinkle (Mel Wells) and Dr. Lew Hoo (Kedrick Wolf). The ability of Griffith to deftly shift from somber and moving angst to almost surreal comedy is clearly on display here. In our introduction to Dr. Lew Hoo we find he is experimenting with acutickling.  Why? Well “acupuncture and acupressure are fine as far as they go, but how far can one go with needles and thumbs? Acutickling uses the body’s own vibrations to reach the very marrow of the body’s bones!” We also find that Dr. Hinkle is testing “Dr. Hinkle’s Instant Diet Paste”. When Heckyl asks if the paste is safe, Hinkle replies “Are you kidding? One whole drop you could give a baby.  Two whole drops, unfortunately, would kill a horse." We meet Police Lt. Mack Druck (Virgil Frye), a flat foot cop that insists on proving that he doesn’t feel pain in possibly one of the oddest scenes in the film. Finally, as the sequence draws to a close, Coral Careen walks into the office.  The very woman Heckyl watches board the bus every day as arrived for an appointment…with him.



As I mentioned earlier, Coral Careen was portrayed by Sunny Johnson. Griffith mentioned in an interview that Johnson “was cast in the middle of the night before shooting started the next day, but she turned in a stellar performance. A few weeks later, she died of a brain hemorrhage. She was beautiful and a great actress. She would have went on to greater stuff.” (http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/conversations-with-filmmakers/charles_b_griffith/)   

Johnson was born in Bakersfield, California in September 1953 (although her IMDB page indicates San Bernardino county, which seems more likely as she is buried in San Bernardino). I first remember seeing her early one morning in the fall of 1981. In the pre-VCR (or at least affordable VCR) and pre-DVR days, I would go to bed early on “school nights” and get up in the middle of the night if there was a movie I wanted to see on HBO.  One night/morning I got up at 2:00 AM to watch Where the Buffalo Roam.  At the time, I assumed the character of Hunter S. Thompson was a fictional one and only got up because I loved Bill Murray (I would later get my hands on a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and my life would be forever changed.).  Johnson has only a small role as the nurse with Thompson as he is holed up in a hospital room using an IV stand to hold his bottle of Wild Turkey. But, her visage stuck with me throughout the years.





Her portrayal of sheer purity in this picture is amazing and a perfect foil for the diabolical Mr. Hype. Although she was, according to Griffith, a last-minute hire, I am sure he knew how fortunate he was as her portrayal of Coral provides moral center around which orbit the superficial creatures of the universe. This is never more evident than in a conversation Coral and Heckyl near the end of the second act of the picture as she discusses being almost assaulted by Heckyl’s alter ego Mr. Hype.



Coral - "He was physically attractive as far as that goes. But he acts as if he owned the world"



Hekyl – “Beautiful people are always forgiven, always given everything."



Coral – “Can I tell you a secret Doc?  Beauty's boring. I mean, I'm only skin deep. You're beautiful inside.”



Tragically, the actress that so perfectly brought Coral Careen to life in this film was discovered unconscious the evening of June 18th, 1984 in a home she shared with actor Archie Hahn. She had suffered a stroke and was declared brain dead. With no hope of recovery, she was taken off life support and died on June 19th at the age of 30.



She is buried just minutes from where I sit right now.



Charles B. Griffith would die on September 28th, 2007 just five days after his 77th birthday.  Earlier that year, Quentin Tarantino would dedicate his portion of the film Grindhouse (Death Proof) to Griffith and call him a significant influence on his career.



Film lovers are fortunate that Griffith and Johnson left us the gift of Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype and for that I’m am forever grateful.  Perhaps the only person who should be more thankful that Charles B. Griffith existed is Roger Corman.




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