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How ‘Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again’ Satirized the Excess Culture of the Eighties

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The entire history of cinematic (and theatrical) adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal classic of Dr. Jekyll and his monstrous counterpart Mr. Hyde is a vast and varied one and something that often gets overlooked when movie monsters are discussed or examined in film criticism and fandom. For some bizarre reason, Jekyll and Hyde as an iconic duplicitous terror-inducing entity gets relegated to the sidelines while the peer group consisting of Dracula (and relations), Frankenstein, the werewolf and other offshoots of the supernatural are continually championed and scrutinised on both academic fronts as well as historical entries. When you study the trajectory of Jekyll and Hyde and how the story made its way from classicist literature to filmic and theatrical realisation, you see a captivating trend in what would be the artists’ way of taking on the core fundamental heart of this engaging tale and the question it poses. Ultimately, Stevenson’s novel is a detailed examination of what it means to have a split personality and how that dance between the moralistic and just is countered by the animalistic and often violent. The beauty of his writing is in how he explores such dark terrains and the genius lies in the fact that he has tapped into a universal consciousness where everyone who understands the notion of duality may at one time or another been confronted by that sinister aspect of their own psyche – and perhaps even contemplated acting on it.

In the case of Jerry Belson’s Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again (1982), the temptation of giving yourself over to absolute pleasure comes in the form of pure hedonism at the start of eighties over-indulgence. Belson’s film takes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic masterpiece and introduces it to a comic light, loading it with bombastic satire that speaks volumes about what the decade of money-obsession and power-hunger would be about.

The film’s opening credits are an absolute testament to Jerry Belson’s critique on the excesses of the eighties where the titles themselves will be snorted up the nose of a cocaine addict via a rolled up dollar bill. Here is the decadence of the seventies passing on the baton to the obsession with “wanting it all” and that desire to “have it all” in the eighties, which already was a filmic landscape for movies dealing with furious greed as well as quiet repressed desire. The screenplay would come from a group of talented comedy writers who all primarily worked on dealing with working class satire during the seventies – for example, Monica Johnson would pen episodes of Laverne and Shirley and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and here in the early eighties, she would take on the world of excess and pretence by using the mythology of Jekyll and Hyde as a launch pad for such social commentary. Writer Michael Jon Leeson would also cut his teeth on classic working class-centric television with the pinnacle of it being All In The Family, and here he would be able to let loose on class resentment and global gluttony, whereas the key writer who would end up directing the film, Jerry Belson, would fire into the screenplay, fuelling it with rampant jokes and a sturdy observational humor that tackled the issues of medicine, the health system, sexual liberties and societal hang ups. Heralded as a terrific script by studio executive Michael Eisner, who before heading Disney during its massively successful Renaissance period, co-ran Paramount Studios, the film would go into production rather quickly and was born from the brains of writers generally associated with hit TV sitcoms that were starting to drop off the air.

The humor is a melting pot of visual gags, running jokes, smut, irreverent throw aways and character driven set pieces. Sometimes a stock character is used in Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again and embodies all of those aforementioned characteristics at once. For example, Groundlings member Cassandra Peterson (who would later become world known as Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark) plays a cartoony sexy nurse with her lipstick markings on her surgeon mask and her heaving bosom bouncing around surgery. Here is a stunningly accurate example of composite comedy styles and traits living within the ample body of one of its players. Peter Brocco features as an old wealthy man Hubert Howels, referred to as “the richest man in the world who will have a “total” transplant”, and he plays it out as both a visual gag as well as an archetype built upon the likes of Howard Hughes who would eventually go insane and live in isolation. This is yet another strong and sturdy variant of characters being built from the Frankenstenian multi-purposefulness of varied comic stylings. When it is learned that Howels needs his — brain, heart, lungs and everything replaced, it is a testament to the writers on the film having fun with a spoof on a genre while also playing with comedy as a living and breathing apparatus that concocts cartoonish characters, who may eventually be more than just a servant to a joke.

As far as jokes go, in this film, they come thick and fast along the same lines of a film such as Airplane (1980) which parodies the disaster movie trend that was massively popular in the seventies. The sight gags are possibly the strongest and the way they are concocted by following set-ups is masterfully handled and genuinely humorous. A student surgeon watching the film’s anti-hero perform remarks “He has the steadiest hands I’ve ever seen” moments before said anti-hero removes his mask to reveal cuts from shaving. This kind of visceral comedy works its magic throughout the film and generally remains consistent. The film’s Jekyll is played by the incredibly versatile and dynamic Mark Blankfield who bounces through the performance of both the subdued and restrained doctor and the maniacal nut job that is Hyde with sublime ease and prowess. The maddening energy of Blankfield is almost exhausting to watch and this is not just the case when he gives into the crazed mania of Hyde, it is also the way he manages to deliver measured nuance with his deadpan Jekyll. The entire premise of the film goes like this: Jekyll is a well-loved and lauded surgeon who is about to give it all up and go into heavy research where he can unlock the secrets to man’s brain as well as invent a drug that will replace the need for surgery. Here the film’s major tipping point is the cemented fact that it is most certainly a motion picture obsessed with the drug culture that was fundamentally shifting. No longer was a narcotic induced frenzy something belonging to long haired hippies of the sixties or disco hoppers of the late seventies, it was something that was emerging outside of counter culture and into the world of hardened, stressed out professionals. When you consider the amount of high end drug taking in the world of medicine and law, the exuberance of youth culture pales in comparison to the logistically more aware and capable addicts in the white collar world.

As silly and as obnoxious the film is, it does also have an energy of intelligence that permeates the out fold, and this is primarily because of what it says about the drug cultural shift coming out of the seventies (which was a decade dedicated to the arts) and into the eighties (which would be far more concerned with commerce, financial gain, materialism and nihilism). However, the film does use the Robert Louis Stevenson work to commentate on the two sided view of medical practice and individual duplicity, all the while powering through references to other pop-culture images and counterpoints. For example, during a sequence where Jekyll has to go in to the quarantined sector of the hospital (called Our Lady of Pain and Suffering), The Elephant Man is among the sick and destitute, and much like the character from David Lynch’s film from early in the decade. It is also here where we meet one of the two women that will play a major role in Jekyll’s life — and a story element from Stevenson’s novel as well as varied adaptations that is the most telling about conservatism in comparison to the carnal and the honest. Mary Carew (Bess Armstrong) is Jekyll’s fiancé and she is a the raspy voiced, breathy woman who seems to flutter in and out of his life. She represents a place of reason and steadiness for Jekyll , something that he needs but also somebody who is exploited by it. The inspired gag about the adopted Korean girl that Jekyll sponsors is excellent and a great allowance for an audience to laugh at dire situations (the state of Korea at the time) while ensuring that the little girl has the last laugh and is not some martyred child. Along with such social satire and in your face style barker comedy, running gags bolt around the narrative and enjoy a healthy amount of reoccurrence that makes for a steady comic lap, marrying such irreverence are more characters that populate the film that epitomise archetypal comic leanings. Dr. Knute Lanyon (Tim Thomerson) the smarmy plastic surgeon is a perfect example of a cagey antagonist in waiting, and while Airplane throwaway gags pepper the script (“Would a proctologist please report to the surgery room, there’s an asshole waiting”), Lanyon’s story arch develops and ends with him embracing his transexuality which is pushed upon the audience as a major joke.

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More sexually charged gags ensue and this includes the meeting of the Champagne Ivy character — the prostitute that Jekyll’s Hyde seems to be drawn to. Here Ivy (Krista Eriksen) is introduced stuck in a predicament; she has a “foreign object” stuck inside her. It is discovered that an Asian man is “inside her” and Jekyll frees her. She is first seen naked and has an incredibly sassy back and forth with Jekyll which instantly sets her up as a vivid contrast to the more prudish and “proper” middle class Mary. Ivy’s influence is also juxtaposed with Jekyll’s turning from mild mannered (but still deranged) medic to a crazed, frizzy haired Frank Zappa-type hedonist Hyde. The use of his drug is likened to the casual usage of cocaine and Hyde’s wild persona is unleashed and completely insane. The film tips into anarchic fun, and it is a truly zany ride. Physically, Hyde is an expression of drug culture — the elongated nail for drug taking, the wide eyes circling like a mad man, the jittery body language and so forth. He even starts snarling like a wolf and simple words are barked out and made aggressive in his constant state of panic, frenzy and madness.

The effects of drugs such as PCP power the film’s devoted interest in not only the drug culture and the transition between the flamboyance and complicated artistry of seventies expression into the corporate excesses of eighties mentality, but it also pays tribute to the punk culture of the time, having Jekyll experience gigs, slam dancing, thrash punk and grimy dive bars that embody the grittiness of urban youth angst. Tributes come aplenty within the film and the balance between paying homage and delivering a sturdy and strong story is carefully balanced, which is shocking at times, seeing that the film could quite easily fall into spoof territory (which it most certainly is) but lose itself to what it is parodying. One of the most inspired moments in the film is where the color scheme turns practically black and white once the cast of characters race through the aptly-named Foggy Street. Here is a tribute to classic horror that harkens back to films such as Young Frankenstein (1974), which is completely devoted to bringing an original comedy built within the compounds of horror film trappings and tropes.

As much as the film revels in celebrating what it is spoofing, it is also a fun character piece in that as Hyde, Dr. Jekyll is allowed to be wild and hedonistic whilst embodying an exaggerated response to a culture of the drug afflicted middle classes.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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