Wednesday, October 21, 2009

October Horror-thon #21: "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953)

In turn of the century England, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Boris Karloff) hopes to curb mankind's murderous instincts by way of medical experimentation. Unfortunately, in the process, he unleashes Mr. Hyde, a ghastly alter ego who's embarked on a citywide killing spree. But who better to take down one of literature's most terrifying characters than Bud Abbott and Lou Costello? Well, a lot of people are more qualified, but that doesn't stop the dynamic duo, as a pair of bumbling American cops, from setting out to nab Hyde themselves. But with a lab full of diabolical potions and a hulking assistant at his disposal, Jekyll has more than enough firepower to stop the boys in blue from ruining his plans to woo his young ward (Helen Westcott).

Universal Studios had a huge horror roster to its name, but the one property it never staked was Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." That is, unless you count this pow-wow with the masters of schlock treatment themselves, Abbott and Costello. This picture came after the guys already tangled with the Frankenstein monster and before their rendezvous with the Mummy. It also arrived near the end of their cinematic career, which is all too evident from how often the script's joke well runs dry. Abbott and Costello were corny from the start, but they're just scraping the bottom of the barrel here. This was a chance for Universal to have fun at its own expense, and it wastes its time having Lou trip his way from set to set, while Bud shakes his head in shame.

Granted, the humor is innocent enough and nowhere near as campy as other Universal thrillers that tried being serious. But the schtick does get old fast, and you wonder why they didn't just make a straightforward horror flick instead. It already has a solid production design, boasting sets and atmosphere that'd be right at home in a traditional tale of terror. But it all goes to pot when you first glimpse at the absolutely unacceptable make-up effects. Hyde is bad enough, looking much like a melted caveman, but there's a curious mouse transformation about halfway through that's a few steps below just buying a Halloween mask from the drug store. I really expected more from Bud Westmore, who helped design the Black Lagoon's Gill Man but whose work here is reminiscent of a five-year-old's first day at make-up school.

The only thing that Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has going for it is its third-billed star, my boy Boris Karloff. Though Hyde duties were reportedly assumed by a stuntman, it's interesting to see Karloff play Jekyll as equally evil as his other half. It's a unique twist on the character deserving of a much better film, and though it adds a little juice to one of A&C's last screen adventures, it's far from a gut-busting monster mash.

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