Dr. Jekyll's Dungeon Of Death (1979)

JUNE 28, 2012


Sometimes I see a movie and then instantly wonder if I just had a really detailed fever dream. I mean, I know I’ve seen a lot of crazy movies over the years, but did I REALLY just watch a movie about a descendent of Dr Jekyll testing out a new serum on a group of folks by pitting them against each other in low-key wrestling matches, in between scenes of beating his sister and molesting his clearly held against her will “fiancĂ©”? If so, that movie is called Dr. Jekyll’s Dungeon Of Death, and it’s either the best or the worst movie I’ve seen all year.

Right off the bat I knew this would be a very special movie, as Jekyll explains the history of his great grandfather, how his serum didn’t work, etc. Typical stuff, but what makes it puzzling is that he says this as we watch two guys beat the crap out of each other in a dimly lit basement, as if they put the VO on the wrong movie. Later we learn what’s going on, not that it makes much sense, but at least we know for sure that this is indeed the movie they were making.

And by “they” I mean James Wood and James Mathers, who are credited with the script. Mathers played Jekyll (there is no “Hyde” in this version; Jekyll is a big enough asshole as is, and thus doesn’t have to bother with a serum), and Wood did pretty much everything else – directing, producing, editing… he is also credited as the DP, but I don’t know if we can really call anything in this movie “photography”, being that 75% of the image is pure black most of the time. There’s a great bit where one of the few other characters says (in what sounds like an overdub) “Do you always keep your house so dark?” and isn’t answered, so I guess that’s just their way of covering their asses.

As Jekyll, Mathers is a hoot. Imagine a drunken Hugh Laurie in his own Asylum mockbuster of House and you’d have a good idea of what his performance was like here. He delivers the movie’s many ridiculous lines (particular favorite: “My sister has been hopelessly insane since birth!”) with total commitment, wholly making up for the fact that a. they’re the dumbest things ever heard and b. William Shatner himself would think he was hammy. And most of the other characters don’t even talk, so his voice is pretty much the only one you hear through most of the movie.

Except, of course, the grunts and moans of the people fighting during the film’s several overlong, vastly unexciting fight scenes. The poor cinematography, non-existent direction, and dull background make these fights look like something you might film in your own basement with a couple friends as you play “Wrestlemania” when you’re like 11 years old, so when mixed with the batshit insane mad scientist stuff (and a Jekyll with a thing for incest and abuse) it just adds to the WTFness of it all. I actually have the movie on again as I’m writing this review because some of it is just too divine to witness only once, like when Jekyll is explaining his plan over and over to a disinterested party and the movie merely cuts to the next scene mid-sentence, as if the editor was like "Well this is going nowhere, let’s see what else is happening..."

The DVD is an abomination; offering a full frame transfer that seems to be taken from VHS and thus does the already poor image no favors. The only extras are a bunch of drive-in ads for snacks and such, as well as a wonderfully stupid little bio for Cheesy Flix, the DVD distributor who talks about their state of the art DVD facility, which is all the more amusing when you consider the disc suffers from rookie mistakes like not providing a way to go back to the main menu from the chapter selection page. No offense guys, but I can make a better DVD than this on my laptop.

I would love to see this with a crowd; it’s the sort of total batshit strangeness that the Cinefamily would play (probably off this same DVD; I highly doubt this world is good enough to have a 35mm print laying around anywhere). And I almost wish I could keep the DVD to pull out for parties – folks would go home later and wonder what the hell they just saw, partygoers would forget about drinking all my beer because they’re too transfixed by the film… it’d be glorious.

One final note – I was reminded more than once of the terrible movie Nightmare in Blood but couldn’t figure out why, since they had no relation in plot or anything else. But later, I discovered that both films were produced in San Francisco around the same time (late 70s). What is it about this period and setting that produces movies with that certain je ne sais quoi? And did anyone manage to make a GOOD horror movie in San Francisco in the late 70s?

What say you?


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