Monday, October 16, 2017

"You're Like Me": The Strange Links Between 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' and 'Blue Velvet'


David Lynch has created some of the scariest moments on film. The infamous scene behind Winkie’s Diner has been rated cinema’s scariest scene more than once. Twin Peaks has been named television’s scariest show. Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, INLAND EMPIRE, and of all things, The Elephant Man have been categorized as horror movies through the years. However, Lynch has never really been a horror film director. Rather he works horror into his work in the same way that he works in comedy and melodrama, and because he does not really make films we expect to hit the beats of specific genres, those moments of humor, naked emotion, and terror always hit harder than they would in genre pictures because they are so unexpected.

However, there is one David Lynch film that really does mirror one particular horror classic: Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  That distinction is an important one since Blue Velvet has very little in common with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella. It has more in common with John S. Robertson’s silent adaptation starring John Barrymore from 1920, which is the version that sees the introduction of significant female characters into the story. Jekyll is to marry Millicent Carew, a young representative of “respectable” society. Hyde takes up with Gina, an artist and dance hall girl who represents the seedier side.

These characters take on greater significance in Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath’s Oscar-nominated script for Mamoulian’s sound remake. The split in Frederic March’s Jekyll is made explicit even before he drinks the potion that draws out his monstrous id. He longs for a traditional (yet sexually active) relationship with Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), the daughter of a respected brigadier general. He is also drawn to the sexually uninhibited dance-hall singer Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), whom he attends to after she is attacked by a brute. 
Hyde terrorizes Ivy.

Fans of Blue Velvet should start seeing the parallels coming into view already. Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont is our split Jekyll figure. Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the daughter of a police detective, is Jeffrey’s opportunity for a traditional courtship: flirting across the table of a dinner; dancing at a make-out party. Nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens is our Ivy, drawing Jeffrey into the shadows of unfettered carnality (as portrayed by Isabella Rossellini, Dorothy even shares Hopkins’s shaky pitch).

However, Hyde is only embodied by MacLachlan in odd moments of weakness, as when Jeffrey spies on Dorothy undressing after sneaking into her apartment or strikes her after she commands him to during a bout of kinky sex. More often, Jeffrey’s id-self wears a totally different face a la Hyde. That face belongs to Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, a monster who keeps Dorothy emotionally imprisoned in a constant state of agitated terror to extract physically abusive sex from her just as that other vile bully Hyde keeps Ivy trapped in a grotesque “love nest” for identical purposes. To make their shared-Jekyll/Hyde split explicit, Frank whispers to Jeffrey “You’re like me.” Like Jekyll, Jeffrey is a “good” person torn-apart by ugly behavior he believes he is incapable of controlling.

For fans of both films, the cables between Blue Velvet and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are too strong to miss; yet I would never imply that David Lynch wove them intentionally. While Lynch reportedly saw horror classics such as The Fly, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Thing from Another World during his youth, there is no evidence he’d ever seen Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which had been out of distribution since the release of the weak-tea remake in 1941 in any event. There’s no evidence Lynch saw that film either, though it does offer one more delicious connection to ponder: its Ivy was played by Ingrid Bergman— none other than Isabella Rossellini’s mother. 
Bergman and Rossellini: mother/daughter Ivy figures.
In 1999, interviewer Michael Sragow brought up the recurring Jekyll/Hyde theme in Lynch’s work to the director, but only specifically as it pertains to Alvin Straight in The Straight Story and Lynch didn’t let on that he has seen any version of Stevenson’s story. So it may be a bit extreme to label Blue Velvet a “remake” despite its numerous, tantalizing similarities to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but the two movies might still make for a fascinating double feature this Halloween season.
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