“Dr. Jekyll’s Dungeon of Darkness” (1979)
From Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, the tale of the mad scientist has been through the cinematic ringer in various forms. From the original two faces of madness, to strange cases of mistresses and sisters, to rock ‘n roll musical versions, to parodies, and even erotic tellings, but no other version has decided to tell the tale by eliminating the doctor’s own Mr. Hyde completely. Or maybe it just merges the two. Dr. Jekyll’s Dungeon of Darkness, or as it’s also known Dr. Jekyll’s Dungeon of Death, gives us the great grandson of the original split-personality and takes us into his lair of experimentation.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (James Mathers) is working on a serum that he hopes will erase the moral conscience in his subjects and turn them into bloodthirsty killers, while also numbing their pain tolerance. He conducts these barbaric experiments in his basement dungeon with prisoners he’s had his two Igor-like slaves Malo and Boris kidnap off the streets. Given the serum, the subjects duke it out in hand-to-hand combat for Jekyll’s twisted enjoyment. Meanwhile, Professor Atkinson (John F. Kearny) and his comatose daughter Julia (Dawn Carver Kelly) are being held by the mad doctor who wants the Professor’s knowledge as well as his daughter’s hand.
Directed by James Wood, whose two other known credits are hardcore fare (one of which stars Fred Lincoln), and actually written by Dr. Jekyll himself James Mathers, Dr. Jekyll’s Dungeon of Darkness (or Death) is a pretty dry production, taking place entirely in the confined locations of Jekyll’s home and dungeon. When the bad doctor is on screen, he’s either theatrically delivering lengthy monologues about his experiments and his serum to the bored, uninterested, but frightened Professor Atkinson or complaining about his non-existent love life. You see, apparently all Jekyll really wants (other than to be famous for his serum which creates crazed animalistic killers) is a companion. Must be really lonely being a mad scientist… These back-and-forth’s make up half of the length of the film, but the other half is what elevates this from hitting the trash bin and that is the brutal, unflinching, and insanely realistic fight scenes intercut with the narrative!
Dr. Jekyll’s Dungeon of Darkness dares to show you the experiments where his two subjects/prisoners, who are injected with the serum (which also has them develop an addiction to it much like morphine or heroin) duke it out. And masterfully so. Instead of quick cuts to keep the ‘action’ fast paced, James Wood, also acting as the cinematographer, decides to let his camera remain static and wide, letting the barbaric hand-to-hand combat unfold in long single takes that prove that Rick Alemany might be the single-greatest fight choreographer you’ve never heard of! Reasonably so, he did only work on this movie as such, but this man deserves an Oscar or something. The fight scenes, whether male on male, or female on female, or female on male combat, are violent, expertly choreographed, and look real as shit! Every hit, every throw, actually looks like they hurt. These scenes are even better than most kung-fu fights, not joking.
Released on home video by Genesis Home Video under the Darkness title, who were notorious for having graphic and exciting cover art that very rarely had anything to actually do with the movie (Avenging Spirit being a prime example), the first thing one notices is how bad their transfer on the VHS is. It’s extremely dark compared to an overseas DVD of the film, simply titled The Dungeon. The contrast seems to be cranked to the point that all blacks and shadows, or even grey areas, are completely crushed and we’re left with the appearance that all lighting looks like it was created with a high school theatrical production spot light. This seems to add to the wooden acting of all involved. The second thing one notices is that the move also seems to be racist, or at least could be viewed as such, since all of Jekyll’s prisoners and slaves are of other ethnicities, and he’s basically putting them in mandingo fights to the death… This negative view aside, and the fact that half of the movie is boring conversations, there’s some cinematic gold to be found in these dungeons when the audience is given a ring side seat.
Reviewed by Tyler Baptist. All contents copyright 2013 Videonomicon.