I first saw Edgar G. Ulmer’s Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) around the age of 7 or 8 on WFLA Channel 8’s (Tampa) “Terminus: The Theater of Science Fiction” one Saturday afternoon. And let me tell you, I thought it was wonderful. I didn’t see it again till over 20 years later, at which time I must confess, I didn’t think it was so wonderful. (This does not, by the way, keep me from having a tacky half-sheet poster from it—promising “Blood-hungry spawn of the world’s most bestial fiend!”—hanging in my kitchen.) But I was able to enjoy it on other levels—including the fact that it’s one utterly screwed up movie, along with some surprisingly nice bits of atmosphere.
I also understood just why I thought it was swell at any early age. It’s the perfect film for that age group. It seems to think like a child. It has the logic—or lack thereof—of a child. The plotting is at once simple and so convoluted that the film is almost a third over before it establishes that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is the daughter of Dr. Jekyll. (Not that the cast leaves much room for doubt at to who this is, unless you think it will turn out to be John Agar or Arthur Shields.) It boasts an absolutely preposterous secret entrance to Dr. Jekyll’s lab, and the lab itself looks suspiciously like the corner of an attic with an elaborate chemistry set lying around. I think that the fact that it looks so familiar makes it easy for a child to relate to. The fact that children are less apt to notice that the film confuses Mr. Hyde with a werewolf (and maybe a vampire) or question how this chemically-induced condition could possibly be genetic is also a plus for the film as a kind “Child’s Garden of Horror.”
For an adult, however, the film is more amusing than anything. It’s one of the many films made by Edgar G. Ulmer that make it hard not to think that the indisputably great The Black Cat (1934) was basically a fluke. Certainly, nothing else in his extremely checkered filmography comes anywhere near it—even if, and this is the mystery, The Black Cat contains all his major preoccupations with action and reaction. Regardless, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll does have flashes of atmosphere along the way and there are obvious attempts of someone making the best film possible given the script and the budget. This doesn’t keep it from being immensely silly, nor does it make up for the awful striped blazer festooning John Agar. Did no one notice it looked less like a blazer than a pajama top? In any case, the film is an experience no self-respecting horror fan can dare to miss.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Daughter of Dr. Jekyll Thursday, Mar. 27 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.