Monday, November 3, 2008

The Devil Music Ensemble and 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'

The Devil Music Ensemble provided the score for the silent, 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the Ambler Theater for an enraptured crowd Sunday, Nov. 2. The trio of Brendon Wood (guitar), Jonah Rapino (electric violin, vibraphone, and synthesizer), and Tim Nylander (drums, xylophone, keyboard) has previously toured Europe with their original score for Jekyll, along with compositions for Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. This night brought them just as much success, as patron after patron stopped by the band’s merch table afterwards to thank the members.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s story is already well-known, but here’s a basic plot outline: Dr. Jekyll (played by John Barrymore) is a devout man, with his love divided between his fiancĂ©, Millicent (Martha Mansfield), and his clinic for the poor. On the side, though, the good doctor is working on a serum to separate his good and bad intentions – his theory being that by separating his good half from his bad actions, he can save his soul. Obviously, the doc has never heard of a simple Roman Catholic confession. The potion works, but not the way Dr. Jekyll intended. He’s freed from his less-than-modest desires, but all those evil thoughts manifest themselves in a second personality, Mr. Hyde. The two duel for control of their body, leaving the townsfolk fairly flustered and victimized.

The Devil Music Ensemble’s score served to do two things for the film: Accentuate the tense scenes and move along the duller ones. While the film is only about 80 minutes long, it moves pretty slowly at first, utilizing pantomimed scenes to establish character depth and just a smidgen of plot. There are plenty of shots of Mansfield wistfully waiting for Barrymore, made all the more saddening given Mansfield died not long after this film when she caught on fire on the set of The Warrens of Virginia. They spend most of the film apart, sharing a meager two scenes. These scenes establish the characters, but they don’t really move much. The Devil Music Ensemble made these moments work, though, with their fine, orchestral rock-oriented balance of quick tempos and dramatic violin solos. It was like an audio/visual version of cut time; the music went twice as fast as the pacing. The group followed other scenes much more closely. Every hit was mimicked by Nylander, which made a scene in which Mr. Hyde beat a man to death that much more violent and provocative. The club scenes were also closely followed, as if the Ensemble was in the bar.

Wood is clearly a My Bloody Valentine fan, utilizing all sorts of effects to create a swirling atmosphere for the score. While Nylander kept time and Rapino kept the drama high, Wood painted a haunting aura similar to MBV guitarist Kevin Shield’s work with Patti Smith for the pair’s Coral Sea live album. Wood wasn’t the main sonic attraction – that would be Rapino’s glorious, soaring violin – but his contributions created a wider, moodier palate.

Not that the film wasn’t haunting by itself. The reel hasn’t aged well, as many shots are faded, overexposed, and there are a few frames missing here and there. But Barrymore is truly disturbing in his twin roles. He showcases the utmost longing and anguish as the troubled doctor, but it’s his Hyde that really makes the film work. There are no special effects in the original transformation scene until the very end – it’s purely Barrymore writhing, utilizing an array of facial expressions to let the audience know exactly when he is Dr. Jekyll and exactly when he is Mr. Hyde. Later, the film incorporates make-up and lap dissolves to make the effect more profound, but they’re not really all that necessary. By taking on a slouch and craning his head at a different angle, Barrymore becomes a monster all on his own.

Due to strict censorship, violence is doled out sparingly in the film; Hyde only hits two people near the film’s end. But while murder was too gruesome to show on screen – a single block of text informs the audience that Hyde has even committed any violent crimes prior to the ending – sexual harassment apparently was A-OK at the time. To this end, Barrymore’s Hyde exists mostly as a sexual predator, violating Nita Naldi’s character with his long, creepy fingers, baboon-like face, and crazed eyes. He brutalizes her in public, even kicking her out on the streets once he has finished pouring his lust into her.

After the film ended, the band was greeted with much applause from the crowd. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, coupled with The Devil Music Ensemble’s score, is not a gruesome, shocking horror film. But it is a disturbing one. The way Wood’s pick scraped against his reverb-laden guitar as Dr. Jekyll drank that fateful potion, or that Barrymore conveyed pure animal sexual desire, created a haunting portrayal. It’s tempting to compare the film to some sort of violent rape, with the doctor’s transformative serum taking the place of alcohol. The Devil Music Ensemble truly honored and renewed the horror people experienced when they saw Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the first time 88 years ago.

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