Thursday, January 21, 2021

Dr. Jekyll's Dungeon of Death (1979) review

James Mathers (Dr. Henry Jekyll), John Kearney (Professor Atkinson), Dawn Carver Kelly (Julia Atkinson), Nadine Kalmes (Hilda Jekyll), Jake Pearson (Boris), Tom Nicholson (Malo), Peter R. Maloney (Sgt. Maloney)
Directed by James Wood
The Short Version: One of the craziest genre mash-ups is this bizarre tale of a mad scientist using an aggression serum to turn captives into Karate masters. He then pits them against one another in his basement of death. The reasoning for all this is tenuous, but the writer (who is also the star of the flick) gives Jekyll a surprising amount of backstory for his actions. If you're a fan of martial arts movies, and particularly those of the HK variety, you are in for a treat. The MA battles are brutal, fast-paced, and puts American-made martial arts movies of the day to shame. There's no nudity but there's torture and sadism aplenty. Mix that with raging Karate fighters and you have a macabre, sleazy entertainment serum that lasts 90 minutes.

Never venturing outside of his spooky mansion, Dr. Jekyll conducts depraved experiments on kidnapped men and women, turning them into Karate-fighting killing machines. Alleging to decipher the secret to controlling man, he delights in recording these battles to the death for private viewing when he isn't torturing his sister and manservant. A colleague of Jekyll, Professor Atkinson, arrives to learn what happened to his deceased sister. But what the professor is unaware of is his sister is very much alive, and used as a sex slave for the deranged Dr. Jekyll.

There aren't a whole lot of exploitation movies that truly match their premise and this sorely underrated and curiously obscure gem is one that does. There are areas that could've been better, but what's here is enough for those seeking some unknown and or obscure trashy treasure. What makes the good doctor's death dungeon unique is it caters to two genre audiences at once--Horror and Martial Arts.

What would really have put this wacko flick over the top would have been if Dr. Jekyll turned into a monstrous Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, there's no such transformation. The mad doctor of this low budget interpretation is more like Dr. Frankenstein, doing presumable good for mankind before ultimately slipping into madness, and eventual murder in the name of science. 

James Mathers was once a playwright and he's in his element in this movie--one that looks and feels like a stage play. Other than a couple brief shots outside his home, the entire thing takes place inside his darkly-lit, multi-story domicile. Outside of Mathers, none of the other performances are particularly memorable; although his acting tends to boil over the material, recalling Seamus O'Brien's Sardu in the notorious BLOODSUCKING FREAKS (1976), alias THE INCREDIBLE TORTURE SHOW.
Also the film's writer, Mathers gives his Jekyll a rich backstory and surrounds him with bizarre, and quite deranged characters. Among them are his lobotomized sister Hilda who, according to Jekyll, has been "hopelessly insane from birth." She suffers the most, and in one particularly brutal scene, he beats her with a whip before pouring scalding hot water onto her stomach.
Another is his mute and crippled manservant Boris. We learn that Boris was once a revered scientist, but has now been reduced to little more than a lovelorn brute who kidnaps Jekyll's soon-to-be experiments and buries them in the backyard when Jekyll is done with them.

It's revealed early on that Jekyll has devised a pituitary stimulant to crossbreed cattle, enabling the production of 30% more edible meat. In a reversal of experimenting on animals, Jekyll uses human guinea pigs instead. But where there are disturbing side effects with his bovine serum, his real intentions are to control man for his own power-hungry ends; at least that's what he says. As the film unfolds, Jekyll is beyond insane himself, seemingly using his aggression concoction as a means to satiate his growing snuff film collection wherein his subjects kill one another in increasingly brutal fights to the death.
This brings us to the martial arts battles. There are five of them. The fights are well choreographed (by Rick Alemany) and extremely brutal. They're also far more accomplished than most bigger budgeted action films where the MA is the selling point. They're largely photographed very well, with the camera far enough away you can see the move sets of both combatants in the frame with few closeups. If you've seen the James Ryan Kung Fu classic KILL OR BE KILLED (1976), the action is reminiscent of that style.
Sadly, American made MA movies would become lazy in filming fights, resulting in mediocre action footage for guys like the amazing Joe Lewis in forgettable flicks like FORCE: FIVE (1981). American filmmakers would too often keep the cameras too close, often leaving the fights a confusing mess. Chuck Norris's THE OCTAGON (1980) and Sho Kosugi's REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983), for example, were among the few US made MA films to capture the flavor of the expert choreo seen in the HK variants. DR. JEKYLL'S DUNGEON OF DEATH (1979) does this very well. 

Among the many styles he's proficient in, Grandmaster Rick Alemany's specialty is Kempo Karate. He has an impressive MA resume, having won numerous championships. One of his goals was to win Grand Champion one more time before retiring, and he accomplished that goal at the age of 42. Aside from choreographing the action in JEKYLL, Alemany worked as a technical advisor on the major Hollywood action picture, THE KILLER ELITE (1975) directed by Sam Peckinpah. Alemany is the bearded fighter in the second battle, taking on a bigger opponent (he is at right in the insert picture). The others are his students.

There's another bizarre mix of martial arts and horror in the micro-budgeted DEVIL'S EXPRESS (1976); although the MA isn't as successful as it is here. The same goes for the urban Kung Fu flick FORCE FOUR (1975). It's stunningly awful but outrageously entertaining because of it; giving KILL SQUAD (1982) a run for its money. Remaining in the horror realm, there's a segment of Joel Reed's BLOOD BATH (1976) that is built around the martial arts. It's so terrible it surely must've been intended to be so. DR. JEKYLL'S DUNGEON OF DEATH (1979) is a unique amalgamation and a genre stand-out because it mixes both genres so well.
The one area the movie slides into genuine corniness is when Boris openly carries the people he's kidnapped from his car where anyone can see. It's not like Jekyll's mansion is behind a gate with a long driveway, but in a crowded neighborhood in San Francisco. 

The first time I became aware of this insane movie was in the pages of the Creature Features Movie Guide, the 1984 revised and expanded edition. I was nine years old and was in the Waldenbooks inside the mall where I ran across this book. I immediately picked it off the shelf and began flipping the pages and was in awe of all the capsule reviews of monster pictures and the many photos accompanying them. I had to have it, so my mom bought it for me. It was the first movie guide I ever had and still have. This was author John Stanley's description, "Great-grandson of the original Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde has a serum that transforms criminals into martial arts battlers. It's a bizarre mixture of genres from San Francisco-based producer-director James Wood working from a James Mathers script. Mathers also stars as Dr. Jekyll, and Woods did his own lighting, music and sound. The one-man show is threadbare, stretched as thin as Mr. Wood himself." 
From that description, the thought of an American movie that mixed Horror and Martial Arts was something I had to see. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I was never able to find a VHS in any video store in the surrounding areas.

Apparently, VHS releases of this title looked terrible, with many noting the bad lighting. The lighting choice was intended to be dim. There's an exchange of dialog near the beginning where Professor Atkinson asks Jekyll, "do you always keep your house so dark?" Confessing he has a sensitivity to light, he keeps his home lit with very little illumination. It's an unusual, if striking choice. It adds to the stage play atmosphere as often scenes are cloaked in darkness save for the character on-camera. The use of shadow also creates some indelibly macabre imagery; such as one incredible shot of the silhouette of a hanged woman swinging back and forth behind a curtain in an upstairs window.

Seeing it restored via Vinegar Syndrome's blu-ray presentation, DR. JEKYLL'S DUNGEON OF DEATH has some advantages over other exploitation movies. Despite its unpleasantness and doubtless ability to offend some in the audience, the unusual photography and rich characterization of its lead villain show an attempt at something other than sensationalism. For those looking for violence and excess, there's the punishingly brutal Karate fights and the viciousness of the deranged Dr. Jekyll. It's never had a reputation for anything other than being virtually unknown; and it's a shame because it deserves better than being relegated to the DUNGEON of obscurity.

This review is representative of the Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray. Specs and extras: newly scanned and restored in 2K from the original 35mm negative; 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; limited to 3,000 pieces; original theatrical trailer; promotional still gallery; reversible cover; double-sided poster; English subs; running time: 01:32:23.

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