Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976) dir. William Crain

Logline: Dr. Pryde (Bernie Casey), a respected and compassionate African American physician who donates much of his time to a free clinic in a poor black neighborhood, has been developing a serum that can heal cirrhotic livers. Being unable to achieve any definite results without a human test subject, Dr. Pryde injects himself with his own unstable serum, mutating himself into a hulking, brutish white man with a personal vendetta against black prostitutes.

Four years after he directed Blacula (1972), William Crain returned to the sub-subgenre he helped to create with Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. A competent, provocative, and well-acted film, it demonstrates Crain's significant technical and storytelling advancements as a horror filmmaker, although unfortunately he neglected to grace the genre with his presence at any other point during his infrequent career as a director. On a technical level, Dr. Black manages to include moments that, while never exactly frightening, do manage to impress with smart editing and skilled framing (I'm thinking particularly of the early scene in which a dying patient who has received a dose of Pryde's serum attacks a nurse, as well as Pryde's ultra creepy injection-based proposition of the prostitute Linda (Marie O'Henry) when she is trapped in his living room). Chief among the film's cinematic accomplishments is the climactic showdown between Pryde and the police at Watts Tower, which carries an air of desperate inevitability and crippling pathos as Pryde abandons his, well, pride and becomes a howling, dying animal. Throughout this sequence Crain and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (who would go on to have a very successful career in Hollywood) cut to devastating closeups of actor Bernie Casey's pained face, emoting achingly through layers of Stan Winston's pancake monster makeup. From a storytelling perspective, this is a much brisker and better paced affair than Blacula, with interesting characters and amusing action sequences adding some further appeal. Moreover, it uses the basics of Robert Louis Stevenson's tale not to produce cliched themes and situations, but powerful symbolic representations of race and class issues in 1970s America.

Though Dr. Pryde is a generous man, donating much of his free time to helping poor blacks from poor neighborhoods with free medicine, there's no denying that he doesn't quite fit in with other members of his race. Linda, a prostitute he's treating for hepatitis, lambasts him for this, claiming that "the only time [he's] around black people" is when he's at the free clinic "clearing [his] conscience." Pryde's response-- "Nigga, please"-- feels like a totally absurd and disingenuous comment to spill from the mouth of this very "white" suburban black man. Linda comments that his white coat suits him, insinuating that he suffers from a form of white envy: "You dress white, you think white, you probably even drive a white car." (He does). The film supports Linda's assertion every chance it gets by visually associating Pryde with the color white (white clothes, white home decor, the antiseptic white of his lab and clinic). Pryde's pride certainly doesn't lie in the "low" class and status of the majority of his fellow black brothers and sisters in 1970s urban American (as we see when he shuns Linda for making life choices she has very little control of), so when he discovers that his liver serum results in the "total reduction of pigmentation" in the skin of living beings, it's no wonder that he soon rationalizes the necessity of injecting himself with it. After doing so, Pryde transforms into a highly aggressive "white dude" who lashes out (primarily) against the poor urban black population of Los Angeles. Pryde is contrasted with Linda, the film's most sympathetic character, who-- while noting the relative ease she would have getting out of her profession if she were white, and in fact being offered the opportunity to become such by Pryde-- refuses to forsake her own color and identity in order to advance up the social ladder. She values her her black community (the only family she feels she has) and doesn't aspire to see herself above them. In contrast, Pryde lusts after a sort of power that will set him apart from others. Tragically, it's not his beneficent accomplishments that fill him with such power and pride, but his ability to look at his own monstrous hands, his own monstrous face, and see blinding whiteness.

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