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Talking Spectacles - Airplane!, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Tuesday 23 April 2024, by Judy Harris

I spoke to film critic and stand up comedian Nick Bartlett about the Karl Strauss technique in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the mirror gag in Airplane! and the old school effects used to create the beautifully macabre world of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

I love the transformation scenes in An American Werewolf in London and The Howling but this scene beats even those. It’s a POV shot where we see Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) transform into Mr Hyde. They put red makeup on him and lit him using rotating red and green filters which changed the contours of his face - it’s a technique invented by the cinematographer Karl Strauss. It’s an optical illusion, using the camera as you would in a magic trick. It’s truly unnerving because this trick, combined with his performance, means he really looks like he’s transforming. Sh! The Octopus also used this technique and does it even more dramatically and creepily but this is a better film overall.

2. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
I tried to choose just one scene but it’s the effects throughout the whole film that combine to create an eerie, uncanny world. It’s full of time lapses, reverse motion, rear projection, painted mattes and forced perspectives. It has a really odd atmosphere, and the artifice is part of that. There are shadows that move independently, a coachman’s arm that appears creepily long and all the vampires move with an awkward, unnatural gait. Coppola used techniques from the early 1900s and hardly any CGI at all. In the same way that today the strength of many silent films is how they look rather than the acting, here the performances aren’t great (save Hopkins and Oldman) but visually it’s stunning.

3. Airplane! (1980)
This is a small but brilliant moment. Robert Stack’s character is adjusting his uniform in front of a mirror and suddenly he steps out of the mirror and walks toward the camera. It’s a Marx brothers Duck Soup moment with the false mirror – a moment of wait, what? Some other scenes have a double in the foreground but not here. It’s such a throwaway joke and I just love that. They had to go to the effort of creating another set just for this joke. If you read up about Airplane! apparently Robert Stack was one of the guys who didn’t get what the film was trying to do, he just played it straight and that adds to the silliness of him doing this surreal gag. Edgar Wright is someone who is really good at visual jokes like the Texas switch etc and I wish more people did this. I love prosthetics but that can age a film and so can CGI. But these visual in-camera tricks are timeless, they don’t date.

Any message or comments?


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