The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)
Directed by: Walerian Borowczyk
Written by: Robert Louis Stevenson, Walerian Borowczyk
Starring: Gérard Zalcberg, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee, Udo Kier
AKA DOCTOR JEKYLL ET LES FEMMES, BLOODBATH OF DR JEKYLL, THE BLOOD OF DR JEKYLL, THE EXPERIMENT, BLOODLUST
AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT: NOW, from ARROW ACADEMY
RUNNING TIME: 90 min
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A maniac chases a small child and beats her to death with his cane. Meanwhile, Dr. Henry Jeykll and Miss Fanny Osbourne are holding a party to celebrate their engagement. The guests are; General William Danvers Carew and his daughter Charlotte, Dr Lanyon, Reverend Donald Regan, chemist Mr Maw, young dancer Victoria, and publisher Mr Enfield. At the dinner table Jeykll shocks some of his guests when he talks about ‘transcendental medicine’ and really surprises Dr Lanyon when he says that he’s written a will leaving, in the case of his death, his worldly belongings to my friend, Mr Edward Hyde. Then news of the girl’s death arrives, and the killer seems to have got into the house….
One’s personal introductions to films and filmmakers are usually far less interesting for the reader or listener than they are for the person doing the writing or telling, but I will never forget my introduction to the work of Walerian Borowczyk, coming home from a night out none the worst for wear and switching on the TV to be greeted by the sight of a werewolf chasing a woman around the countryside with an enormous stiff phallus and raping her. Had somebody at the club spiked my drink with some kind of hallucinogen [though why on earth would I hallucinate that?]? The sight was so outrageous it was hard to be offended, but how even the broadminded folks at Film 4 allowed such sights to get on TV seemed somewhat baffling when I sobered up in the morning. Some weeks later the film, which was Borowzyk’s 1975 effort The Beast, was shown again and to my intense disappointment the preceding hour was actually rather boring, though this was, of course, many many years ago, and I like to think I’m a much more patient fellow regarding movies these days. Imagine the weird feeling I had though, when, about a third of the way into The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, I was again greeted by the sight of a bestial sporting a huge penis as he ravages a female. This director certainly has some strange preoccupations.
Walerian Borowczyk was a Polish filmmaker who worked primarily in France after settling there in 1959. He first made a name for himself with a series of stop-motion animated short films before he turned to features and what some would call arty erotica, his particular interest being adapting classical literature into borderline obscene movies with sly social commentary, the films at times major commercial success in Europe. Borowczyk once claimed, probably with tongue very much in cheek, that he based the screenplay for his adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case Of Dr Jeykll And Mrs Hyde on a previously lost early draft of Stevenson’s story that Borowczyk stumbled upon while doing research at Oxford’s library, and that Stevenson’s estate sued Borowczyk for slander and that he to settle out of court before the film could be released. Star Udo Keir was originally to play both Jekyll and Hyde until Borowczyk decided to do something which isn’t often done with versions of this story and have Hyde played by a different person to Jekyll. The film was not a commercial success and only played for one week in one London cinema in the UK before disappearing into virtual obscurity with a number of video releases under different titles. All UK versions lost over two minutes of violent sexual footage, and the sight of Hyde’s member. Of course Arrow here present the movie totally uncut.
So this is yet another version of a much told tale, though I was really looking forward to watching it as the source material is such an intriguing, multi-dimensional story that most versions end up having some worth. Borowczyk departs greatly from Stevenson in some ways, most notably relocating most of the action to a large house where the story plays more as a ‘body count’ movie, not to mention the ending he conceives, but,rather oddly, he gets closer in some ways to the essence of Stevenson than many other adaptations have done, even the truly classic ones like the superb 1931 movie. This Jekyll is no benefactor of humanity, but a man who preaches a philosophy of going beyond good and evil through science, and who revels in being able to commit horrendous crimes in the guise of his alter ego, while this Hyde really does seem like Stevenson’s notion of “unchained evil”, a truly horrible sadist who commits almost unspeakable crimes. Even though the viewer obviously knows that Hyde is Jekyll right from the offset, Borowczyk, like Stevenson, leaves the reveal to quite late in the movie. Jekyll sinks into the bath which is filled with the chemical he uses [shades of Countess Bathory, the subject of one portion of Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales in a film which some have said is almost a compilation of Borowczyk’s work] and re-emerges as Hyde, while soon after, in a great recreation of the familiar scene where Hyde turns back into Jekyll in front of someone, Hyde thrashes about quite unnervingly on the floor for ages before he’s revealed to have become Hyde.
The film opens in very unsettling fashion with Hyde pursuing attacking the young girl in eerie blue lighting, then follows with a gorgeously Gothic shot of people getting out of a carriage in the fog. This film often utilises classic horror tropes and then sometimes goes on to subvert them. The first third or so of the picture is very talky, even if occasionally interrupted by deliberately jarring flashforwards to atrocities to come, and some of it just seems to be there to pad out the running time, even if the characters are very well delineated. A first time may wonder where all this is going, but of course things do start to go wrong and we get a not overly explicit [this film contains some extreme material, but it’s not always dwelt on and doesn’t take up as much screen time as you might expect], but still amazingly perverse couple of scenes that made me wonder if Borowczyk is trying to put some of his less savoury sexual fantasies on-screen. A man is tied up and forced to watch Hyde having sex with his daughter, then when freed slaps his daughter about and whips her. There’s some social commentary with all this, Hyde clearly representing the depraved, monstrous characteristics of the bourgeoisie, hidden behind an elegant, sophisticated façade, though to be honest I didn’t think the film was working as well as it should, and it wasn’t always too convincing, until it’s incredibly brave ending, which is about as dangerous and subversive as you can get and almost had me cheering at its audacity. Let’s just say you’ve never seen a version of this tale conclude like this.
There’s not really enough suspense in the picture considering the premise, but Borowczyk’s liking for dwelling on seemingly innocuous but often obviously symbolic objects combines with the extraordinary cinematography of Noel Very to create an almost dreamlike feel, some shots having the characters in such soft focus that they seem to shimmer. Meanwhile the camera rarely gives us a wider view than what the human eye would be able to see meaning that we never really learn the geography of the house, while at other times black blocks out parts of the screen and we even get some hand-held shakycam that really seems ahead of its time! Along with the amazing set design by Borowczyk himself which varies constantly and sometimes seems to comment on the happening on-screen or the story’s themes, the overall look of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is quite something and always gives you something to appreciate even if the story isn’t gripping nearly as much as it ought to. Even the use of sound is often inventive, like an early scene of police finding a dead body which removes all the natural sounds you would hear except a cop telling everyone: “Make way, there’s nothing to see”.
Udo Keir is compelling as Jekyll and Gerard Zalcberg is downright terrifying as Hyde, one of the most horrible villains ever put on screen. The very culty cast also includes the Living Dead Girl Marino Pierro who in some ways has the most complex role but pulls it off very well, Howard Vernon and a hilariously over-acting Patrick Magee, the only performer heard in their original voice in the English version. I switched over several times to the French track and it flows much better than the English track though it seems to have Bernard Parmegiani’s electronic, virtually ambient and incredibly effective score played at a lower volume so it can’t get under your skin as much. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne sometimes fell a bit flat for this critic, but it’s most undoubtedly a highly interesting film and certainly worth checking out and, while it’s only sometimes actually frightening while you watch it, it retains a disturbing chill. It seems to be asking us to examine our basest sexual desires, and even dares to make us wonder if submitting to them may not be such a bad thing after all.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray is restored from the original negative and therefore looks superb, if a bit odd at times, but that is clearly because of the complex way it was photographed. Colour is very vibrant and there’s tons of detail, the film looking so interesting and even sometimes downright beautiful that it’s probably worth watching the film again, even if you don’t enjoy it, just to look out for all the stuff that you missed. Again, Arrow have gone the extra mile in providing the definitive release of a film whose fans weren’t even blessed with a DVD release. The two animated shorts, the second being a kind of tribute to Borowczyk with many allusions to his work and a really intriguing if slightly unsettling viewing experience, are especially notable, and the introduction to the film is very useful if, like me, you’re not too familiar with this filmmaker.
*Brand new 2K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative and supervised by cinematographer Noël Véry
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the film, released on both formats for the first time anywhere in the world
*English and French soundtracks in LPCM 1.0
*Optional English SDH and English subtitles
*Introduction by critic and long-term Borowczyk fan Michael Brooke
*Audio commentary featuring archival interviews with Walerian Borowczyk and new interviews with cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy and filmmaker Noël Simsolo, moderated by Daniel Bird
*Interview with Marina Pierro
*Himorogi , a short film by Marina and Alessio Pierro, made in homage to Borowczyk
*Interview with artist and filmmaker Alessio Pierro
*Phantasmagoria of the Interior, a video essay by Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez
*Eyes That Listen, a featurette on Borowczyk’s collaborations with electro-acoustic composer Bernard Parmegiani
*Happy Toy , a short film by Borowczyk based on Charles-Émile Reynaud’s praxinoscope
*Introduction to Happy Toy by production assistant Sarah Mallinson
*Returning to Return: Borowczyk and Early Cinema, a featurette by Daniel Bird
*Reversible sleeve with artwork based on Borowczyk’s own poster design
*Booklet with new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archive materials, illustrated with rare stills