Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Writer: Walerian Borowczyk, Robert Louis Stevenson
Cast: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee, Gérard Zalcberg, Howard Vernon, Clément Harari, Jean Mylonas, Eugene Braun Munk, Louis Colla
Running Time: 92 min.
By Kyle Warner
Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a graphic and savage take on the classic story. While it features a doctor who transforms into a madman, the film does not share much else in common with the Jekyll/Hyde story as I remember it. I guess you’d call it a reimagining. Still, it has a strong cast and the film often looks beautiful. For a moment there I really thought I was going to like it… But that moment passed.
Udo Kier plays Dr. Jekyll. He invites friends and colleagues to his mansion for a dinner party to celebrate his engagement to the lovely Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). The party is interrupted when a lunatic starts attacking the guests and the mansion goes into lockdown.
It’s almost like a game of Clue. It even features a similar cast of characters—the doctor, the priest, the decorated soldier, the maid, and the psycho killer. Except here there’s no mystery about who’s behind the madness. We know it’s Hyde, who is also Jekyll, and so the film takes on a strange kind of slasher movie quality. What’s puzzling is how many of the characters disappear for long periods of time without people taking notice, and only on rare occasions do the characters wonder where Dr. Jekyll is during the attacks. Also, why didn’t anyone try to leave the house? They’re in control of their own fates and could very easily flee for their lives, but instead the men give the women morphine and send them to bed while they try to trap the murderer within the house. Characters behaving like morons is something that some viewers seem willing to forgive in horror movies, but I can only take so much of it. Here, idiotic choices by the characters are one of the only things that keeps the story moving.
What makes this take on Jekyll and Hyde different than many of the others is that Jekyll enjoys his time as the monster. As Hyde he is free to be an animal, to perform heinous acts for pleasure’s sake, and be granted anonymity behind the face of another man. While Hyde is perfectly fine strangling and stabbing people, he much prefers raping his victims to death (both women and men) with his dangerously long and pointy manhood…
As an exploitation film, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne might be considered a success. As a horror film, not so much. The film doesn’t try to scare you or conjure up dread, it’s more interested in just going for shock value. And 30+ years after its release, some of the images remain shocking as it mixes violence and pornographic images.
The best example of the film going for shock value comes early on in the picture. Up until this point I thought it was a good looking film with some potential to go to interesting places later on, then this scene came along and I knew I was in for some trouble. The sequence I’m talking about is the dinner, where everyone’s sitting down and engaged in high-class conversation. In the middle of the conversation we are treated to three images from later on in the film—a violent stabbing, the pointy penis, and a naked black woman hung upside down, her crotch bloodied. None of these images have anything to do with the dinner conversation. The quick shots give you a jolt because you’re not expecting them, but it has the same artistic merits as those internet videos that were everywhere ten years ago— those videos where you’re lulled into a state of calm by images of an idyllic countryside then suddenly assaulted by a screaming crazy person on screen. Sure, it gets the shock that it’s after, but it never aims much higher than that.
The film looks very good, though. There’s a haze and sparkle to the picture, making it seem like a dream at times. The film I was most reminded of (in a good way) was Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Like that film, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne gives us a dreamlike reimagining of a classic horror story. And like Coppola, director Borowczyk had an interest in the tricks of early cinema. The result is a stylish and handsome looking film about some very ugly incidents.
Arrow Video gave the movie a full restoration for its Blu-ray release. Having not seen a previous edition of the film I cannot compare it to how it used to look on home video, but I thought the picture on this disc was very nice. The Blu-ray is loaded with special features, including interviews with Udo Kier and Mariana Pierro, two short films, featurettes about the director and his career in animation and his love for classic (often silent) cinema, and a commentary compiled of interviews with the cast and crew. It’s an impressive collection of extras that should make fans of the film happy.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne looks and behaves a bit like a dream that slowly turns into a nightmare. And like most nightmares, I just wanted to wake up and be done with it. I mean, hey, it’s an arthouse slasher horror film with a killer that murders people with his pointy penis. It’s not going to be for everyone.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 4/10