There was plenty of treasure in the works of Robert Louis Stevenson for budding filmmakers to unearth, none more so than in his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde written in 1886. It’s an eldritch gas-lit, Victoriana horror tale of science going very wrong that I am sure is familiar to everyone. From 1921 with John Barrymore in the schizophrenic lead in John S Robertson’s adaptation it has been represented on screen big and small countless times. Not all the versions are completely straight-laced and aberrations of the theme such as Roy Ward Baker’s Doctor Jekyll And Sister Hyde (1971) have twisted the tale but also been highly enjoyable and who can forget the Carry On team’s screaming homage to it in 1966? Probably my favourite version saw Anthony Perkins really hamming it up on screen in Gérard Kikoïne’s 1996 version Edge Of Sanity. Nobody really topped Perkins split personality better and his Mr Hyde was truly dastardly and malevolent.
Following on from his success with films such as The Beast and Immoral Tales Walerian Borowczyk put his own spin on things with the oddly entitled The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne in 1981. The film also put out much to the directors annoyance in some territories as ‘Docteur Jekyll et les femmes’ had Hyde played by the excellently expressive Udo Kier which is pretty much a match made in heaven, especially after he hammed things up so fantastically in Paul Morrissey’s Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula, having him play another Universal great seemed like a great idea. For some reason though and I am not sure if it was due to transformation scenes and perhaps the extras will shed some light on this, the role of Hyde is played by another actor Gérard Zalcberg, appearing in his debut feature.
After a girl in a blue lit ice cold street literally has ‘the stuffing knocked out of her’ by a cloaked figure with a big stick we go to the films mansion location which is pretty much where everything takes place from now on. A collection of upper crust, doctors, scholars and gentry are assembling for the engagement party of Jekyll and his betrothed Fanny (no giggling that’s her name) played by the rather gorgeous Marina Pierro. Miss Osbourne is rather a simmering sexpot and it is not surprising that the doc can’t wait to get his hands on her in a scene that simmers with Borowczyk tried and tested erotic flair. The guests all gather for dinner and it’s a very interesting meal for the viewer to sit in on as the gabble about transcendence and medicine and we gradually come to the conclusion that they are all a bit on the bonkers side. Stealing every scene he is in is the verbose and volatile General, all clad in striking red military regalia and played with panache by Patrick Magee. Then there’s the likes of Doctor Lanyon who obviously does not agree with Jekyll’s medical conclusions played by veteran actor Howard Vernon. The cast here is certainly strong.
Basically what we get is an old dark house, a murder taking place and everyone charging around like headless chickens not knowing what is going on or who is next. Obviously the viewer is well aware that Jekyll and Hyde are running amuck between them and it’s great fun to watch. The General accidently shoots a coachman outside apologising with the line “Misfortune follows misfortune. Madame, I have murdered your chauffeur. My humblest apologies.” Well that’s ok then. Jekyll holds him and his sexpot daughter captive but she decides she kind of likes the idea of being ravaged and comes out of the cupboard she is hiding in breasts spilling out her corset and allows the beastly Dr to ravish her. It is here that we discover his weapon of choice is a large, long and pointed and obviously very fake penis that is guaranteed to cause internal damage. One pretty boy at the party is later found buggered and bloody, another victim of the mad doctor’s lust.
I was really rather reminded of Curt Mcdowell’s infamous 1975 feature Thundercrack here and have to wonder if it was any inspiration, this certainly has the insanity and the setting at its heart. Also comparisons have to be made to Walerian’s own most beastly picture as it shares many similarities to it from the soon to be wed main cast to raging and outrageous todgers! Despite the whacky plot it is not a film without one hell of a lot of skill behind it and Borowczyk has as ever paid a huge amount of attention to the visual make up of the film and the aesthetics and look of it. Everything looks meticulously prepared to get the most out of each individual scene and make the set and camera movement really follow things sumptuously about. The music by Bernard Parmegiani works very well despite seeming an odd choice at first. It certainly doesn’t fit the setting of the film as it is mainly made up of repetitive drone and occasional sharp cadences that would not have been out of place with the Kraut rock bands around when this was being made, or indeed many contemporary acts aping it within the doom and stoner scene at the moment.
This was the first time that I had seen this film and I really enjoyed it. Arrow have taken a lot of care and attention to polish it up and I have seen other people who saw it previously no doubt back in its VTC video days saying that it looks like a completely different film as old prints were obviously so degenerated. It’s a hallucinatory romp and one that the stoners reading this may well appreciate sparking something up whilst watching to add to the downright insanity of what is happening. The dialogue is at times priceless and I couldn’t help thinking that the people involved were no doubt the ones that would have been off to work after the party to dice with people’s lives in a place such as HBO’s brilliant hospital The Nick. The aftermath of this particular gathering is rather like Ken Russell’s Gothic, any hangovers are going to be immense. If I had the time I would have double billed this with Jess Franco’s Jack The Ripper (1976) and could not help thinking what the results would be if Klaus Kinski played Jekyll and Kier The Ripper?
Moving on to the extras and they are quite a varied lot, not including the commentary track they run for around the two hour mark. First up a very brief rediscovered Boro short ‘Happy Toy’ showing animated Praxinoscope illustrations. Then there’s a homage to his style by Marina and Alessio Pierro called ‘Himorogi’ which is apparently a sacred space or altar. This is a 16 minute collage of images put to strange disconnected and avant-garde sounds that don’t even quite deserve describing as actual music (also by Parmegiani). It’s highly experimental and weird and the shadowy black and white photography is all rather strange and spooky. Moving onto colour and ambient soundscapes it’s highly experimental and intriguing. Luckily later on the disc there is an interview with Alessio which helps interpret what we are seeing a bit. Also on the interview front Udo Kier talks about his time working with Borowczyk including on a film called Lulu (1980) which I now very much want to see as apparently he plays Jack The Ripper in it, so those earlier wish I mentioned did very much come to fruition. He doesn’t seem to know why he did not play both Jekyll and Hyde either. There’s a fairly lengthy chat with Marina Pierro which I guess was recorded just on audio as it is accompanied by stills and photos rather than her sitting there talking. She had been in films for Walerian from Behind Convent Walls and very much became his muse starring in a few of his films as well as Jean Rollins Living Dead Girl (1982).
Moving on to the documentary section there is a fairly in depth appreciation piece about Borowczyk by Michael Brooke an enthusiast of his work and co-producer of this Blu-ray. I was a bit concerned this was going to all be a bit on the highbrow side but quickly found myself enthralled as we were taken back to the time when sneaking underage into cinemas Brooke discovered this film on a limited run and gained his passion for all things Borowczyk. From here we get a crash course nicely summed up and neatly explained from his work within the Polish avant-garde animation genre and his evolution into making feature films. This proves to be a great half hour look into the art, work and films of Walerian as well as a good companion piece to Dr Jekyll explaining the work done on it to get it shown again today as close as possible to the way that the director would no doubt have intended. A flash through of some of the alternative video art sleeves and titles did surprise too, I had no idea that this is also the film that did the rounds as ‘The Experiment’ and although I never watched the video I certainly remember it on the shelf at various video libraries back in the day. There’s an informative piece on the directors interior design work within the film that unveils many interesting things that really get you thinking and then we have a segment about the music of Bernard Parmegiani, especially of interest as I knew nothing about him. Obviously I should have done as it is mentioned that his work continues to inspire artists such as Autechre, Scanner and Cyclobe today.
Along with a couple of other short features, trailers, booklet and naturally reversible sleeve art Arrow have gone all out to present this feature in a wholly authoritative package for both its UK and USA dual debut on DVD and Blu-Ray. The company are certainly championing Borowcyzk’s work of late and hopefully they may have more yet to come as I am sure I’m not the only one who has gained a great appreciation for his films due to their exhaustive efforts.