Monday, March 11, 2013

Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981)

AKA Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll, Blood of Dr. Jekyll, Bloodlust, Dr. Jekyll and Lady Osbourne, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, Dr. Jekyll and His Wives and The Experiment

According to Wikipedia, there have been well over 123 film versions of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all taking various liberties with the content of Stevenson’s original publication. Boasting perhaps as many alternate titles as Stevenson’s story has adaptations (I’m sure there’s a lot more I neglected to mention above), Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 take on the classic tale Dr. Jekyll and His Women certainly stands out from the rest of the pack as being one of the more original, sexual, violent and quite frankly out there interpretations of the story, that on the surface might seem to some as just an exercise in exploitation, but this film apparently has more in common with Stevenson’s original draft of the story (Borowczyk jokingly claimed to possess a copy for publicity purposes) that, according to legend was burned at the request of his wife Fanny on account of it being far too shocking for it‘s time. Whether or not the legend is true, what is certain is that with Dr. Jekyll and His Women, Borowczyk delivered a transgressive psychosexual horror masterpiece. It’s a film that many fans have hailed as Borowczyk’s best work, and understandably so. Personally speaking, Dr. Jekyll and His Women is not only my favorite of film version of the story, but it stands tied with Love Rites (1988) as being my favorite of Borowczyk’s features. 

In celebration of the engagement of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), a dinner party is held at Jekyll’s mansion home. When the guests disperse after dinner, Jekyll conveniently disappears from the group, retreating to his laboratory wherein he submerges himself in a bathtub full of chemicals transforming himself into the vicious Edward Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg), who then proceeds to sexually assault and murder the houseguests at random. In the midst of all the chaos, Jekyll is able to go unnoticed throughout the night, that is until Fanny catches a glimpse of him, and decides to join him in his rampage.

Setting aside the savagery for a moment, what really sets Dr. Jekyll and His Women (Dr. Jekyll et Les Femmes) apart from the rest of the pack of screen treatments of the story is the inclusion of Fanny Osbourne as a character. Borowczyk had always been rather antagonistic towards snooty upper-class society in his work and Dr. Jekyll and His Women has been considered by many to be his harshest condemnation of Victorian hyper morality. Here, Hyde is seen as a rebellious liberator, freeing not just Jekyll, but also Fanny of all the standards imposed upon them by “proper” society, the church and their parents, the later being of particular importance in Fanny’s situation, what with all the things expected of a soon to be bride. Another interesting thing about the film was Borowczyk’s choice to have Jekyll and Hyde played by two different actors, which paid off big time as Gerard Zalcberg is an exceptionally creepy looking individual making him not only the perfect Hyde but an excellent contrast to Kier’s Jekyll. Joining Kier, Pierro and Zalcberg are the legendary Patrick Magee and Euro horror icon Howard Vernon, easily one of if not the best ensembles Borowczyk ever had. The real highlight of the cast though is of course Pierro, who’s frustration quietly builds throughout the entire film, finally letting loose with reckless abandon during the films chaotic and destructive finale, one of her finest hours as an actress for sure. 

Having the events of the film take place during one night in one house was another unique touch by Borowczyk, the film plays out almost like a murder mystery type of story. Now obviously we know who the culprit is but nonetheless it was yet another interesting way of telling the story, plus it adds tension in the sense of wondering who we’re going to encounter at any given point in the film, an unassuming Jekyll or a ravenous Hyde. Borowczyk’s knack for period pieces is on display as the Victorian London aesthetic is defiantly felt from the costumes and set design. The film is one of Borowczyk’s more overtly atmospheric, the lighting playing a big part in the films mood, especially whenever Hyde is on screen. Borowczyk also makes memorable use of the color blue and fog in the certain sections of the film, most notably during the unforgettable opening. Another technique Borowczyk makes prominent use of thorough the course of the film is quick cuts, some of which are quite jarring such as cutting to a shot of the prone body of a young girl brutally bludgeoned by Hyde in the beginning of the film while a young dancer entertains the guests of the dinner party. In pure Borowczyk fashion a lot of attention is paid to the artwork in the Jekyll household, with one particular painting being of the utmost importance. You’ll know it when you see it.

As previously mentioned the film is also known by an absurd amount of alternate titles. Borowczyk originally intended the title of the film to be The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, but the producers changed it to Dr. Jekyll and His Women. The films home video history is an entirely different story in itself, for example the UK getting an heavily edited VHS release under the Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll title and the US and Canada getting a 92 minute VHS under the name Bloodlust. A Dutch VHS was released dubbed in English under the title Dr. Jekyll en Lady Osborune, yet the title screen says Dr. Jekyll and His Women with a subtitle of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne underneath it! Figure that one out. Unfortunately, the film has yet to see an official DVD release, and I know many share my opinion that one is long overdue. Until that day comes however, the easiest way to see the film is via DVD-R, the most readily available versions being sold are transfers of the Dutch VHS. No matter how you go about seeing the film, the important thing is that you see it, as a film like this is truly one of a kind and it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen the Jekyll and Hyde tale told in this fashion before. Essential Borowczyk. Essential Euro horror.

No comments:

Post a Comment