The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: May 12th, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The characters in Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne often speak about transcendence during scientific debates that can barely conceal what the long time European provocateur really had on his mind for this film. Rather than scientific transcendence, this is a film specifically about trespassing on moral and physical boundaries before completely transgressing them in an effort that stretches Robert Louis Stevenson’s original tale to its perverse limits. If that novella was borne out of Victorian-era tension between private and public spheres, then this twisted riff is akin to flaying that period’s skin and burying it once and for all.
Considering this age is especially considered in terms of its prudish sexual hang-ups, it’s no wonder Borowczyk goes straight for the loins. Sensing his audience’s familiarity with the tale, he opens in the middle of the madness: a young girl flees in terror through desolate London streets, her pursuer obscured by shadows and fog. When the encounter ends in bloodshed, we suspect it to be Dr. Hyde, the murderous alter-ego of Dr. Jekyll (Udo Kier), even if the latter is hosting an engagement party blocks away. Dignitaries arrive to celebrate his upcoming wedding to the Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), blissfully unaware that the groom-to-be harbors a deadly secret that will engulf the festivities in pure sadism.
With this story having been thoroughly exhausted by countless adaptations, Borowczyk reduces the intricacies of its plot to mere context. To say he takes liberties with the original text is an understatement and, indeed, part of the point: liberation is a theme that extends to the text itself, which is only barely dressed in Stevenson’s original clothing before it’s summarily ripped away and ravished by Borowczyk’s desire to revel in its perverse margins. While Jekyll and Hyde’s sexual exploits are muted in the novella, they’ve naturally been a source of intrigue for critics and audiences for years, and this film forcefully shoves them to the forefront. Here, Hyde’s crimes are particularly marked by a streak of sexual deviance: he’s not preoccupied with murder so much as he is fucking everything in his path.
Repression is hardly an issue for Borowczyk, who doesn’t shy away from the graphic details of these assaults. His gaze captures prostrate bodies (both male and female) with blood splashed around their various orifices, victims of Hyde’s throbbing, absurdly-sized manhood. His cock inspires a mixture of horror and awe from those left behind to literally measure the gaping holes it leaves in its wake. Viewers don’t have to guess at its size, as Borowczyk leaves little to the imagination by revealing the massive prosthetic multiple times, forcing them to confront its unholy size. Where the doctors and well-mannered men deal in statistics to determine its width and girth, the audience is assaulted by this unreal instrument of sexual torture and death. These repressed men—who quickly diagnose Hyde’s crimes as the working of a degenerate—can’t see the forest for the trees: they're so preoccupied with making sense of a situation that they never think to really meet it.
It’s interesting how the film itself also feels rather disinterested in neither exploring conflict nor reveling in its own schlock. Most films featuring something as ridiculous as a foot-long monster penis would likely be played for laughs, but The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne isn’t completely preoccupied with graphic violence (in fact, many of the actual deaths occur off-screen). Dismissing it as smut is difficult as well since it’s more disturbing than it is erotic. Truly, this is an elusive picture, one that refuses to reveal its hand until a rapturous climax unites Dr. Jekyll and his fiancé in a lust for carnal intimacy. Until then, it’s almost like a cloistered chamber play set in dreary, sparse sets to reflect this society’s decline, with the Victorian penchant for ornamentation and excess only arising whenever the party guests fawn over one absurd object (a painting, a sculpture, etc.) or another.
None of these materials matters, of course, and the sycophants spilling into Jekyll’s home remain oblivious to the fatalistic air surrounding them. As authorities scrape the body of a girl from the streets outside, they fawn over the items in Miss Osbourne’s dowry, unaware that death engulfs them. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne has an odd vibe: it’s languid but not lifeless, deliberate but not without some vague notion of intensity guiding it. Borowczyk leans heavily on the dreamy Eurohorror aesthetic of his peers (right down to the moody electronic score) but infuses it with his own brand of inevitable dread. As the revelers discuss tedious academia, flashes of savage future events interrupt the scene: there is no escaping the violence waiting within these walls. If the film doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry in embracing any sort of narrative, it’s because it’s set itself to capturing a decaying bourgeoisie in its lazy splendor. Its end is foretold not only by Borowczyk’s ominous editing flourishes but also by history.
As is the case with most eras, history has a complicated relationship with the Victorian era, a period marked by both great progress and the deep shame of colonialism. Stevenson’s story captures the schism at its heart: Dr. Jekyll is the debonair exterior attempting to repress the urges of an id that barely separates him from the supposed savages in the further corners of the earth. Few things would have been more horrifying for the upper class than the intimation that they were only barely removed from the inhabitants of the “Dark Continent” that repulses Jekyll’s visitors in this film. This film twists Stevenson’s famous conceit into true schizophrenia: Kier is only Dr. Jekyll, while the alter-ego his played by Gerard Zalcberg, whose face is often draped in shadows and rendered inhuman by heavy makeup.
Depicting them as two completely different men starkly contrasts the two in a way that makes the sociopathic Hyde more appealing. By comparison, Jekyll is a wan, sickly, ineffectual goon who evokes Kier’s earlier, similar turns in Paul Morrissey’s Dracula and Frankenstein riffs. Hyde, at least, pulses with a lively animal magnetism; he may be all animalistic instincts, but at least he feels something, including a righteous sense of justice as he plows through this aristocracy. The Strange Case presents a Victorian nightmare of upheaval as it embraces Hyde’s madness, especially during its climax, where Hyde’s fiancée meets the carnage not with revulsion but with open arms.
In one of his last acts of defiance, Borowczyk has Fanny indulge in Hyde’s potion bath and join in with the destruction. Like Hyde, she becomes a wild-eyed creature with a ravenous appetite for devastation, and, together, the couple becomes a libertine avatar for Borowczyk’s satiric preoccupations. As the two slaughter their guests and toss their possessions into a fire, it’s hard not to sense the same sort of simmering anger found in Louis Bunuel’s work. His setting may be Victorian in nature, but you can’t help but wonder if this film isn’t a reaction to the hypocritical strand of conservatism growing around him. Over the course of four decades, Borowczyk pushed the limits of decency, and this is a forceful effort that doesn’t relent until its final frame.
For his climactic gambit, he strikes with unbridled femininity and sexual liberation, two notions that Victorians (and neocons) would find galling. Borowczyk hints at this throughout: upon her introduction, Fanny Osbourne is wildly horny (and it hardly seems coincidental that Pierro spends most of the film nearly spilling right out of her top), while a general’s daughter plays a willing accomplice in Hyde’s rampage, going so far as to allow him to ravish her right in front of her father (who is disgusted and naturally beats her when given the first chance).
Perhaps nothing is more topsy-turvy than the idea that women could willingly engage in and enjoy sex; the Victorian ideal of “a place for everything and everything in its place” is thoroughly ravaged by the feverish climax here. Everything blends together, from the lovers’ dual identities to the line between fucking and lovemaking: in the end, delirium consumes all, even the untamed beasts. As the lovers steal away in a carriage, your mind can't help but drift back to one of Hyde's first victims: a young girl named Victoria, now left battered, bruised, and completely violated, much like the era bearing her namesake.
A long sought-after “holy grail” for cult enthusiasts, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne finally arrives on home video in America courtesy of Arrow Video. Despite a disclaimer regarding the audio and video quality, the transfer is a stellar restoration that preserves the film’s hazy, soft focus aesthetic. Purists will be pleased to discover that both the English and French language tracks have been maintained as lossless PCM mono options here.
Extras are more than plentiful: a patchwork commentary featuring archive material from Borowczyk, cinematographer Noel Very, editor Khadicha Bariha, Michael Levy, Noel Simsolo and moderator Daniel Bird is supplemented by separate interviews with Kier and Pierro for a rather complete look at the film. Bird also narrates a short feature documenting Borowczyk’s relationship with early silent cinema and provides liner notes for the accompanying booklet. Michael Brooke helms an appreciation for Miss Osbourne with a visual essay tackling both this film in particular and its director’s work in general. Similarly, filmmakers Marina and Alessio Pierro present “Himorogi,”a short film inspired by Borowczyk’s work. One of Borowczyk’s own early short films also appears, as does a featurette dedicated to his collaborations with composer Bernard Parmegiani. Finally, the film’s original trailer rounds out the wealth of supplements.
Considering the film’s themes, it’s almost ironic that this release is so lavish, but one can hardly complain when such an under-seen film finally receives the treatment it deserves. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is a masterwork from one of cinema’s great provocateurs released at the height of the Eurohorror's golden era. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: