The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Review
It is certainly something of an acquired taste
Movies reviewWhilst a bevy of pompous house-guests bicker over his theories on transcendental medicine, the esteemed Dr. Henry Jekyll’s potion addiction proves that they will, one by one, become intimately and fatefully acquainted with his new discovery. For, lurking in the shadows of a vast London mansion is his alter-ego, Mr. Hyde, a primal force of absolute depravity and evil, unleashed without moral restraint, nor mercy. Though perhaps the love and devotion of Miss Fanny Osbourne can quell the raging beast? Or maybe... she’ll just make things worse.
Set over one night of sadism, sleaze and slaughter, Polish-born cult filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk’s once censor-troubling voyage through bestial split-personalities pokes an absurdist finger in the eye of Victorian repression and makes for one of the more unusual examinations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous and oft-adapted novel. With genre veteran Udo Kier playing the misguided doctor, Gerard Zalcberg as the volatile, brow-less Mr. Hyde and Marina Pierro as the sultry Renaissance paramour, Miss Osbourne, who must somehow tame them both, Strange Case is a dreamy riot of sexual anarchy and unbridled desires.
Udo Kier has never shied away from the more extreme and avant-garde end of the horror spectrum. With lead roles in the nasty Mark of the Devil and the Paul Morrissey/Andy Warhol 3D extravaganzas Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, a guest cameo in Argento’s Suspiria and walk-ons in the likes of Blade, Feardotcom and the dreadful Mother of Tears, he seems to savour claret-flavoured outings, the more flamboyant the better. And considering he has played both Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula, as well as Jack the Ripper in Borowczyk’s own Lulu, it is really only fitting etiquette that he should essay the foolhardy scientist Doctor Jekyll to round out that grisly roster of Victorian horror poster-boys. That said, he inevitably plays second fiddle to the outrageous performance from Gerard Zalcberg, whose feverish intensity and insane antics certainly linger in the mind.
Despite chronicling a bizarre and bloody rampage, Strange Case, like the novel it is based upon, is really a sideswipe at social mores and the psychological duality of the supposedly moralistic. The repressed sexuality of the 19th century has long been utilised to expose the lecherous core of the aristocracy, but the notion gains its most visceral, demented and inordinately beautiful treatments here. If there is any substance to the fact that Stevenson’s first draft of Dr Jekyll was ripe with soon-to-be-removed fervent erotica, then it seems apparent that Borowczyk has totally embraced it and produced what could, indeed, be one of the most faithful “alternate universe” adaptations of the literary classic.
Yet, even as graphic and grotesque as it can be, I would hesitate to call Borowczyk’s production a “horror” film. The art-house sensibility and the arch atmosphere of decadent observation do not lend themselves to any degree of fear, or even revulsion, despite the copious killings and the rampant sexual violence. The overall mood evoked is one of perverse curiosity and sardonic bemusement. This is not to denigrate what Borowczyk had achieved. Far from it. I find the film to be weirdly compelling and daftly entertaining, essentially wrought-about by the ogreish and demonstrative performance from Patrick Magee, who died a year after making this. But it is certainly something of an acquired taste, and if you come to it expecting conventional thrills and chills, or some thoughtful dissection of the emotional and psychological damage of a split-persona, you will surely be disappointed. It is definitely a genre film but, in true Borowczyk fashion, it skews towards the temptingly theatrical, and takes a few meandering esoteric turns along the way.
Personally, I enjoyed this rather left-field take on Stevenson’s classic beast-in-man tale, but I can appreciate that it will not appeal to a great many people. Neither outright horror nor parlour-room satire, Strange Case has shades of the soft-porn farce, a sprinkling of acid-tinged surrealism and lashings of darkly amusing perversity. Whilst gender-baiting and taboo-breaking, Borowcyk’s notorious film is a sumptuous visual treat that is too flamboyant to be truly nasty, and much too decorative to disturb. Nevertheless, once seen, it is not easily forgotten.
Oddball and eccentric, it may be... but I still recommend The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne for those who like their perversions a little more refined.
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