The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne

Docteur Jekyll et Les Femmes | France/West Germany | 1981 | Directed by Walerian Borowczyk

Logline: In 19th Century London a homicidal sex maniac infiltrates an engagement party and begins to terrorise and assault the guests and hosts. 

Has there been a tale told more times on the silver screen than "The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde"? Perhaps only the tale of "Count Dracula" in all his undead guises, or perhaps that other elegant ghoul, the "Phantom of the Opera". Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, apparently penned in a cocaine-fuelled three-day frenzy, is a true fable of human times, vintage and contemporary; the moral grey that seethes and recedes in the mind, the carnal desires, the fear and hatred, the sensual beast, the fragile creature, the civilised and bestial, the tempered and berserk. 

The late Polish maverick and ciné provocateur Borowczyk delivered two great indulgences in aberrant eroticism, Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975), although he had been making films since the mid-40s, but it is this loose adaptation, yet tight in amoral conjecture, of Stevenson’sfamous novella that is his crowning achievement, despite its cramped interiors and stilted performances. It is a phantasmagorical pantomime of perverse proclivities!

Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) is hosting a small soirée to celebrate his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). The guests; various dignitaries, officials and relatives, including Fanny’s mother, have arrived at the doctor’s Victorian residence, which also houses his laboratory. They mingle and admire the artwork and ornamental weaponry, whilst the doctor discusses his will with colleague Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon). Should something happen to Jekyll, the will can only be disclosed to his confidante, Mr. Edward Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg), whom no one has seen. 

Shortly after there is a violent incident within the household; one of the guests, a young ballerina, has been found raped and murdered, and the vicious intruder assaulted Miss Osbourne, and is now on the loose. It is every man and woman for themselves. The poor butler outside is mistaken for the killer and shot dead by General Danvers Carew (Patrick Magee). The psychopath is definitely still inside. 

Soon, the identity of the fiend is revealed, but the real secret is yet to be exposed. Miss Osbourne is desperate to be reunited with her fiancé, but he inexplicably eludes her, and everyone else. He has retreated once again to his lab, and to the security of his precious cache of Solicor, the transcendental medicine that is feeding his hunger for sensory exploration and moral abandonment. 

Bororwczyk’s intended title, and the one that it originally screened under at Sitges Film Festival, winning him an award for Best Feature Film Director, was rejected by his producers who insisted it be known as Dr. Jekyll and His Women. But the substitute title is entirely misleading, as Mr. Hyde doesn’t discriminate, ravaging and ravishing both men and women within Dr. Jekyll’s labyrinthine abode. Hyde is entirely amoral and polyamorous. He is also a sadist and a sensualist. Jekyll and Hyde are a contradiction and a juxtaposition, further complicated by the feminine spanner in his masculine works, Miss Osbourne, who is determined not to lose her lover. 

It is startlingly erotic (Mr. Hyde displays his engorged, scarlet member a couple of times, most notably as he takes a consenting blonde guest from behind as she fondles a sewing machine in front of her!) and wonderfully atmospheric, filmed by Noël Véry with a delicious diffused light, on what seems to be an elaborate multi-level set, both interior and exterior. The action takes place over one night - in fact daylight never makes an appearance, for this is a narrative that forges through the night time of the soul. While the movie’s most memorable scene, it’s transformative centrepiece, takes place in Jekyll’s secret bathroom, where he fills his bathtub with water and empties a vial of the active ingredient into it, then, in a seemingly unbroken shot the twitching Jekyll submerges his naked body into the sepia water and re-emerges as the lascivious, snake-like Hyde. 

Borowczyk has grabbed his tale by the horns and straddles the beast with theatrical zeal and surrealist pleasure. Indeed, this movie is a beast unto itself, snarling and snorting. Succumb, and acquire its coppery, salty taste, letting yourself be ravished by its oneiric, ripe design, complete with Bernard Parmegiani’s magnificent, minimalist score, so desolate and seductive. Admire Udo Kier in, arguably, his greatest performance, be mesmerised by Zalcberg’s grotesquerie, and delighted by Pierro, her voluptuous innocence dissolving, her passion smouldering … their union congealing. 

Love is a cruel, raw fever.

“Long live the novelty of my sensations!”