UK Blu-ray review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Year: 1981
Cast: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee, Howard Vernon
Themes: Classic Gothic, Avant Garde, Art Horror, Erotica, Rape and Pillage, Dark Fantasy

The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykll and Miss Osbourne coverWith well over one hundred (and counting) adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic text, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde– for film, TV and the stage- none are delivered in quite such a beautifully brazen way as Borowczyk’s inspired riff on the well-trodden tale: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne aka Le cas étrange de Dr.Jekyll et Miss Osbourne, Docteur Jekyll et les femmes, Blood of Dr. Jekyll , Bloodlust . Made just over a century after the original publication first circulated the director delves into gloriously debauched territory and runs riot with the underlying concepts presented in Stevenson’s narrative. The results of which are likely to have made the author blush, if he had lived to see just how far his ideas would inspire the Polish filmmaker . The film had been relegated to the ranks of “cinematic masterpieces left to float in crappy bootleg heaven”, until Arrow Films took on the weighty task to restore Borowczyk’s vision to its true cinematic beauty. In line with the other titles previously released as part of their award winning Borowczyk Camera Obscura Collection, the results exceed all expectations; demonstrating both respect and painstaking attention to detail in maintaining the director’s intended look and feel for the piece.

With so many different versions to choose from it would be well beyond the scope of this review to compare and contrast Borowczyk’s version with the rest of Jekyll’s filmic counterparts. What is important to understand is, while this one in particular is not especially faithful to the text, it does encapsulate the underlying spirit Stevenson was perhaps trying to convey, in the grandest of styles; pushing the original idea to limits it had never been before (nor indeed since), and adding in a whole new layer of sexualised subtext just for good measure. It is with a certain sense of irony that Stevenson’s- for its time- daring text, left readers to read between the lines when it came to understanding just what the villainous Mr. Hyde does when he is out on a rampage. For a book that stood to explore themes such as escaping social and moral obligation, indulgence in the purest of sins without guilt and the struggle of a man living a double life so he may satiate his base desires, the author left a lot to the imagination when it got down to the nitty gritty: Borowczyk was thankfully not so polite when it came to creating his own version.

In describing his double life as Hyde, Stevenson wrote of Jekyll…

The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise, were, as I have said, undignified. I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde they soon became to turn toward the monstrous. When I would come back from these excursions I was often plunged into a kind of wonder at my vicarious depravity. This familiar that I called out of my own soul and send forth alone to do his good pleasure was a being inherently malign and villainous. His every act and thought centred on self, drinking pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture to another. Relentless like a man of stone, Henry Jekyll sometimes stood aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Just what did Stevenson mean by undignified? Just what depravity was he talking about? He leaves it for us, the readers, to decide in our mind’s eye. Borowczyk provides no such opportunity to ponder: in his world Hyde’s sin translates to the brutal raping of house guests (both male and female), seduction of flirty young maidens ready to be defiled in front of their disapproving fathers; it translates to murder, and criminal damage of priceless artefacts, to matricide, and becoming devoured by one’s own quest for ultimate pleasure. In Stevenson’s forerunner, the most detailed scene of this ‘monstrous’ behaviour is when Hyde kicks a young child, and then after causing injury, pays off the parents with one of Jekyll’s cheques. Borowczyk interprets the very same scene in his audacious opener, when a young girl is hunted on a foggy street and beaten within an inch of her life. We later learn Hyde has tried to sexually molest the girl with a crudely designed instrument (the girl described as being around 7 or 8 years of age) and that she will not awaken from her coma following the attack. The little details such as these, imbibe the entire piece with Borowczyk’s trademark of creating a downward spiral of events, from which only tragedy can occur. This said, the ending result is not as downbeat as that last sentence might imply, far from it, the outcome is something that, while nihilistic, keeps an electrifying pace throughout, before closing on a frenzied and breath-taking conclusion.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Not one to stand on ceremony Borowczyk takes Stevenson’s essence, and presents it in concentrated form. The story takes place over the space of a night- unlike Stevenson’s brooding pace that covers months- where guests have assembled to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). Over dinner there is talk of Jekyll’s revolutionary work in transcendental medicine- for which the medical community have generally scoffed at him-, before the civilised atmosphere turns to chaos when a maniac breaks into the house and starts attacking people. Of course the audience know Jekyll and this crazed stranger are but one and the same; the transformation achieved not through the traditional route of partaking in a fizzing cordial but rebirth by bathing in what could be described as a tub full of blood red amniotic fluid. Upon indulging in this practice Mr. Hyde is brought forth, and set to cause anarchy in the respectable household. Preying on the guests one by one in his quest to rape and pillage. As everyone runs and screams for their lives, Miss Fanny is drawn to the dark stranger, watching closely in the wings, she looks to open the secret her beloved Henry has kept hidden from her, in turn unleashing a dark side dormant within her own self. Freudian subtext flows throughout the proceedings, while the filmmaker embraces sadism and debauchery in epic Grand Guignol style. It is as if Freud’s ID is unleashed into the world without the constrictions of its egotistical counterparts, resulting in catastrophe for all involved.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Of course, when it comes to Borowczyk it’s not all about the technicalities of story, but the telling in visual terms. As usual we see the filmmaker’s exquisite painterly approach to working with the medium leave no stone unturned. We have the typical Borowczyk baroque staging to behold. Gorgeous antique artefacts adorn the set and elaborate period costume aids to create the perfect ambience and aesthetic. The director creates a twilight world through misty, hued lighting that creates a diffused glow in many of the scenes; in essence mapping out a dreamlike netherworld of dark fantasy that is both inviting and terrifying. Borowczyk uses the labyrinth effect of the main house, where matters take place, to further the overall effect of intoxication and delirium for the viewer. Bernard Parmegiani’s score also becomes something of major note. The soundscape creates a mystical and hypnotic effect before bursting into periodic dramatic accents to drive home the central message of drama and depravity. The hypnotic, droning, electronic score is a far cry from the director’s preferred choice of cheerful period harpsichords to be found in some of his other features, yet it fits the piece to perfection- thankfully so, anything of lighter tone could have risked a Benny Hill situation when Hyde is chasing his game up and down stairwells.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Udo Kier as the misguided young Doctor Jekyll is perfect casting for the role. What better person to fill the shoes of a classical text, given a flamboyant Euro-cult make-over, than the same actor who gave such avant garde performances with gothic icons Dracula and Frankenstein; in Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974), consecutively. Although here, despite his dramatic thrashing in Hyde’s bathroom womb, and his lustful behaviour toward Miss Fanny, he injects far less camp into the role than demonstrated in the previous two films. This aside, while The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is not as overtly comedic as the aforementioned art-horror masterpieces, the three do make the perfect triple bill, given the Udo connection. Marina Pierro, who worked extensively with Borowczyk over the period of the decade, carries with her a fantastic energy on-screen in her part as Fanny Osbourne. The role was created by the director as an ode to Robert Louis Stevenson’s real-life wife, but also brings the work in line with his usual ethic of having female-centric, or female driven plots. Although Pierro doesn’t steal the show completely- the dynamic between the star and her male counterpart Udo Kier creates sparks, the two sharing the limelight- there is the opportunity here to bring in some of the director’s other favoured motifs like the subtext of female sexual awakening. Pierro’s role here does bear some parallels to the part she played for Jean Rollin in The Living Dead Girl, which was made a year later; not explicitly so, but there are some common thematic traits to be found between the two roles; a point which might be of some interest to fans of the star.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne What is interesting is the added dimension of male/female duality as well as the traditional good/evil slant, that Borowczyk injects through Pierro’s character and performance . Although Hammer had already dabbled with a transgressive gender focused theme with their early seventies oddity Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), the director here brings in the element of a female character separate from the Jekyll and Hyde identity, in her own right, concluding in some very interesting results.

The incarnation of Hyde is encapsulated in the rodent-like performance of Gérard Zalcberg (Faceless (1987)). This taps into Stevenson’s original premise of having Hyde with a physically altered appearance to Jekyll. It also avoids the potential for a tone undermined by bad make-up effects- as sadly is the case for many interpretations; for example Hammer’s The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). With all respect to the actor, Zalcberg, he does look genuinely creepy without the need for make-up, but maybe that’s just testament to the incredible performance he gives in his role has Mr. Hyde.

Among the supporting cast, and giving fine renditions in their parts, are Patrick Magee as the ostentatious General and Jess Franco favourite Howard Vernon as Dr. Lanyon. Magee is especially pompous and thoroughly entertaining in his role; it is worth weathering the English dub to get his own voice on that track, as he pumps out lines with a sense of occasion and in an overly dramatic fashion which makes for some prime entertainment.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne While the main reason to buy this disc is to get the only restored version of this lost masterpiece anywhere in the world, it has to be mentioned that this new edition comes packed to the rafters with especially valuable extra material. As well as the audio commentaries, and new interviews with Udo Kier and Marina Pierro- both of which give brilliantly detailed accounts of working with the late director- ,Borowczyk experts Michael Brooke and Daniel Bird also bring their extensive knowledge to the table to provide some interesting insight, and important context. We also get two short films, and some additional documentary and essay material to provide a completely immersive experience. The full details and specs are as follows:

  • Brand new 2K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative and supervised by cinematographer Noël Véry
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the film, released on both formats for the first time anywhere in the world
  • English and French soundtracks in LPCM 1.0
  • Optional English and English SDH subtitles
  • Introduction by critic and long-term Borowczyk fan Michael Brooke
  • Audio commentary featuring archival interviews with Walerian Borowczyk, Udo Kier, Marina Pierro and producer Robert Kuperberg, and new interviews with cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy and filmmaker Noël Simsolo, moderated by Daniel Bird
  • Interview with Marina Pierro
  • Himorogi (2012), a short film by Marina and Alessio Pierro, made in homage to Borowczyk
  • Interview with artist and filmmaker Alessio Pierro
  • Video essay by Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez
  • Eyes That Listen, a featurette on Borowczyk’s collaborations with electro-acoustic composer Bernard Parmegiani
  • Jouet Jouyeux (1979), a short film by Borowczyk based on Charles-Émile Reynaud’s praxinoscope
  • Interview with Sarah Mallinson, former assistant to Borowczyk and fellow animator Peter Foldes
  • Returning to Méliès: Borowczyk and Early Cinema, a featurette by Daniel Bird
  • Theatrical trailer with optional commentary by editor Khadicha Bariha
  • Reversible sleeve with artwork based on Borowczyk’s own poster design
  • illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archive pieces by Walerian Borowczyk and Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues

For the print, well it goes without saying you aren’t going to get better than this. And it is evident there has been an acute attention to detail given in the restoration process to uphold the director’s original aesthetic. The result is particularly impressive. While the print is not extremely detailed- given the misty effects, phosphorescent lighting, and camera equipment used- you really get a faithful representation for the look and feel that the director intended.

Taking all this into consideration, and following their stellar release of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (which we reviewed here), this has to be a contender for release of the year- alongside the forementioned- from Arrow Films. Check out their official site here for more details.


Categories: 80's horror, arthouse, Euro Horror, Reviews

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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