Sunday, May 24, 2015


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) d. Walerian Borowczyk (France/West Germany)

A young girl is violently bludgeoned to death in a dead-end alley. A few blocks away, the opulent festivities surrounding the engagement of rebellious scientist Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and vibrant debutante Fanny Osbourne (Marino Pierro) are in full swing. In attendance are a decorated war hero (Patrick Magee), his intemperate daughter, the esteemed Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon), and the betrothed’s respective and respected mothers. Religion also has a place at the table, in the form of Reverend Guest (Clement Harari), who vocally opposes Jekyll’s notions of “transcendental medicine.” The news of the murdered youth casts a pall upon the happy occasion, but soon the bloodshed touches the moneyed inhabitants inside, sweeping through the upper crust like (and often with) a sharp blade, and always when the young doc just happens to be out of the room….

A visually sumptuous and brazenly sexploitative take on the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story of duality and societal condemnation of base desires. Polish filmmaker Borowczyk (La Bete, Immoral Tales) applies his painterly hand from the start, with blazing blue gels bathing the outdoor street scenes while amber warms the decadent interiors and rich texture.

The explicit emphasis on sex is probably the most distinctive element of Borowczyk’s vision. Even as polite society frowns upon open displays of passion, the undercurrent of lust pervades throughout. The crimes that the nefarious Mr. Hyde commits are violently sexual in nature, and we learn that the killer uses his manhood as a literal weapon, puncturing his victims’ internal organs with his long, thick, pointed shaft. (I mean, wow. And … ouch.) The camera’s (and subsequently our own) gaze leers around corners and indecorously close to the female cast members’ privates. Breasts, buttocks, vaginas, and (prosthetic) penises are on unabashed display within an art-house atmosphere of soft light and opulent production design.

The second-most notable element is the fact that, bucking years of cinematic tradition, the roles of Jekyll and Hyde are not utilized as a thesping showcase for a single actor. Kier ably plays the ambitious doctor dabbling in things best left to the gods while Gérard Zalcberg, sporting a close-cropped Caesar cut in contrast to his counterpart’s curly locks, handles the darker side of matters. As such, there are surprises and rewards to be had, most notably in the transformation scene which takes place in what appears to be a single, stunning unbroken take in a bathtub. (Rather than a drinkable potion, here Kier immerses himself to enact the change, with Zalcberg emerging from beneath the surface.)

The heightened performances will take some getting used to, especially for those new to the realm of Euro-horror, and that’s not even taking into account the obviously dubbed vocals for most of the cast (some of whom are clearly not speaking English). But after an appropriate adjustment period, Kier and lusty busty Pierro seem well matched as the eager and ripe couple, barely restraining their desire for one another. The legendary Magee, nearing the end of his varied and prolific career, emerges with his distinctive vocal quality and cadences intact, and he gives it his all, whether we ask for it or not. Zalcburg is villainously robust in what is primarily a physical performance, and the scene between he, Magee, and the general's sinful offspring is memorably kinky.

It’s safe to assume that most viewers are neither familiar with Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne in particular or Borowczky in general, but Arrow Video’s jam-packed Blu-ray presentation is bound to make new fans for both. The brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative was supervised by the film’s cinematographer Noel Very, allowing viewers to appreciate the carefully cultivated visuals for the first time since its theatrical release three decades ago. The feature-length audio commentary is comprised of archival interviews with Borowczyk, Kier, Pierro, and producer Robert Kuperberg spliced in with new remembrances by Very, editor Khadicha Bariha, and assistant Michael Levy. While you may need to brush up on your French and Italian to follow along (the track is not subtitled), trivia tidbits about. For example: Fanny Osbourne was the name of Robert Louis Stevenson’s real-life wife and the bathtub transformation is nothing but a good old fashioned camera trick from the time of Melies.

Film historian Michael Brooke, who co-produced the Blu-ray with Daniel Bird, provides a brilliant and personal 30-minute overview of the filmmaker, who began his career as a fine artist before progressing to animated short films and ultimately the erotic art-house offerings he became known for. For his part, Bird is responsible for producing most of the featurettes, providing the archive materials and rare stills that illustrate the disc’s booklet, and authoring the essay therein.

There are a trio of featurettes in addition to Brooke’s intro, the headiest of which being Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez’s video essay “Phantasmagoria of the Interior” which uses the film’s Vermeer painting as a means of connecting Borowczyk’s obsession with objects to the repressed world of his female characters. “Eyes That Listen” is a breathtaking and ear-opening look at Borowczyk’s collaborations with electro-acoustic (aka musique concrete) composer Bernard Parmegiani. Equally fascinating is an discussion with Sarah Mallinson, wife of Hungarian artist/animator Peter Foldes, about her husband’s relationship with Borowczyk as his contemporary, and their creation of the short-lived artistic collective MovArt.

A similar bounty exists in the disc’s four interviews. Regarding his second film with Borowczyk (the first being the previous year’s Lulu where he played Jack the Ripper), Kier reveals some minor bemusement over not getting to play both parts, and recalls a particularly trying day where he had to be rushed to the hospital to have the brown Hyde contact lenses removed after they had adhered to his eyes. Self-described muse Pierro discusses her first collaboration with the director, Beyond Convent Walls (1978), and their instant affinity for one another. She also expresses Borowczyk’s anger at the distributors’ various retitlings: Dr. Jekyll and His Women (France), The Blood of Dr. Jekyll (England), and In the Abyss of Delirium (Italy). Her artist/filmmaker son Alessio discusses their short tribute film, Himorogi, described as a cinematic haiku (17 minutes for the 17 syllables) which employs various costume pieces and props used in Borowczyk’s films (the veil from Love Rites, the necklace from Dr. Jekyll, etc.).

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video (through MVD Entertainment) and can be ordered HERE:

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


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