Already filmed a gazillion times, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” received two cinematic treatments in 1971: Hammer’s gender-bending Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, starring Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick, and I, Monster, one of the 22 onscreen teamings of horror film legends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I. Monster wasn’t a Hammer production, though. It was made by Amicus, the rival British studio best known for its horror anthologies (The House That Dripped Blood, Asylum) and which often purloined Hammer’s most famous stars for its projects. Despite the presence of heavyweights Cushing and Lee, Amicus easily lost the round… The film, actually a more faithful adaptation of Stevenson’s tale than the majority of those that came before or after it, is almost a complete dud.
London, 1906. Psychologist/experimental scientist Dr. Charles Marlowe (Lee), an early acolyte of Freud, is obsessed with unlocking the secrets of Man’s dual nature. What makes one human “good” and another “evil”? When not debating the issue with members of his social club, Marlowe is testing a new serum he’s developed that’s supposed to break down inhibitions and free repressed thoughts. With the drug he hopes to learn chemically what hours of tedious and often unsuccessful therapy sessions fail to: exactly what hidden aspect of his patients’ psyches is the source of their problems. To this end he’s also created an antidote which restores a person to their “normal” self.
The trial injection of Marlowe’s housecat turns the docile feline into a snarling, violent beast, forcing him to kill it. Undaunted, he recalibrates his formula and is soon confident enough to test it on humans. A female patient whose therapy isn’t getting anywhere agrees to try it. (He neglects to tell her about the incident with the cat…) A shot of the stuff morphs the prim young lady into a sex-crazed nymphomaniac, eager and willing to shed her knickers for the good doctor. Marlowe injects her with the antidote, returning her to normal – but not until AFTER he’s taken her to bed. (This is implied, not explicitly shown. She apparently doesn’t remember having sex with him so Marlowe can count this is as an incredibly successful experiment!) Later, after reducing another patient – a gruff, hard-nosed businessman – to the mindset of a whimpering child, Marlowe develops ethical pangs and concludes that for now, he should only test the drug on himself. (Not a good idea, either, it turns out.) Over the course of a series of injections, he gradually becomes addicted to his own drug and takes on the persona of the evil Mr. Blake – the “Hyde” of our story. As the antidote yields diminished returns the Blake persona takes more and more control of the doctor’s body, causing his face to become increasingly ugly and bestial. Theft and murder follow; eventually Marlowe’s friend and attorney, Utterson (Cushing), puts two and two together and realizes that Marlowe IS Blake under the influence of a psychoactive compound. (No Sherlockian deduction needed here; the fact that Marlowe told him at the club that he’d created a personality-altering drug is a big help.) But Blake knows that Utterson knows. So he tries to kill him.
As mentioned, despite the inexplicable altering of the main characters’ names (“Marlowe” and “Blake” instead of Jekyll and Hyde), this is a relatively faithful retelling of Stevenson’s novella. It’s also pretty damn dull. The script is intelligent but talky. Visually static and a bit cheap-looking, the film is further compromised by sluggish, even clumsy pacing. To wit: instead of being shown a key moment via flashback, the information is related entirely verbally to Utterson in a long, drawn-out scene in which a mutual friend, Enfield (Lust for a Vampire’s Mike Raven), describes a street encounter with Blake to Cushing’s character. Radio plays do this better, for heaven’s sake! (A possible explanation for this ham-handed scene is that I, Monster was originally to be filmed in 3-D, using a technically troublesome process. The novice director, Stephen Weeks, wasn’t up to the task [nor was the story, actually], so all the 3-D footage already shot was tossed out.)
There’s really very little to recommend in a film so dry and lethargic. We’ve seen this all before, whatever the names of the characters, and much better staged. Yet despite the poverty and blandness of the production, Christopher Lee rises to give one of his better performances. The outwardly aloof and proper Dr. Marlowe is the kind of role Lee can play in his sleep, but he gets to let his hair down a bit as the brutish Mr. Blake, a much more animated and emotional monster than he’d essay for Hammer. Peter Cushing, of course, lends his typical yeoman support. His underwritten part doesn’t permit him to command the proceedings so it’s Lee who gets to shine, and deservedly so. It’s just too bad it wasn’t in a better movie. This is perhaps the duo’s most obscure pairing and it’s very easy to see why.
I, Monster is available on DVD from Retromedia (for North American Region 1) and Warner Home Video (European Region 2). The Retromedia disc features the most complete print, in the film’s original aspect ratio, while Warner’s is a few minutes shorter and cropped to full-frame. Retromedia’s edition was culled from various video sources, however, and is the more inferior-looking of the two; a few extras – a small black and white still gallery, an extremely ragged theatrical trailer, a reproduction of the film’s English press kit as an insert booklet – are tossed in as consolation. The Warner disc contains zero bonus features.