The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) – By Roger Carpenter


On the evening of his engagement celebration to Ms. Fanny Osbourne (Marine Pierro), a number of guests gather at Henry Jekyll’s (Udo Kier) manor. These include General Carew (Patrick Magee), Jekyll’s closest friend, Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon), and many others. Shortly after a contentious dinner where Dr. Lanyon berates Jekyll for his wasted effort in transcendental chemistry, the party is disrupted by the police who are investigating the attempted rape of a young girl. The girl will survive, but she has been mercilessly beaten by someone who is clearly unhinged and extremely violent. Shortly thereafter one of the maidens of the household is found murdered in her bedroom, violently raped by someone with an impossibly large organ. The rest of the women are sequestered and the men fan out to discover just who this evil soul may be. As bodies begin to pile up it becomes clear the murderer is one of the party. Will the killer be discovered before all are dead? Ms. Fanny finally discovers the secret when she witnesses her lover transform into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg). Now it’s Fanny against Hyde in a cat-and-mouse chase for survival.

Walerian Borowcyzk’s take on Dr. Jekyll has a strange title but in many ways this unique version of the transformative tale is also loyal to the original story. Fanny Osbourne was Robert Louis Stevenson’s real-life fiancée when he wrote the original Jekyll/Hyde story. Osbourne was so appalled at the content she begged her husband to destroy the manuscript, which he did, completely rewriting the story as the novella we know so well today. So, while the filmic title sounds a bit confusing, Borowcyzk’s addition of a new character into the mythology makes sense. There are plenty of familiar and iconic scenes as well, such as the Hyde’s run-in with the little girl at the beginning (though he is represented as a stalker with an intent to commit foul play rather than simply a callous man unbothered by the trampling of a child as in the source material). There is also the scene whereby Jekyll gives his will bequeathing all his wealth to a mysterious Edward Hyde to his lawyer. And finally, the idea that the drug Jekyll has taken has overcome hid physical body and he can no longer control his transformations, is also present.

But this is Borowcyzk, so there are some major differences in plot; namely, the sexualization of Edward Hyde, who not only kills at random, but rapes both women and men. And, along with changing from the urbane Dr. Jekyll to the evil and hideous Mr. Hyde, there is another very important change: Hyde’s penis is quite large. In fact, it’s large enough to cause enough hemorrhaging during sex to cause the victim to bleed to death, as evidenced by at least two murders. The two scenes that push this arthouse horror film into pornographic territory is the molestation of General Carew’s daughter. Plenty eager to experience Hyde’s prowess, Charlotte Carew bends over the sewing table and lifts her skirts. In a shot reminiscent of the horse copulation scene in Borowcyzk’s earlier The Beast, we clearly see Hyde’s large, erect member as he consummates the sexual act with Charlotte. Soon thereafter Hyde then attacks a lovely young man. Again, we see the engorged (and clearly fake) member as well as the bloodied bottom of the victim once the corpse is discovered.

The film unfolds quite languidly (some might describe it as “slow”). There is the arrival of the guests and some entertainment at the piano as well as some dancing before the guests engage in lively dinner conversation about the veracity of Jekyll’s work in transcendental chemistry. Some will see this as pretentious and slow, but the conversation sets up the action later on in the film as well as the tension between Dr. Lanyon and Dr. Jekyll. Once the killings begin and Fanny sneaks off to investigate on her own, the tension is ratcheted up a notch or two and things begin to pick up.

The film may be short on action, but it is long in style. Borowcyzk, a master at mis-en-scene, plans each shot carefully, from the lighting and focus to the placement of each object, the framing of each shot, and even the length of the shot. Each scene is meticulous and beautiful. In fact, some of the imagery is the most startling I’ve seen in any horror film, including Fanny’s vicious murder of her own mother, the post-death examination of Victoria, the dancer, and Fanny’s red-tinted eyes as she gives in to her own corruption and embraces evil. This last shot is also one of the most erotic I’ve seen, as Fanny glances directly into the camera, face streaked with blood, eyes glowing red, and licks blood from the knife she has just used.

Helped along by Borowcyzk, cinematographer Noel Very creates a wonderfully decadent atmosphere filled with haze and soft-focus. Much of the film is structured almost voyeuristically as we see snatches of characters or hear snatches of conversations through doors that are ajar or windows that are slightly open. This contributes to a vague feeling of claustrophobia accented by the fact the film takes place almost entirely within a single villa large enough to get lost in. Bernard Parmegiani’s unique film score, created using his pioneering musique concrete style, is nothing short of a revelation. Punctuated by long periods of silence, the score slowly and quietly creeps into your consciousness, creating a genuinely weird atmosphere that complements the film perfectly.

While some will dismiss the film as pretentious arthouse drivel and others will dismiss it as snooty porn, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is neither. It is, in fact, a superbly crafted piece of film. Arrow Films has again presented us with a fairly obscure slice of European horror and challenged us to open our minds to a genuinely unique piece of cinema. As previously mentioned, some will find the film slow. It very much reminds me of Herzog’s re-envisioning of Nosferatu (1979), another film alternately described as languid and measured or ploddingly dull. I happen to think both of these films are unique and wonderful. Plus we have a powerhouse cast, with Udo Kier and the absolutely deliciously sexy Marina Pierro as his mate (catch her in another French horror film, Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl—she’s just as beautiful). With a supporting cast including the always-creepy Patrick Magee (you can catch him in Arrow’s release of Fulci’s The Black Cat, also 1981) and the inimitable Howard Vernon (he of at least 100 Jess Franco flicks), and this is a can’t-miss film.

As with Arrow’s release of Borowcyzk’s The Beast and Immoral Tales, this release is chock full of special features designed to give one a lesson in all that is Borowcyzk. These features include a short introduction by critic and longtime Borowcyzk fan, Michael Brooke, an audio interview with Marina Pierro, an interview with filmmaker Alessio Pierro, and two important featurettes about Borowcyzk’s collaboration with composer Bernard Parmegiani as well as the influence of early French cinema on Borowcyzk’s films. There is also a 12-minute short film created in homage to Borowcyzk by the Pierro’s as well as an absolutely fascinating video essay about Borowcyzk’s career and emphasizing Dr. Jekyll. Finally, there is an audio commentary featuring archival interviews with Borowcyzk himself as well as Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, and many others associated with the film. With a brand new 2K restoration created using the original camera negative and overseen by Noel Very himself, this is the definitive version of Borowcyzk’s film, presented on Blu-Ray and DVD, with a choice of the original French track of the English track, with optional subtitles for both.

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