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Cult Classics Revisited: THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE (1981)

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THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE
aka DR. JEKYLL AND HIS WOMEN
(France/West Germany - 1981)


Written and directed by Walerian Borowczyk. Cast: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee, Gerard Zalcberg, Howard Vernon, Clement Harari, Giselle Preville, Jean Mylonas, Eugene Braun Munk, Louis Michel Colla, Catherine Coste. (Unrated, 91 mins)

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was a Polish filmmaker who worked primarily in France after settling there in 1959. Though generally lumped in with mavericks like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, directors who constantly straddled the line between art and smut, Borowczyk was more of a renaissance man, an artist and filmmaker who dabbled in everything from lithograph art to short animated works to the avant garde as a young man, tallying up many film festival awards throughout the 1960s. He collaborated with famed LA JETEE director Chris Marker and, like Marker, was an influence on Terry Gilliam. Borowczyk moved into feature films in the 1970s, earning a Palme d'Or nomination at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival for THE STORY OF SIN, but for decades, he was best known for IMMORAL TALES (1974), with its famous Elizabeth Bathory segment, and THE BEAST (1975), films that mixed horror with softcore porn that became so popular in the wake of Just Jaeckin's EMMANUELLE (1974). Subsequent films like THE STREETWALKER (1976), with EMMANUELLE star Sylvia Kristel and the nunsploitation BEHIND CONVENT WALLS (1978) pretty much cemented his reputation as a purveyor of high-end Eurotrash. Like Rollin and Franco, Borowczyk was capable of making films of serious artistic value, but often let his love of naked women take precedence. Lured by producer Alain Siritzky to the ill-fated EMMANUELLE 5 in 1987, with American actress Monique Gabrielle stepping in for the absent Kristel. Borowczyk's cut was released in France, but he would see the film completely gutted for the US market when it was acquired years later by Roger Corman, who dumped a good chunk of Borowczyk's footage and had HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD II director and regular Concorde/New Horizons post-production supervisor Steve Barnett shoot new sex scenes and decidedly un-EMMANUELLE action sequences with Gabrielle. Barnett's Corman-mandated changes essentially turned Borowczyk's erotic European art film into an Andy Sidaris knockoff that went straight to VHS in 1992. True to form for these guys in the late '80s, Borowczyk contemporary Rollin ended up directing some of the equally doomed EMMANUELLE 6 in 1988 (also released by Corman in the US in 1992), with the franchise becoming so hopelessly lost that by the time Kristel returned in 1993, the next in the series was redundantly titled EMMANUELLE VI. Borowczyk finished his big screen career with 1987's LOVE RITES and from 1986 to 1991, helmed several episodes of the erotic French TV series SOFTLY FROM PARIS before retiring from directing.




Though he's best known for IMMORAL TALES and THE BEAST, one Borowczyk film that's gained significant traction over the years is his perversely transgressive 1981 masterpiece DR JEKYLL ET LES FEMMES, better known as DR. JEKYLL AND HIS WOMEN (and also BLOOD OF DR. JEKYLL and BLOODLUST). The FEMMES title was imposed on Borowczyk by the producers, but the film is just out on Blu-ray from Arrow under the director's preferred title THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE. Borowczyk's take on Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most unusual horror films of the 1980s and certainly one of cinema's most misanthropic screeds, with an aggressive electronic score by Bernard Parmegiani that's genuinely unsettling. The set-up owes as much to Agatha Christie as it does to Stevenson, and after a slow and tense build, Borowczyk steers it into some incredibly dark places, offering sights that, once seen, can never be unseen. Set over the course of one doomed night, the film takes place at the mansion of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) during his engagement party to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). While guests--among them renowned Dr. Lanyard (Franco regular Howard Vernon), the Reverend Donald Regan Guest (Clement Harari), and the eccentric military legend General William Danvers Carew (the great Patrick Magee in his last film before his death in 1982)--pretentiously pontificate and bloviate on proper Victorian matters of high society and self-aggrandizement, they're picked off one by one by a ranting, sexually voracious madman calling himself Mr. Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg).


Hyde usually violates his victims--both female and male--with his incredibly large organ ("The sex of the criminal was extremely long and pointed, wasn't it?" a guest asks after finding a victim penetrated so deeply that the abdomen was ripped apart), with Zalcberg's stunt cock given several close-ups by Borowczyk in a couple of scenes that dangerously flirt with crossing over into hardcore porn, and no one really pieces together that Hyde only appears after Jekyll excuses himself and goes into his laboratory. In the lab, he has a bath filled with a secret potion called Solicor, which allows him to shed his proper Victorian image and become the raging id that lurks beneath. Once transformed into Hyde, he obliterates the facade of Victorian societal decorum, dismantling it one horrifying assault at a time as he annihilates cherished institutions like the military, the clergy, medicine, and family. He ties up the tough-talking Carew (one of Magee's most insane performances in a career filled with them) and forces him to watch as he has his way with the General's rebellious, willing, and sexually adventurous daughter as she's bent over a table, fondling and stroking the world's most phallic sewing machine. He rapes one of the male guests after pursuing him through the darkened house. Eventually, he even rapes his own mother (Giselle Preville, the 1935 Miss France runner-up who inherited the crown when the winner gave it up after just two hours), shouting "I'm going to break you in two, decrepit hag!" Fanny finds out his secret, and rather than being terrified, she's intrigued and even turned on, jumping into the Solicor bath with him, transforming into her own Hyde as the two commandeer a coach and ride off in the night, their dead guests' bodies strewn about the mansion as Parmegiani's score drones and on and on and on.


The second-best profoundly unnerving 1981 French/West German horror film by a Polish emigre (after Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION), THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE was released in France and other parts of Europe in 1981 and had an unsuccessful one-week run in the UK in 1984. Critics had mixed reactions, and few moviegoers saw it, but those who did never forgot it. It never received a theatrical or video release in the US (it did appear in Canadian video stores under the BLOODLUST title), though it was a mainstay on the bootleg circuit and eventually, crummy (and usually edited) prints could easily be found on YouTube. Arrow's new Blu-ray/DVD combo set marks the first official, authorized release of the film on home video in the US, and it's a package that practically outdoes Criterion in terms of the superior digital restoration and the copious extras. After years of watching blurry, cropped versions of the film, fans will be surprised at what they see and hear on Arrow's set, which will undoubtedly stand as the definitive version of what's become Borowczyk's signature work. It's a film that encompasses all of the filmmaker's sexual, political, and social obsessions, and it's shot on ornate sets with an at-times BARRY LYNDON-like use of natural or very dim lighting that emphasizes the disorientation and terror of the proceedings. Borowczyk makes excellent use of shadows and mirrors, the latter being the perfect metaphor for the duality of Jekyll and Hyde, Fanny and her murderous alter ego, and the perfect Victorian exterior masking the ugly hypocrisy underneath.


Luis Bunuel was a major influence on Borowczyk when he turned to feature filmmaking, and it's been pointed out by others and bears mentioning here how much of a debt STRANGE CASE owes to the Bunuel classics THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962), with its guests physically unable to leave a dinner party, and THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977), with the female lead alternately played by two different actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), sometimes in the same scene. Taking on the role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has always been regarded as a tour-de-force for any actor who's essayed the role, like John Barrymore in 1920, Spencer Tracy in 1941, Christopher Lee as "Dr. Marlowe and Mr. Blake" in 1971's I, MONSTER, and even Anthony Perkins in 1989's tawdry EDGE OF SANITY, which worked in the Jack the Ripper mythos as a freebasing Jekyll became a serial-killing, compulsively-masturbating Mr. Hyde. Fredric March even won the Best Actor Oscar for MGM's 1932 take on the famous story. It wasn't often that you'd see guys like Barrymore, March and Tracy in a horror movie, and the whole point of a serious actor taking on the role was to show their range. Borowczyk goes in the opposite direction in an obvious nod to Bunuel, casting one actor to play Jekyll and another to play Hyde. This had been done before--out of necessity with Ralph Bates and Martine Beswicke in 1971's DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE--but in the context of Borowczyk's take on the story, the dual casting works perfectly, even if it deprives us of just how interesting Kier as Mr. Hyde might've been. With his shaved eyebrows and dead glare, Zalcberg, best known to Eurotrash fans as Helmut Berger's hulking, drill-killing henchman in Jess Franco's FACELESS, is terrifying as Hyde, even if he's saddled with some of Borowczyk's prose that's often more purple than Hyde's engorged penis. If Borowczyk makes one mistake with STRANGE CASE, it's overstating the message and not trusting the audience to put it together. Jekyll/Hyde's appalling offenses, his shredding of societal convention, his exposing of upper-class hypocrisy, and his unleashing the beast within are apparent enough without him haughtily sneering "Like a schoolboy shedding the tawdry rags of his dreary institution, I throw off pretense, and leap, wallowing in an ocean of freedom and pleasure!" in a dubbed voice that sounds like Bill Corbett's later version of Crow T. Robot on MST3K, undermining Hyde's horrific actions by making him sound like a verbose brat in desperate need of a time-out.


Going with the French audio probably gives the film a touch of class that's lacking in the rather clumsy English dub (which only has Magee voicing his own performance; Kier's actual voice isn't heard on either track), and like its themes, it only further illustrates the sense of duality that permeates THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE: it's an art film with one foot in the grindhouse, simultaneously serious and trashy, classy and graphic, legitimately erotic and then straight-up uncomfortable. Like Jekyll and Hyde, STRANGE CASE is constantly two things at once, with incredibly effective and often stunning visuals juxtaposed with vile sexual violence. It shares a kinship with the best of Jean Rollin and maybe, on his best day, Jess Franco, though Franco wouldn't have been able to resist the urge for constant crotch zooms and would've have paid attention to the particulars, like having the camera pointed in the right direction. It's a strange, bewildering, beautiful, and shocking piece of work with haunting images that stay with you long after it's over.

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