MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2017, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
Plenty of cinematic takes on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exist, but they are not all equal. For instance, this is the only one containing a line of dialog as beautiful as “The criminal’s penis is excessively long and pointed, isn’t it?” If for that and that alone, Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Miss Osborne stands in its own class.
Given the eroticism on display, a starring role from Udo Kier, and the fresh take on a famous literary monster, it’s tempting to compare Borowczyk’s 1981 film with Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, but Strange Case isn't interested in offering an unofficial capper to the trilogy. Borowczyk forgoes the madcap camp that drove Morrissey’s films in favor of a classier form of smut. Rather than bloviate through unhinged monologues, Kier stays mostly silent and decidedly hinged. There’s an artistry at work that Morrissey never achieved. This isn’t a silly movie; it’s a legitimate horror film that happens to feature closeups of an erect penis.
The film takes place over the course of a single night as high society guests arrive for a dinner celebrating Dr. Jekyll’s engagement to the beautiful Fanny Osbourne. After some entertainment and suitably boring intellectual conversation, a scream is heard and the guests discover the night’s first victim, raped and murdered in bed. There is a creeper lurking about, and despite the efforts of these bourgie dunces, he manages to pick them off one by one with ease.
Given the title we know who’s doing all this raping and killing, but the film still has twists to throw our way. Rather than let Kier run wild as Dr. Jekyll, Borowczyk cast Gerard Zalcberg as his evil alter ego. Zalcberg’s pale features and high, strict hairline make him an unnatural, imposing creature, not unlike Robert Blake in Lost Highway. It’s a smart choice; Zalcberg’s far scarier than Kier could ever be, and it lends a slight bit of mystery to such a familiar story.
The film has real anger to it. Its presentation of a high-class dinner party from which no one can escape brings to mind Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel, but satire isn’t Borowczyk’s aim. Hyde doesn’t just murder these people; he violates and humiliates them. He’s driven by pure hatred and lust that is aided by Borowczyk’s desire to make all his victims ineffectual and worthless.
Violence is purposefully obscured, and to be honest, the film is not nearly as racy as one might expect. Borowczyk creates a quiet atmosphere only to frequently shatter it with context-free cuts graphic sex or murder; nevertheless we often do not see as much as we want, and rather than pelt us with gore, Borowczyk opts for weightlessness to the carnage - both visually and in regards to sound design - which makes it feel more nightmare than reality. Meanwhile, other details are nearly fetishized, particularly costumes and the dry sound a quill makes as guests sign their names.
The film begins with Jekyll and his future wife Miss Osborne in an amorous embrace that gets interrupted by dinner guests. It ends with them both willingly transformed into their baser selves, finally fucking while leaving their Victorian house filled with those guests’ corpses. One gets the feeling that if they’d just been left alone long enough in the first place, none of this would have happened. And from a certain point of view, Borowczyk provides the film with a happy ending after all.