Movie still from 1981's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne."

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne July 13, 2017        

DIRECTED BY

Walerian Borowczyk

 

STARRING

Marina Pierro

Udo Kier

Patrick Magee

Howard Vernon

Clément Harar

Eugene Braun Munk

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1981

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 31 Mins.

I

’ve always considered the age-old horror tale Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1866) to be an extended allegory for the inherent barbarity of humankind and/or the physical or sexual violence all men are capable of. Social norms or their own morality are the only things keeping them from becoming completely unhinged. Maybe it’s even an ultra-horrific example of the sometimes ample disparity that rests between the public and private versions of a person — no one is ever really who they appear to be.

Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Osbourne (1981) takes the ahead-of-their-time ideas of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and uses them to form a deeply unsettling, deeply sensationalist psychosexual horror movie. In it, the core ideas of its source material remain intact. But its storyline is rearranged in order to reorient the feature to lead to a finale that finds a young woman throwing her caution to the winds of sexual desire and accommodating them with reckless abandon.

 

One could imagine a film like Miss Osbourne sitting prettily within the oeuvre of Andrzej Żuławski, the maximalist, unabashedly extremist filmmaker who made his masterpiece, the gruesome, erratic Possession, the same year. And we wish it were his work. Whereas Żułaski is the kind of director whose style is so specific we end up feeling transported the more we become accustomed to his artistry, Borowczyk’s virtuosity is clear but sometimes forced. The best of Żuławski is offhandedly idiosyncratic; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, while often imitating the beauty of a particularly convincing Grand Guignol show, doesn’t flow with such smooth disconcertion. We can tell how hard Borowczyk is working to maintain a specific tone.

 

It stars Udo Kier and Marina Pierro as the eponymous Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, lovers who have recently announced their engagement. The film itself covers the party celebrating their looming union, invited guests being intellectuals and other officials in the area. Initially, we’re partial to believe that most of what we’re witnessing is a stuffier version of a Luis Buñuel comedy, a muted satire disgusted with the egos of the bourgeoisie. Conversations about theology, science, and literature overflow.

 

But when Dr. Jekyll goes upstairs to fetch his will from his laboratory, the get-together snaps. Moments later, one of his guests is found raped and murdered. And in the minutes following, another guest is killed in a similarly callous fashion. By the time it’s discovered what’s really going on, most of the invitees have been offed, with only the buxom Miss Osbourne left to grapple with the situation herself.

 

And that grappling is interesting, especially since Miss Osbourne doesn’t walk down the same path paved by other Final Girls in the horror genre. Rather than try to survive, making it out of the hellish situation with most of her dignity intact, she succumbs to the darkness standing in front of her, intrigued by the maleficent carnality of Mr. Hyde and taking it upon herself to get a taste of it.

 

It’s all lensed with the same vein as a sexual fantasy experienced during a fever dream, the real and the fake blurred as identities are smudged and lives are cast aside with the inevitability of bugs flying into the throat of a Venus Fly Trap. Rooms are half lit to perpetuate a bloomy, enigmatic aura; performances are appropriately exaggerated to heighten the warped sexual awakening happening at the center of the film.

 

But The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne never comprehensively hypnotizes us because Borowczyck doesn’t have the directorial finesse required to sell such aspirational material. Such isn’t surprising: the first sentence of his Wikipedia boasts that many film critics consider him to be a “genius who also happened to be a pornographer” (as his perceived masterpieces also contained frequently boundary-pushing sexual interludes). One can yearn for the masterpiece the film could have been if it were directed by a self-assured auteur. But it’s still provocative enough to warrant a viewing — its content might leave the memory, but its images will not.  C