It’s 1886. Workers at the Woolwich Royal Arsenal form a football club; Dr John Stith Pemberton develops a fizzy beverage to be known as Coca-Cola and a novella – Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – is published by Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, and becomes an instant success. It was almost immediately adapted for the stage, and starting with a lost 1908 film, over 120 film versions were to be produced, with actors from Spencer Tracy to Jerry Lewis essaying the role(s) of the austere Victorian scientist Jekyll and his libido made flesh, Hyde. In one guise the story is a moral tale of the secret desires repression creates, but in another it is a wish-fulfilment fantasy/nightmare haunted by its own ‘if only…’ premise.
Walerian Borowcyzk’s 1981 take, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, is a kinky French horror film, with a disturbingly lustful sadism. A child has been attacked in the blue-lit foggy London night and an unspeakable menace lurks. In a palatial town house complete with turbaned man servant, Dr Henry Jekyll (a young Udo Kier), a wealthy and celebrated scientist, is hosting a party to celebrate his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). His crippled mother, his mother-in-law as well as assorted scions of Victorian society, a clergyman, a rival scientist and a general (Patrick Magee in typically eccentric form), gather for an evening of food and celebration. They are all like escapees from some savage Buñuel satire, pompous, self-satisfied and bubbling over with barely concealed desires as they exchange pleasantries and hotly debate Jekyll’s new theory of transcendental medicine. They are the apotheosis of British Imperial self-satisfaction, smirking through the evening, oblivious to the noise their clay feet make, clumping on the parquet. But Jekyll wants his estate given over to the mysterious and as yet unseen Mr Hyde, and there seems to be a settling of accounts in the offing.
Borowcyzk keeps everything suitably murky and fragmented. His use of mirrors seems at first like an over-literal rendering of the split personality theme, but as the film goes on the visual confusion becomes increasingly disconcerting and dream-like. There is more than a little vampire/Nosferatu in Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg) when he appears, an eyebrow-less fiend and something of Jack the Ripper as well with his murderous phallus. His assault on the guests is savage, and yet they are complicit in their own downfall, either because he stirs in them their own (scarcely) hidden desires, or because they rather bathetically provide him with the weapons of their destruction. His sadism is pitched against their own hypocrisy and general vileness. In a twist which the title anticipates, Marina Pierro’s yearning raven-haired heroine has a yen for some self-transformation as well. Violence and murder are intertwined with a longing for freedom, but Borowcyzk’s film is dark and claustrophobic, locked in Jekyll’s hollow town house. His characters don’t find emancipation via their potions and transformations, but rather murderous and self-destructive rage.