Chemical bath, Dinner party, Dr Jekyll, Giant phallus, Howard Vernon, Marina Pierro, Miss Osbourne, Mr Hyde, Patrick Magee, Review, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sadism, Sex, Udo Kier, Walerian Borowczyk
Original title: Docteur Jekyll et les femmes
aka: Bloodbath of Doctor Jekyll; The Blood of Dr. Jekyll; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne
D: Walerian Borowczyk / 92m
Cast: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee, Gérard Zalcberg, Howard Vernon, Clément Harari, Gisèle Préville
A rarely seen outing from late in Borwoczyk’s oeuvre, Dr. Jekyll and His Women, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is in many ways a typical Borowczyk movie, heavy on the production design and shot using an array of filters, with a loud soundtrack punctuated throughout by repetitive shouts and screams, and brief forays into the kind of erotica that now looks merely quaint instead of shocking.
Centred around a dinner party to announce the engagement of Henry Jekyll (Kier) to Fanny Osbourne (Pierro), the various guests – including a general (Magee) and his daughter, a doctor, Lanyon (Vernon), and the reverend Regan (Harari) – and staff, find themselves at the mercy of a sadistic maniac who calls himself Edward Hyde (Zalcberg). Hyde is the result of Jekyll’s immersion in a chemical bath; this allows the mild-mannered doctor to express the darker, more rapacious side of his nature. With the guests being attacked and/or abused by Hyde – in one scene he bends the general’s daughter over a gramophone and rapes her, displaying one of Borowczyk’s trademark large phalluses – a state of siege is soon in place, with Dr Lanyon attempting to take charge. When Hyde sodomises another guest, a young man, it becomes clear he really has no qualms about his behaviour, and the remaining guests redouble their efforts to stop him.
Of course, Jekyll is absent throughout all this, but when the effects of the chemical bath wear off, he returns to his guests to find one of the staff has been killed etc., but instead of helping he returns to his laboratory to immerse himself yet again in the chemical bath. However, Fanny, who has been looking for him, sees Henry transform into Hyde. She tries to convince Henry that he can overcome his baser instincts, but Hyde shoots her with an arrow, wounding her.Hyde kills the general and his daughter before being held at gunpoint by Dr Lanyon. Hyde avoids being killed by convincing the doctor to give him a medicine called Sokilor. He takes the medicine and reverts back to Henry Jekyll. When Henry gets back to the laboratory he finds the wounded Fanny. She attempts to get into the chemical bath but Henry is too weak to stop her, despite her injury. Revitalised, she entreats Henry to join her in casting off their inhibitions once and for all.
Borowczyk would only make three more movies after this one – including the execrable Emmanuelle V (1987), which he disowned – but this is generally regarded as the last flourish of a director whose ability to create a dreamlike world not so far removed from our own was a testament to his ingenuity as a director and his beginnings as a painter. No matter what else you might say about Borowczyk’s movies, they always looked good, and Dr. Jekyll and His Women is no exception, its darkened rooms and authentic-looking Victorian set design adding to the tense atmosphere created by Hyde’s attacks. When Jekyll’s alter ego vents his anger on inanimate objects, often smashing them repeatedly, Borowczyk keeps the camera on the objects for longer than necessary, highlighting the mundane and the banal ephemera of Jekyll’s life, and showing Hyde’s disdain for it all. It’s another form of transformation, and entirely in keeping with Hyde’s hatred of the world he finds himself in.
Focusing the events of Stevenson’s novella into a period of one night obviously means that much is overlooked in the adaptation, but there’s enough here to lay claim to a greater fidelity than some other cinematic versions of the story. The idea of the chemical bath is neither a plus or a minus in terms of the rest of the movie (and watching Kier and Pierro writhe around in the water is more amusing than chilling), but Hyde’s murderous impulses are effectively portrayed by the eyebrow-less Zalcberg, making Borowczyk’s decision to cast separate actors in the two main roles an inspired one. Kier brings a nervous intensity to the role of Jekyll, while Pierro, a Borowczyk regular, gives one of her best performances. Sadly, Magee looks drunk throughout, though B-movie veteran Vernon is as capable as ever, lending his customary commitment to the kind of role that has ‘generic’ written all over it.
Borowczyk exploits the vagaries of his own script – Jekyll’s house seems impossibly huge, Jekyll’s mother (Préville) is forced to play the piano by Hyde but continues to do so after he’s left the room – to add to the sense of increasing dread, and he’s aided by a formidable score by Bernard Parmeggiani that effortlessly complements the horror that’s unfolding. However, the movie isn’t as carefully assembled as it should be, and Khadicha Bariha’s editing often stifles the flow of a scene, leaving the viewer adrift in a sea of disconnected images and shots, and undermining the sterling work of cinematographer Noël Véry. And the so-called sleaze – so tame now by today’s standards – is a minor distraction at best, although the sight of the general flogging his daughter’s bare behind is still unsettling on so many levels.
Rating: 7/10 – much better than it appears to be on face value, Dr. Jekyll and His Women is a hybrid horror/romantic drama with occasional sexual and comedic overtones; that it works so well is due to Borowczyk’s unique style and a commitment to the material that makes for an invigorating, often jarring version of Stevenson’s classic tale.