❉ We conclude our series on cult icon Udo Kier’s Euroslash triptych with a foray into the weird world of Walerian Borowczyk.
‘Dr Jekyll et les Femmes’, or – as it’s more usually known to the Anglophone world – ‘Dr Jekyll and the Women’, ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne’ (the director’s preferred title) or ‘Bloodbath of Dr Jekyll’ is a foray into the wild, weird and whacked out world of Walerian Borowczyk. Described variously as “a genius who also happened to be a pornographer” and a “Master craftsman, Dadaist prankster and unrepentant sensualist”, Borowczyk – like Werner Herzog – began his filmic career with a number of short (less than ten minute) pieces, ranging from animations like the 1958 ‘Requited Feelings’ and ‘Les Astronautes’ (1959, a collaboration with French auteur Chris Marker, who would later go on to helm ‘Le Jetee’ [the 1962 short that would inspire Terry Gilliam’s 1995 ‘Twelve Monkeys’] and ‘Sans Soleil’ ) to 1964’s concentration camp allegory (a perhaps unsurprising theme given Borowczyk’s Polish background) ‘The Games of Angels’, named as one of the best animated films of all time.
Borowczyk graduated to full length features with the dreamlike and allegorical ‘Goto, Island of Love’ (1968), a dystopian fantasy set in a Mervyn Peake-like enclosed and entropic society in which the Steerpike stand-in of Grozo climbs his way up the social strata from lowly fly-catcher to ruler of the island; his Machiavellian manoeuvres fuelled by an all-consuming lust for the beautiful but unreachable wife of the realm’s despot. The theme of unrequited lust was revisited in the director’s 1971 tragedy ‘Blanche’, in which a mediaeval castle becomes a pressure cooker environment of hatred borne of frustration as three men compete for the affections of a fair lady who remains steadfastly loyal to her husband. Sex and sensuality are never far from the surface in these movies, but they would come out roaring unbridled and unbound like animalistic passion – like the warm jets of lust – in the deviant diptych of ‘Immoral Tales’ (1973) and ‘The Beast’ (1975), leaving viewers and reviewers rattled by the rush of the gush of their wake. The former picture consists of four vignettes of sexual exploration and deviancy, including Paloma Picasso as the Bloody Countess Erzsebet Bathory and Florence Bellamy as the incestuous and murderous Lucrezia Borgia, and the latter evolved from a mooted fifth instalment of the same movie (‘The True Story of the Beast of Gevaudan’) into its own perversely lyrical exploration of sexuality, sensuality and bestiality that presented the unwitting world with a confrontational depiction of the raw animal instinct.
The theme of the repressed primaeval passions of the unfettered id would be revisited in Borowczyk’s 1981 take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 classic novella of split personality shenanigans ‘The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, a tale already interwoven with the darkest undercurrents of the human psyche and the evil that humans are capable of doing that grew out of Stevenson’s interest in the dual life of the notorious Edinburgh figure Deacon Brodie. Cast as the urbane Dr Henry Jekyll was Udo Kier, adding another classic horror character to his CV after his turns as Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula in the duology ‘Flesh For Frankenstein’ and ‘Blood For Dracula’ produced by Andy Warhol and directed by Paul Morrissey (and a bit by Antonio Margheriti, probably), as well as having already portrayed another dark spectre of Victorian England as Jack the Ripper in Borowczyk’s ‘Lulu’ the previous year (an adaptation of the Frank Wedekind plays that had been adapted in 1929 by G. W. Pabst as ‘Pandora’s Box’, starring the luminous Louise Brooks in the titular role).
The movie deals with the theme of dualism from the outset, the credits rolling over a photographic negative image of London’s Palace of Westminster – suggestive of the darker sides of the ‘great and good’ of the moral authoritarianism of the 19th century. The aforesaid bastions of Victorian rectitude are well represented in the film as the array of guests in the home of Kier’s Jekyll, attending the celebration of his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro, who had starred in Borwczyk’s 1979 ‘Immoral Women’, and would go on to play the lead role in Jean Rollin’s ‘The Living Dead Girl’ in 1982). The name of Jekyll’s fiancee is an interesting addition to the original tale by Borowczyk’s screenplay, utilising the real life pre-marital name of Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife – who played a key role in the novella’s creation – and giving her prominent co-lead billing in the original title.
The party guests include Jekyll’s more conventional scientific rival Dr Lanyon (played by genre stalwart Howard Vernon, star of many Jess Franco films including ‘The Awful Dr Orlof’ , ‘The Bloody Judge’  and ‘A Virgin Among the Living Dead’  among many others) who scoffs at Jekyll’s professions of transcendental medicine, and the seemingly starched and upright military man General Danvers Carew (Patrick Magee, who had featured in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1963 debut ‘Dementia 13′, Freddie Francis’ 1965 ‘The Skull’ and the Steve Roberts-directed, Viv Stanshall-scripted 1980 oddity ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’), whose patrician veneer barely covers his behind-closed-doors debauchery as he makes lecherous advances towards Fanny on the day of her engagement, and sadistically whips his nubile young daughter seconds after giving his “word of honour” not to raise his hand to her – the living embodiment of the hypocrisy entrenched in ‘Victorian values’.
The night of the engagement is swiftly invaded by violence and horror as Jekyll’s oncoming wedding is overtaken by his chemical wedding to his dark side, unleashed by his alchemical experimentation. In a twist on the usual adaptation of the tale Hyde is achieved not through Jekyll drinking a potion, but by filling a bath and infusing the bathwater with his formula – the powder turning the water a blood red – before immersing himself in it Bathory-style (one wonders if, after the Warhol ‘Dracula’, Kier felt an affinity with white tiled bathrooms filled with blood…). Another innovation unique to this iteration is that it eschews the tradition of Jekyll and Hyde being played by the same actor, as Kier’s handsome Jekyll goes benath the surface of the crimson waters to emerge in the form of Gerard Zalcberg’s ugly, brutish Hyde.
This uncaged and unhinged inner self is not only supercharged with all of Henry Jekyll’s manifold unfulfilled desires, but also bestowed with a barbed penis 6 centimetres in diameter and 35 centimetres in length – measurements pronounced by a startled Dr Lanyon as he examines the body of a young ballerina whose brutal rape by Hyde and his monstrous organ have resulted in her death from massive internal injuries. Hyde’s rampage of lust does not draw a line at the females of the house (including General Carew’s daughter, whom he takes savagely from behind in front of her father, forced to watch apoplectic from the chair Hyde has lashed him to), but also the handsome houseguest Mr Maw. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” wails the Reverend Guest, “another sexual crime – this time a homosexual assault!” – the perpetrator being described as “an individual of no morality, only an overwhelming capacity for evil”.
Fascinatingly, Kier’s Jekyll is played against the usual Hollywood and television portrayals in that instead of feeling angst and remorse about his alter ego’s actions, he is actively using Hyde as a persona under which he can revel in all of his inner carnality without any recompense or retribution; knowing that the actions of his animal animus will never be ascribed to the suave and gentlemanly doctor of medicine taking a respectable bride from high society. More than any other version of the story, this film shows Hyde as his true self, the real man over which Jekyll is the disguise – a painted and pretty veneer over the beast within. “Both of my faces are me,” he confesses to his fiancee, “and each of them is perfectly sincere […] I throw off pretence and leap, wallowing in an ocean of freedom and pleasure!”. Jekyll says this as he prepares his final transformative blood bath, knowing that his next chanhe into Hyde will be final, and suddenly his bride to be throws herself into the fluid and gives herself over – in the words of richard O’ Brien – to absolute pleasure and release her own unbridled anima, Pierro’s performance managing an instant sexual switch from reserved English rose to a carnal creature of sensuality and passion.
This fascinating film is a perfect admixture of Udo Kier and Marina Pierro’s performances and Walerian Borowczyk’s by turns surreal and dreamlike, yet biting and sexual direction. The enigmatic ending is perfect, as Hyde and his Bride burn the worldly possessions of their past selves and ride off together in a horse drawn carriage, thier limbs intertwineed in an erotic frenzy of locking lips, biting teeth, blood and lust and sex and death as they leave Victorian London behind for a new life in the realm of the senses.
❉ Glen McCulla has had a lifetime-long interest in film, history and film history – especially the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He sometimes airs his maunderings on his blog at http://psychtronickinematograph.blogspot.co.uk/ and skulks moodily on Twitter at @ColdLazarou