The engagement of Dr Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and his fiancée Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro) is to be celebrated tonight at a dinner party at the doctor’s house in London, and they are very much in love, indeed they can’t wait to get amorous with each other contrary to the social mores of Victorian Britain. But someone has gone even further than that couple to offend decency: Henry and Fanny keep their lusts behind closed doors, yet not far away a terrible crime has been committed where a madman chased a little girl through the nighttime streets and when he caught up with her he battered her to death with his cane. This event will have serious repercussions on the gathering, not least when the killer may be closer than they realise…
Well, one person realises it, because they are the murderer, and if you’ve ever heard of Jekyll the chances are you’ll have heard of Hyde as well. The author Robert Louis Stevenson was the creator of them both, and drafted his novel like a mystery so that the ending when both the noble doctor and his evil associate were revealed to be one and the same was a shock, but after well over a century of adapters blowing the surprise all for the sake of getting that transformation sequence in early to keep the audience on their toes, that’s not so much of a twist, and certainly wasn’t in 1981 when director Walerian Borowczyk crafted his version of the old tale. However, he did keep that surprise structure, which was interesting if potentially misguided.
Therefore it’s not until the movie was halfway over before we were rewarded for our patience and had our transformation scene, where Udo Kier thrashed around in a bathtub of his solution and emerged as Gérard Zalcberg, a harsh-looking actor whose makeup only emphasised that quality. It had to be said, this was a very effective bit of trickery, seemingly in one shot, and in any other Jekyll and Hyde film it would have been the most memorable element, but the director was determined to highlight the perverse nature of his villain. This meant Hyde went far further in his depravity than was ever elucidated upon in the book, you had to read between the lines for that, yet here he is a sex maniac who thinks nothing of raping his way through the younger dinner guests.
Male or female, it doesn’t matter to him, and his penis is so savage that it has the power to kill, which sounds ridiculous and perhaps it is, though Borowczyk played that straightfaced, meaning any humour inherent in such a psychopathic rule breaker was very much up to the viewer to discern. This did bring up absurd sequences such as Patrick Magee’s General tied up and forced to watch his now lust-crazed daughter taken from behind by Hyde in front of his appalled eyes, which was presumably meant to be a deliberate baiting of the authorities but came across as silly, especially when the now-freed General spanks his daughters’ bare bottom as if this the only way he can administer a punishment, essentially reducing her to a naughty little girl.
That may have been the level Borowczyk’s view of transgressive sexuality was working on, which suggested a certain immaturity, but then again you could never be sure if he was simply out to shock or if he was having fun at someone’s expense, possibly the audience’s. He appeared sincere enough, and it was true there were instances in his plotting where he was advocating a revolution of some kind, be that sexual or violent in its uprising, yet there were points where he had his doubts about the value of that as we saw the consequences of Hyde’s regular rampages: there’s nothing but tragedy in the deaths of the little girl, the young dancer or the butler, and the film treats them as such. Nevertheless, that throwing off of inhibitions did give the film its charge, and finally allows Fanny to join her husband(s) to be in dismantling the shackles women in her society must labour under; even then, is this doing her any good or has she gone too far? Is there no such thing as a happy medium? That this climaxes in a welter of destruction was no answer to that, and finally pessimistic about the degrading of the world if you didn’t share Hyde’s thirst for bloody anarchy. Music by Bernard Parmegiani.