Dr. Jekyll and His Women [1981]

“Dr. Jekyll and His Women” is Walerian Borowczyk’s sexed-up interpretation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella. Amping up the story’s existing criticism of Victorian morality to ELEVEN, Borowczyk creates an explicit nightmare world where sublimated passions destroy anything and anyone unfortunate enough to get in their path.

Udo Kier stars as Dr. Henry Jekyll and is supported by a fabulous cast of genre veterans that includes Howard Vernon (who played Dr. Orlof along with approximately a million other fantastic roles), Marina Pierro (who was so plush and lovely in Borowczyk’s “Behind Convent Walls”), and Gérard Zalcberg (already beloved of the Empire as mute henchman Gordon in “Faceless”).

Admittedly, not a lot of screen time is devoted to the stuffiness of Victorian morality–in fact, the film opens with the darkly-lit murder-by-bludgeoning of a prepubescent girl. Borowczyk rightly assumes that the audience will be familiar with all the tropes of the era and doesn’t waste much time establishing that these folks are a bunched-up, disapproving lot. The propriety of the society is indicated largely through costuming. Restrictive corsets, huge hoop skirts, formal uniforms and carefully constructed hairstyles provide a thin veneer over inherently damaged characters. The General is a lecher, his daughter is revealed to be a lustful slut, Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon) is angling as much for personal gain as for supremacy of his theories, and Mother Jekyll is crippled. There is also a Reverend who is far less interested in matters of the spirit than in having his book published. In fact, the only characters who appear to have natural desires are Jekyll and his fiancee Fanny (Marina Pierro), whose sexual desire for one another is repeatedly interrupted by the guests at their engagement party.

The film’s structure is similar to that of Borowczyk’s infamous erotic mindfuck “The Beast” (yes, the one where the woman has sex with the bear-monster)–it’s established that all the characters are screwed up, there’s an escalating outburst of sexual violence, and ultimately a tragic ending underscoring themes of destruction and dissolution.

Similarly to “The Beast,” “Dr. Jekyll and His Women” gets off to a rather slow start (a parade of party guests greeting one another and talking over dinner goes on for quite some time prior to any Hott Hyde-Related Action). This languorous pacing is necessary to the director’s style. Borowczyk’s triumph is his literal camerawork combined with an erotic soft focus, used to emphasize the over-the-top subject matter. His cinematography doesn’t feel showy, favoring a static point of view that can feel unflinching when something particularly graphic is within the camera’s gaze. Shot compositions often have a painterly feel to them, making it no surprise to learn that the director was an award-winning visual artist prior to entering the arena of film.

The particulars of the movie deviate from Stevenson’s novella significantly. The time-line of the story is shortened to one night–the evening of Jekyll’s engagement to Fanny Osbourne–and the sexual content is put front and center. Mr. Hyde is an equal-opportunity rapist, whose genitals are oversized and, apparently, pointed. Eek. Zalcberg puts in a bravura performance, reptilian and monstrous while still elegant in his evening wear. His madness is simultaneously manic and icy, making him a perfect pairing with the Force For Teutonic Awesome that is Udo Kier.

The movie is full to overflowing with symbolism. Fanny’s dowry is a previously unknown painting by Vermeer, which is destroyed with great significance later in the film. An object of refinement and grace, obliterated by the forces of lust. It’s almost as if this might be symbolic of something… There is a young ballerina, later to be horribly violated by Hyde, who is eroticized early on. Shots of her spinning skirt reveal her legs and stocking-tops–dressed in a white outfit reminiscent of a bridal gown, she is another symbol of innocence ravished. We haven’t even touched on the foreshadowing galore: there is a gift of poisoned arrows; Fanny has a nightmare vision of a woman being stabbed; Jekyll collects weapons. Wow–is it getting all Hawthorne up in here, or is it just me?

Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde is accomplished with a bath full of blood-like liquid that occasions much thrashing about (Kitty Le Claw take note–there is Almost Udo Ass in this sequence). Fanny watches Jekyll emerge from the bath as Hyde and, rather than expressing horror, she seems fascinated, if somewhat worried on behalf of her fiancee. By the time Hyde’s rampage is reaching its frenetic heights, it comes as little surprise that Fanny winds up dunking herself in the krazee waters to join her increasingly Hyde-ed out hubby-to-be.

A big Tenebrous Thank You goes out to Brian Horrorwitz, King of the Trash Palace, for providing the Empire with this disc. Don’t delay, friends–hie thee to his site and check out the amazing bounty of offbeat movie goodness available there for your delectation!

6 thoughts on “Dr. Jekyll and His Women [1981]”

  1. No, I did NOT know that, Prof. Jack! I want to give the Tenebrous name to an order of nuns. So far, no takers, oddly enough…

    Headless, if you’re a Borowczyk fan, I highly recommend the movie. It’s pretty much everything you’d want it to be. Also, the cast was just in great form throughout. My only real quibble is that in the English-dubbed copy I had, the choice was made to dub Udo with a nondescript American actor of some flavor. Dangitall–the accent is part of the Udo wonderment that IS Mr. Kier!

  2. I’m an atheist but it’s kinda cool that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter Rose converted to Catholicism (not the cool part) and founded the Hawthorne Dominicans Nuns who even today care for the terminally ill poor who can’t pay for treatment (the cool part).

  3. One more thing…I’d love to see this sexed-up Dr. Jekyll flick. (So stick that in your gold pipe & smoke it, Pope Maledict).

  4. Thank you, Canada! See, the internet is a thing of great beauty–I show you sexed-up Dr. Jekyll and you teach me something about nuns that I’d previously been unaware of. 🙂 Would Pope Maledict (well-played) be wearing the Prada shoes while smoking from the gold pipe? Signs point to YES.

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