Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is a cursed film, once nearly forgotten. Paul Duane dares to sample a new Blu-ray release and is alarmed to find it awakens strange impulses inside him.
The list of truly great films that have dipped into obscurity, then, eventually, been rescued & eventually canonised is long. But there are a few films that, while their exceptional merit was noticed by a few on release, have disappeared almost completely into the abyss. Cursed films, some call them. “Films maudit”. The term was coined by Jean Cocteau and has been used to describe Detour, Blast of Silence, Cockfighter, Pola X, Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trick Baby… All of them films that carry with them, possibly even benefit from, an air of having been forgotten about even as they were released.
One of these that I have been chasing for, oh, two decades now, is Walerian Borowcyzk’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osborne.
I owned (still do own) a big-box VHS release of this film, released by VTC, whoever they were, under the title Bloodbath of Dr Jekyll. I used to watch, perplexed, wondering whether the film’s disjointed rhythm & incomprehensible storyline was deliberate – was this what Time Out meant when they called it “a film of strange and outrageous beauty which seems to emanate from that place where our fears are also desires”?
Then I checked the running time and realised that somehow this version had managed to drop twenty-six minutes from a ninety minute film. One wonders why they bothered licensing it for release at all.
Of course, seeing a film this badly butchered – especially one that, in its complete form, had the few critics who had seen it reaching for superlatives – planted a seed in my brain, a desperate desire to someday see this fucking thing in its entirety. How dare they give me a tantalising taste of utter weirdness (even the butchered, poorly mastered VHS seemed to radiate a decadent, depraved energy utterly unlike anything I’d seen) and then withdraw it?
Bear in mind that this was in the pre-Internet era, when even things that are popular were often difficult to find. And things that were unpopular, well, those were elusive.
I spent some time researching the film, trying to piece together the missing elements. What I found was intriguing, and in some ways, called to mind Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, a great, knotty book whose story described an evil, ancient conspiracy whose secret doctrines could be descried in the tattered remnants of various destroyed or lost movies.
Robert Louis Stevenson, it’s well known, had written a first draft of Jekyll while half-deranged by the effects of medicinal cocaine. Inspired by a nightmare, Stevenson wrote this version in three days, sitting up in bed while suffering from a tubercular haemorrhage. His wife then burned the manuscript, calling it “a quire full of utter nonsense”.
While publicising the film’s release, Borowczyk claimed he’d based his script on a copy of Stevenson’s original draft which he’d discovered in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Of course, this was clearly a stunt, and he later admitted as much. But there’s a weird beauty to it. A down on his luck Polish surrealist, tapping into the dream-world of a dying Scottish writer so as to transform it into a low-budget horror film for arthouse consumption – paging Iain Sinclair….
And, as in a fairytale, the film Borowczyk conjured up seemed extraordinarily true to the novel’s Gothic origin story. It bypassed the tired transformations and moral lessons associated with Jekyll & Hyde in favour of an amoral, pagan celebration of the rampant beast within. And it disappeared from view almost as soon as it escaped. A quick trot round the genre film festivals of the Med, and a one-week run in a London porno fleapit, then nothing.
Ever since, the only way to see anything resembling a complete version was to track it down online, in a version with burned-in Dutch subtitles dubbed from a reasonably clear ’80s release. I’ve watched this murky, blurry pirate copy more times than I probably really should admit.
I’m not advising piracy, but in this case, no authorised release seemed possible. The story went that whoever had ended up owning the rights to Dr Jekyll had delusional ideas about the value of their property, so much so that the film was effectively tied up, in oblivion, forever.
So when I heard that an official, remastered, restored blu-ray was on the way from Arrow, I was more than astonished. And the new Arrow release turned out not just to consist of a breath-takingly beautiful restoration, supervised by the film’s DoP Noël Véry, but a total package, with nearly two and a half hours of exceptional extras (interviews with stars Udo Kier and Marina Pierro, a ‘Boro for beginners’ piece by Michael Brooke, featurettes on the music by Parmegiani, lots more, all produced with terrific attention to detail by Daniel Bird) and a commentary track pieced together from various interviews, including a contemporary one by Boro himself, who sadly died almost a decade ago, just as his work was beginning to be recognised and re-examined.
However. Cleaned up and given proper academic attention, all the apparatus of respectability, I half-expected Dr Jekyll and Miss Osborne to have lost the patina of the forbidden that stubbornly clung to its various disreputable half-lives. In fact, the opposite has happened.
Now that you can see it clearly, as its makers intended, it has become more, rather than less, disturbing and mysterious. The storyline still makes little or no sense. The character motivations are opaque, to say the least, and the supporting players – mother, general, priest, doctor, manservant, maid, publisher – are straight out of Agatha Christie by way of Cluedo.
But these typical Euro-horror shortcomings do nothing to dilute the film’s central energy – what might have been called, in the Seventies, the Return of the Repressed.
Boro lines up all the Establishment figures like a row of chess pieces in direct opposition to his King and Queen, Jekyll and his fiancée Fanny, and shows from the beginning that the erotic charge motivating the young couple is potentially a destabilising influence on the precariously balanced edifice of power.
Basically, Jekyll and Fanny are shag-happy. She seems, for now, satisfied with, um, heteronormative sexual expression. But Jekyll, whose desires are… unconventional, has figured out a chemical compound which will allow him to satisfy every base whim he’s ever had, by changing his appearance to that of a monstrous alter ego called Edward Hyde, to whom he’s left everything in his will (I briefly tried to work out the practicalities of this, before giving up and just going with it).
Unlike the novel, Jekyll isn’t tormented by his double life. He goes about whistling cheerfully while preparing for his transformative bath (he takes one at least four times in one night, displaying his youthful stamina), even though he is fully aware that, as Hyde, he’s likely to run riot among his friends and family, using his enormous pointed phallus as a weapon on both genders and all classes. And once you realise that Boro also directed the frankly eye-popping La Bête, you’ll not be surprised to learn that he didn’t stint on depicting Hyde’s impractical endowment with a lack of decorum that probably contributed to the film’s muted reception on release.
It’s difficult to imagine what it was like seeing this film in the early ’80s. Everything that I now like from that benighted time seems to have flown well under the radar on initial release. Stranger than Paradise, Made In Britain, Deathtrap, Q the Winged Serpent – none of these was feted or talked about as the great films they so clearly (to me, anyway) were.
And The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Miss Osborne didn’t even get a release under the director’s preferred title. It came out as Dr Jekyll and The Women, Blood of Dr Jekyll, and The Experiment, among other titles, with covers that didn’t exactly hint at it being any kind of unrecognised masterpiece.
But I’d argue that it is, or at least, if not a masterpiece, then a totally sui generis work of nihilism. It culminates in the joyful destruction of a Vermeer, the depiction of mass murder as something between a game and an orgy, the climactic threesome – Jekyll-Hyde-Osborne – in the back of a coach which seems to be travelling through a flicker-book version of Victorian London. The ending’s an affront to everything pure and decent and good, a hymn to the beauty of complete self-indulgence and mindless destruction. If it had been a couple of years earlier, the punks might have adopted it, a few years later and the crypto-Goth Batcave crowd would have loved it. But it didn’t find its audience, and it went unloved – till now.
I’m nearing the end of my allotted word count and I find I haven’t mentioned Patrick Magee, one of whose final roles this is. He’s the only one, I think, who acted in English, and the strained dubbing of the Anglophone version (the blu contains two soundtracks, the other in French) is worth putting up with for his extraordinary line readings and the way his mouth and his eyes seem to be operated independently by different puppeteers. He once played the Marquis de Sade, in Peter Brook’s enervating Marat-Sade, but in this he looks a lot more like how I imagined the real de Sade might have appeared – eyes filled with the knowledge of human weakness, a face like a plateful of mortal sins.
I always wondered how Magee found his way into this strange confection, so straight down the middle is it between his high-art ventures and his B-movie slumming. The answer is finally forthcoming in the commentary track – it seems Borowczyk, asked to judge a film festival in Oxford, got to see Vivian Stanshall’s own film maudit, a sort of Ealing Eraserhead called Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (if you ever find the DVD, please, do yourself a favour and buy it).
Inspired by the strangeness of Rawlinson End, its unworldy atmosphere and its eclectic cast, he booked the DoP, Martin Bell, and the film’s sodden Reverend Slodden, Patrick Magee. Bell worked too slowly and was fired after a couple of days work, but Magee is an inspiration, and the kind of actor Boro worked with too rarely. I wish he’d borrowed a few other cast members from Sir Henry – Harry Fowler and JG Devlin would’ve fitted right in – but in a way it’s enough to know that two completely unique films of the early 80s bounced off each other in such a fruitful way.
I live for this sort of revelation, and many, many heartfelt thanks are due to Arrow and Daniel Bird for their intransigent devotion to the crazy idea of rescuing this cursed film from its undeserved oblivion.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow.