Color, 1981, 91m.
Directed by Walerian Borowczyk
Starring Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee, Howard Vernon, Gérard Zalcberg, Clément Harari
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC, UK R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Few films in the Euro horror canon have attained the mystique of this beautiful, shocking, and highly memorable fusion of antiquity, sensuality and violence from filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk. The title has often been brought up in reference books, magazines, and online forums, though comparatively few people had a chance to see it in anything resembling a complete or watchable edition anywhere in the world for decades. Thanks to both a slew of tantalizing stills and escalating renewal of interet in Borowczyk (sent into overdrive with Arrow's magnificent releases of his early major works), the film remained at the top of horror fanatics' wish lists for years beginning at the start of the DVD era with no relief in sight for what seemed like an eternity. Fortunately in 2015 Arrow stepped in with the release fans have been waiting for: a pristine, uncut, English-friendly release in the original aspect ratio, crammed with more extras than anyone could have hoped for.
The title character of Dr. Jekyll and the conceit of unleashing his murderous alter ego through chemical experimentation are the main remnants here of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella, a horror classic already adapted numerous times over the years. A horror fixture at the time after roles in Paul Morrissey's two gothic horror as well as Suspiria, Mark of the Devil and House on Straw Hill, Udo Kier stars as the mild-mannered doctor, who is still pretty passionate behind closed doors with his fiancee, Fanny Osbourne (Pierro, in the second of her Borowczyk films after Behind Convent Walls). Their impending nuptials are being celebrated with an overnight engagement party at a fancy estate home, but as we see in the opening sequence, a cane-wielding murderer is on the loose preying on young girls, or anyone else who might stray into his path. Among the guests are a strict English general (Dementia 13's Magee), who has an odd relationship with his carnal daughter, and a physician (Jess Franco regular Vernon). Both of them come into play when bodies start turning up around the house, starting with a young ballet dancer whose nocturnal performance is capped off with the discovery of her gruesomely violated body. Meanwhile Jekyll is behaving rather strangely, asking that his estate be left to someone named Mr. Hyde and occasionally sneaking off to his lab. However, the process of his transformation is a bit different compared to other versions: he now bathes in blood-red bathwater containing his elixir, and his transformation into Mr. Hyde (Zalcberg) also gives him an oversized, fatal endowment, an aspect censored from most prints of the film. It's really in the final fifteen minutes that the film really soars with a delirious climax completely different from any other edition of the tale, a feverisih and unforgettable concoction that ranks as one of Borowczyk's finest cinematic moments.
It's obvious here that Borowczyk wanted to push some ideas he had explored in his previous films, most notably the celebrated blood bathing scene in Immoral Tales and the entire storyline of The Beast (which similarly dealt with a house filled with eccentrics celebrating an upcoming wedding, an engaged woman hiding a sensual side to her personality, and a groom with a grotesque secret). However, this was his first real foray into full-blooded horror territory, and he proves more than up to the task right from the eerie opening sequence. Adding to the unearthly atmosphere is a rich electronic score by avant-garde composer Bernard Parmegiani, adapting some of his previous work into a tapestry to seems to pull the film out of time entirely.
The combination of surrealism, artistry, and sexualized violence (more implied or shown in its aftermath but still jolting) proved to be a tough proposition for many film distributors, and this film mainly played in Europe and Asia under a variety of titles. Initially it was called Dr. Jekyll and His Women and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne in English, while French audiences (the few who saw it intact) encountered it as Dr. Jekyll et les femmes. The film never got an official release on American shores at all in theaters, instead turning up later in very heavily edited form on VHS under the title Bloodlust (in an unwatchably murky transfer to boot). Letterboxed but optically fogged copies of the Japanese VHS became a hot commodity on the trading circuit since they were the only full-length English option, while the French tape offered an opportunity to see it without any visual censorship. After that it dropped out of sight entirely around the world, refusing to pop up even on DVD anywhere at all until the Arrow edition.
Thankfully the new transfer from the French negative is absolutely wonderful, up there with the already high standards of their previous Borowczyk presentations. The diffusion effects and deep shadows have wreaked havoc on the film's video transfers in the past, but this one gets it just right with clarity never suffering and delicate textures now taking on an intensity far greater than what was visible even in the tattered 35mm prints floating around. It's just a sublime experience all around. The film is presented with its usual English audio track as well as the French one, and they make for a fascinating case study in how much a soundtrack can alter the mood of a film. Both of them are fairly hit and miss as far as synchronization goes, with actors like Magee having their own voices on the English track while others are dubbed with flat, jarring Americanized voices. The French one is considerably more elegant and restrained, bringing out some wry humor in the dialogue and slightly dialing down the music in several scenes. Basically you could say the English track is the more grindhouse-y option and the French one is the art film one. There's also an audio commentary introduced and tied together by regular Borowczyk expert Daniel Bird (a familiar presence on Arrow's Boro box) with comments recorded over various periods with the late director, cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy, and filmmaker Noël Simsolo, with comments alternating between English and French (with optional subtitles). There's a wealth of material here, not surprisingly, with Borowczyk getting some of the best moments as he talks about other films that inspired for this and other projects including Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, A Clockwork Orange, and even A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with tangents along the way including everything from Alien to the sympathetic natures of his characters.
As for video extras, we start off with a previously obscure and essentially unknown 1979 Borowczyk short, "Happy Toy" (running just over two minutes), which was recovered in 2014 and is a charming, purely hand-drawn animated short revealing his love of the early praxinoscope. Then the 2012 "Himorogi" is an homage to Borowczyk by Marina and Alessa Pierro, a beautiful self-described haiku using filmic techniques and props from his films to create a 17-minute surreal environment accentuated by a moody preexisting Parmegiani pieces. Alessio Pierro also contributes a 10-minute video interview discussing the meaning of the short and the stop-motion animation he utilized for some of the sequences.
The rest of the video interviews pertain directly to the main feature, kicking off with Kier himself for an 11-minute chat about how he met the director and got a part in their first film together, Lulu (in which Kier played Jack the Ripper). Mostly he discusses shooting this film outside Paris and the discomfort of wearing those red contact lenses, and unfortunately he doesn't remember exactly why another actor was brought in to play Hyde. Then Marina Pierro (in an Italian-language audio interview with English subtitles, illustrated with stills) gets an astonishingly thoughtful and articulate 20 minutes to talk about her six-film working relationship with Borowczyk and her role as his muse for the last decade of his career. Excellent stuff. Sarah Mallinson wraps things up talking for 10 minutes about her work on the animation shorts of Borowczyk and Peter Foldes; do note that she speaks very softly so you'll need to crank up the volume a bit.
A separate section is devoted to "Documentaries and Essays," beginning with Michael Brooke's 32-minute video appreciation in which he offers a reminscence of sneaking in underage to see the film during its sole, spectacularly unsuccessful UK theatrical run and charts how Borowczyk came to have a powerful impact on his views on cinema, plus lots of info about the heritage of the Jekyll and Hyde story and the backgrounds of many of the film's participants. If you really want to dive into the extras on this disc, this is probably the best place to start. Particularly enjoyable is the final wrap up persuasively making a case for this film as a greatest hits package of visual motifs and themes from all of his work leading up to this point. Then the 14-minute "Phantasmagoria of the Interior" uses the Vermeer painting seen in the film as the focal point for a study of some surprising revelations about how some unsavory aspects of the painter's family experiences were utilized in Borowczyk's film and how Vermeer's artistic sensibilities influenced the film. In Bird's 10-minute "Eyes That Listen," the fusion of Borowczyk and Parmegiani is the focus for a look at how avant-garde music informed the director's work, including some excerpts of an interview with the composer. Finally the 6-minute "Return to Méliès: Borowczyk and Early Cinema" notes the recurring use of nascent cinematic techniques and equipment in his films to create their distinctive aesthetic. Finally the disc closes out with a liner notes booklet containg a Bird essay and the French theatrical trailer, whose original audio has been lost; instead it can be played with the U.K. trailer audio (with the title The Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll), part of the score, or brief commentary by Bariha. Needless to say, the wait has been worth it.