Saturday, September 25, 2021

Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981)

Esteemed young Doctor Henry Jekyll has invited some guests over for his engagement party. He entertains friends and family with his fiancee Fanny, until the party is spoiled by news of a nearby murder. The tension immediately grows as the household itself is invaded by a psychotic and lustful intruder. As the men of the house gather weapons to defend themselves, Fanny sneaks off to follow her fiance, witnessing Henry make a horrifying transformation...

French based Pole Walerian Borowczyc specialised in sexually and religiously transgressive films, often exposing what he saw as the hypocrisy among the elite, and in society as a whole. Some of his moves garnered considerable controversy on their release, such as the period piece The Beast. 1981's Dr. Jekyll and His Women is perhaps his darkest films, and certainly one of the more adult and eyebrow raising adaptions Robert Louis Stevenson's classic chiller ever got! Where else could you see Mr. Hyde with a hilariously fake 9 foot long penis?

*Or 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne' as its creator originally intended. Bit of a wordy title, and not as grabby as the ultimate name, but respect to Arrow Films for restoring it for the spiffy DVD-Blu-ray release.

For the first third, Dr. Jekyll and His Women is quite boring, consisting almost entirely of extremely dry conversations. There is enough time where a boring movie can redeem itself before that point of no return. Thankfully this does just that, and the remainder of the film is more entertaining. The pace is still languid and the events minimal, but they are presented and spread out well, and the fact that things are actually happening now make it automatically more enthralling than a bunch of stuffed-shirts gabbing on/blethering on. It's not perfect by any means, and there are still a few moments where my attention dipped, but it was alright at least.

There's a disappointing climax, that makes little sense. It is an impactful final scene, but it requires every character involved to be an idiot. If Jekyll doesn't have any more antidote, why did he draw another formula bath to begin with? There's also a montage that crams in as much 'shocking' material as it can within 5 minutes. Where was all of this during the first 85 minutes?

In theory this is a good representation of the source material. It's not a literal adaption, but more of a spiritual one, and you can tell that Walerian does understand the story's ideas, in a way that some people haven't. But do I think he did it well overall? Not so much. The way the story is told felt a bit slipshod, taking forever to do some things, and omitting many key moments from the book.

Dr. Jekyll and His Woman has clear moral themes to show, and my problem with them is that ultimately it's all a bit simple. The theme really just amounts to "Society toffs can be real perverts behind closed doors, right? Right?". Yes, they can, we know. Do you have anything else of substance to tell us? A movie doesn't necessarily need the most complicated of themes to be successful, but when the whole point is built around something that can take 5 seconds to explain, and you get the picture only 10 minutes in, you have a problem.

The film also highlights the sexual repression of the era, where well-behaved innocent Victorian ladies secretly harbour kinky fantasies. I am sure most ladies of the era were indeed innocent and pureminded, but these are the same women who made The Sheikh popular, and regularly had rape fantasies about Arab sheiks kidnapping them, so Walerian clearly understands his time period well.

This is very much a character driven story, and in some ways they are decently written, but boring in others. The titular lead sadly feels like a background character in his own movie. Mr. Hyde is even less of a character for the most part, being so animalistic you can't imagine how he'd even hold a normal conversation. I would've been interested to see him at the reading of any will!

The film is nearly over before we get any insight to why Jekyll is doing any of this. And he's so brazen! How does he think he'll get away with all this, when he's not even trying to hide it. The process of transforming into Hyde isn't an easy one either, nor does it happen automatically. Jekyll has got to run a bath of water, make a formula, drink some, then fill the water with spooky bath salts until it looks like red pond slime, then bathes chaotically. In the climax when he begs his mate Lanyon for help to get him back to normal, you lose sympathy for the guy when you see just how many steps he deliberately took to do this.

The most notable guest is the general, who's a boisterous and authorative fellow, immediately taking charge when the house is locked down. There's a hilarious moment when he recklessly guns down the family coachmen, then has to sheepishly admit responsibility to the lady of the house. He then proceeds to try and justify it by saying this is like war. Tell that to the coachman's wife, dumbass!

His daughter is a naughty girl who must really have it in for her dad. She shows herself to be loyal to the home invader, though we never see her corrupted by Hyde. She's just suddenly infatuated enough with him to torment her father, then help stick him with arrows. And the girl ends up shocked that Hyde wants to kill her too. Awww, really? I am aghast, dear lady. Her death scene is incredibly weak. Hyde just fires some arrows offscreen, and we hear her going "Ah. Ah."

Dr. Jekyll's friend Dr. Lanyon isn't the most memorable of characters, but he is one of the only ones left by the climax. He has a terminal case of stupidity when he has Hyde at gunpoint, but allows himself to be dissuaded. This allows for a dramatic transformation, after which he suddenly drops dead in surprise. I was fully expecting Hyde to kill him, but nope. It feels like the character just magically dies because the script had no further need of him.

And lastly, there's Fanny, Jekyll's beleaguered fiancee. She's a fairly innocent girl, but makes an abrupt turn near the end. After a whole movie of getting the crap beaten out of her, shot by arrows, and threatened with murder, she then decides that being evil is awesome, and she wants in on it. It's a fairly predictable turn, and though I was looking forward to seeing how it'd play out, it's not as fleshed-out as it could've been.

The acting here is ok. Udo Kier is decent, but it's a bit of a thankless role really. Despite being the lead, he's barely onscreen, and he doesn't get to take part in the wild shenanigans of Jekyll's other half, absent altogether from the ending. Doubling as Hyde is Gerard Zalcberg. I was gonna say, the make-up job they did to Udo Kier made him look like another actor! That's because it is. Although they did still do something to the guy's face to make him look as uncanny as he does. Marina Pierro is decent in her role, and gets to cut loose in the last few minutes. Patrick Magee is funny as the general, while euro-horror regular Howard Vernon is a welcome presence.

As for what language to watch this in, I'd recommend the first half hour in English, and the rest in French. It's worth seeing Patrick Magee's performance in his original language, with all his amusing bluster, but otherwise the original French track is superior, if for no other reason than Udo Kier gets to use his real voice.

Walerian does a great job with the direction, shooting his actors and locations competently and with style. I really dug the running theme of mirrors and doubles. Although he overdoes the motif after a while, and I began thinking it'd make for a fun drinking game. Take a shot each time a character looks longingly or enigmatically in a mirror.

The score to Dr. Jekyll and His Women is really special. It's a unique and experimental collection of tracks, that really build up an offputting atmosphere. They feel right out of something like Shadow Man (N64)  My only qualm would be that it sounds a little modern, clashing with the antique time period. I kept wondering if I was watching an updated version with new soundtrack. Small quibble though. Bernard Parmegiani really did a stellar job here.

Overall, Dr. Jekyll and His Women has its good sides for sure. It's interesting in some ways, and as a horror film it does its job reasonably well, even if it is aimed specifically at the arty crowd, rather than the casual moviegoers who are content with simple hack and slash fare (not meant as an insult, I adore such films!). It has its flaws too, and all in all it's a real mixed bag...


  1. This is a very well thought out review. It makes me want to watch the film for the sake of spotting all the flaws, although I'll probably be mainly annoyed by it all. Overall, it sounds like a very cheesy movie, made for the sake of getting the producers' names on the big screen.

  2. Haha, yeah. That's a good point when you look at how big the name BOROWCZYK is on the poster, even bigger than the film's name. xD