The ’70s and early ’80s were a wild and prolific time for adventurous European filmmakers who wanted explore sex and dark psychology in the horror genre. Jesus Franco was the one who capitalized on this opportunity the most but there were plenty of others who explored the same territory with memorable results. A great example is Walerian Borowczyk, a director who made films as eccentric and sexually explicit as Franco or Jean Rollin yet managed to give them a more refined, carefully crafted style.
The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Miss Osbourne is a good example of Borowczyk’s approach, taking the horror chestnut Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde and giving it a Sadean revamp. Udo Kier toplines as Dr.Jekyll, who has gathered family and friends at his home to celebrate his impending marriage to Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). Unfortunately for all, a madman named Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg) is on a rampage in the nearby city and soon sets his sights on Jekyll’s party. As the maniac lays siege to the houseguests, Fanny discovers a dark secret about her husband and his experiments.
Anyone familiar with the basics of the horror genre will know the Janus-style connection between Jekyll and Hyde but it’s the way that The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Miss Osbourne handles this archetype that makes it interesting. To begin with, Borowczyk presents Hyde as a force that busts through Victorian repression and uses his amorality to force the characters to confront their hidden lust and anger. He also presents Jekyll debating the role of morality in scientific progress with the religious Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon) – and gives the film a unique ending that defies the usual “don’t play God” moralism of Jekyll/Hyde tales to suggest that Hyde is a cleansing force in a time that needs it.
Borowczyk also gives his tale a lush, antiquarian style that makes its brutality and carnality pop off the screen that much more: Noel Very’s cinematography has the kind of hazy, diffused look you associate with upscale costume dramas and Borowczyk goes for stately setups with a limited amount of camera movement. Intriguingly, the burbling electronic score he got from Bernard Parmegiani offsets the look, giving it an edge that cuts against convention much like Mr. Hyde.
Finally, an area where Borowczyk differs from a lot of his stylized, horror-and-sex competition is he populates the film with really good performances that live up to his transgressive aims. Jekyll is one of Kier’s better roles and he plays the cool, amoral character well (he also throws himself into his transformation scenes in a way that will make fans of Andy Warhol’s Dracula smile). Zalcberg is convincingly alien and animalistic as Hyde and Pierro adds a sultry note to the proceedings as a woman whose desires are constrained by the social mores of the time. Also worthy of note is Vernon in a role that gives him great dialogue to work with – and Patrick Magee is fun as a military guest whose “God and country” facade slips to reveal a sadist when things get out of hand.
In short, one could think of The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Miss Osbourne as a next-level version of the same type material that Franco and Rollin pursued, complete with more careful filmmaking, improved production values and an above-average cast. Those who can appreciate the artsy, avant-garde side of genre fare will appreciate Borowczyk placing as much value on craftsmanship as he does on breaking taboos.