Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I, Monster (1971)

Anyone who makes horror movies is pretty much obliged at some point to have a go at Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal tale Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Amicus Productions were no exception. In 1971 they came up with a fairly decent version, I, Monster.

Of course the very fact that the story had been adapted so many times already by the 70s made it almost obligatory to try to come up with a new twist. Stevenson’s original story could be seen as a scientific gloss on an essentially religious notion, the dualist concept of good and evil, the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, God and Satan. Dr Jekyll believes these qualities co-exist in every human being. There is of course more to the story than that but it’s still essentially good and evil.

Hammer’s second version of Stevenson’s classic was also released in 1971 - Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Their twist was to add another dualism - male and female.

Amicus’s approach was to add Freud to the mix (Milton Subotsky did the screenplay). Dr Jekyll (who in their version becomes Dr Charles Marlowe and is played by Christopher Lee) believes in Freud’s theories regarding the id, the ego and the superego. He has developed a drug that has a curious effect on laboratory animals - they either become unusually timid or unusually aggressive. When he tests it on several patients and then on himself he begins to understand what is happening. The drug can have the effect of making either the superego or the id entirely dominant. If it’s the former the subject becomes so racked with guilt that he becomes pathetically submissive and apologetic, and fearful. If it’s the latter the subject becomes over-confident and childishly irresponsible and impulsive.

Some of this Freudian idea is implied in Stevenson’s story although Stevenson wrote it before Freud started to make his reputation - the repression of the evil side by the good side could be seen as a kind of anticipation of some of Freud’s ideas.

As Dr Marlowe discovers (since in his case it’s the id that takes over completely) he can also become tempted by evil and violence. In fact there are no longer any mental obstacles to a total immersion in the pursuit of pleasure. And this pleasure can take the form of pleasure in destruction and extreme violence. As Edward Blake (as I, Monster’s version of Mr Hyde is known) he becomes very dangerous indeed.

Apart from this fairly major change the rest of the plot follows the fairly standard Jekyll and Hyde template. Edward Blake starts to take over completely. Only one real obstacle stands in his way - Marlowe’s friend Frederic Utterson (Peter Cushing), who knows far too much. He suspects Black of being a blackmailer with Marlowe as his victim but he knows enough that there is a strong likelihood he will eventually discover the truth.

Peter Cushing was something of a specialist at mad scientist roles and might have been a better fit for the Dr Jekyll/Dr Marlowe role but there’s no question that Christopher Lee was better suited to play his Mr Hyde/Edward Black alter ego. In fact Christopher Lee handles both parts extremely well. Cushing is therefore relegated to what is really a supporting role in which he’s slightly under-utilised but still (as usual) very good.

Director Stephen Weeks had a brief and undistinguished career and it’s easy to see why. His helming of this film is competent but dull. On the other hand the movie looks quite good. Amicus generally avoided period pieces, presumably in an effort to give their movies a slightly different feel compared to Hammer’s, but this time they go for a period setting and pull it off quite well.

The transformation scenes are always a challenge in a Jekyll and Hyde picture. This one gets around the difficulty by mostly having them happen off-camera, although in one instance we see the transformation take place in Marlowe/Black’s shadow - an idea that works fairly well.

This is not one of my favourite adaptations of Stevenson’s story but it’s still an entertaining horror flick. Worth seeing for one of Christopher Lee’s most adventurous horror film performances.

Optimum’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but features an excellent widescreen transfer.

1 comment:

Ashley Shannon said...

I'm a big hammer fan and an even bigger Christopher Lee fan but I just couldn't get into this one. There seemed to be a lot of sitting around discussing Freud and not as much action as I'd have liked. Also I didn't feel there was enough of a physical change in Jekyll's appearance. Solid Hammer effort but a little too slow.

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