Stephen Weeks, 1971
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Mike Raven, George Merritt
Charles Marlowe, an accomplished psychologist, begins testing out a new drug that will allow him to expand on Sigmund Freud’s theories of human repression and mental illness. Noticing that the drug makes his patients respond in complete opposition to their personalities, Marlowe begins testing himself and soon an unexpected new character — the sadistic and ugly Edward Blake — emerges. He is sexually and physically aggressive and his behavior soon begins to escalate. Marlowe’s lawyer, Frederick Utterson, realizes that something is amiss and becomes determined to help his friend, regardless of the cost, once Blake begins murdering local prostitutes.
The improbably named I, Monster is yet another interpretation of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If you aren’t quite as devoted a British horror fan as, say, I am, this probably seems like yet another Hammer interpretation of a classic horror story previously filmed by Universal Studios, thanks in no small part to starring roles from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and a Victorian setting (though it quite notably lacks Hammer’s style or panache). I have to admit that I’m getting rather tired of these adaptations. This might also be that I’ve just reached my cap and my heart is already too devoted to films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), and Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) — all of which I genuinely love — to make room for a watered down interpretation of this tried and true genre formula.
After a pretty solid run of films written by Psycho author Robert Bloch, Amicus co-owner and producer Milton Subotsky once again returned to writing duties for this entry, though I can’t say that he did it any favors. It’s also curious that Amicus began filming in 3-D, though this process was eventually abandoned for some reason. That’s a shame, because maybe 3-D would have made the camera work a little more enjoyable, or at least campier. Sadly the film disappoints when it comes to script, direction, and effects. There’s some dull direction from Stephen Weeks, then a fledgling director who admittedly would not go on to helm many other films (though it curiously seems like he made two different versions of the Gawain and the Green Knight tale).
Because The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is basically a variation on the werewolf myth, transformation sequences are hugely important elements of cinematic adaptations of the tale. So it’s hard for me to hide my displeasure at the fact that in I, Monster, Christopher Lee’s transformation is minimal at best, with Lee barely appearing altered. His Hyde — Edward Blake — looks exactly like Marlowe, but with the addition of some dirty, torn clothing and what appear to be Halloween store dentures. Lee makes the most of the split role, gleefully acting out as the malicious Blake, while poor Peter Cushing is given precious little to do, though he’s a reassuring presence, as always. But the less said about Mike Raven (of Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire) — and his facial hair — the better.
Despite Lee’s enthusiasm, the script really fails its protagonist. The main problem with Jekyll/Marlowe is that he is just too tightly laced and unsympathetic, which is also the issue with the character in general. Sometimes this has hilarious results, as in an early scene where he first tests the experimental drug on his cat — though maybe it’s just a random cat hanging out in the laboratory, as he doesn’t strike me as someone who would have pets — giving not only an indication of how Marlowe treats living things, but the regard for which British genre cinema obviously feels towards cats.
Another of the film’s more tedious elements is its obsession with Freud. The themes of sexual repression and addiction that appear in several other British horror films during this period are hijacked by Marlowe’s determination to improve upon Freud’s work. The drug he develops is meant to bring out the patient’s buried impulses: a repressed, introverted woman becomes sexually aggressive, while a brutish thug acts like an innocent child. His research is of course hampered by his own determination to live a life of pure science and research, which results in his unconscious desires aggressively consume his life, causing him to transform even after he has given up taking the drug.
The real issue of course is with Marlowe himself, who is quite damaged and seems unable to form close relationships outside his practice. He says that his father used his cane for things other than walking — implying that the man was a sadist, giving an interesting psychological subtext for his obsession with his studies and the drug he is developing. His only friend is apparently his attorney, Utterson, which brings me to another strange issue with the script. There are a bizarre series of name changes surrounding the central character — Marlowe and Blake instead of Jekyll and Hyde — though otherwise the script is surprisingly faithful to the novel and includes characters like Utterson and Enfield, among others. It’s not a rights issue, because by the early ‘70s, the novel had been in the public domain for quite some time. In a weird way, this is sort of the inverse of both Jess Franco and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula adaptations, both of which claim to be faithful to the novel but absolutely are not. I. Monster is actually faithful, outside of its new title and new names for the divided protagonist.
I have to admit that I can’t really recommend I, Monster, though Lee and Cushing completists (as well as Mike Raven completists, if those exist) will definitely want to check it out at least once. You can find it on DVD from Image, though it’s certainly more of a rental than a purchase. As of this writing, it’s also available streaming on Amazon.