I, Monster (1971/1973) ***
Ages and ages ago, during the first flowering of horror cinema in Germany, F. W. Murnau directed a version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde called The Janus Head. The story itself was not the only thing that changed names in that interpretation, either. To cite only the most instantly obvious rechristenings, Dr. Jekyll became Dr. Warren, and Mr. Hyde became Mr. O’Connor. The comprehensive superficial alterations seem mystifying at first, but are readily explicable in light of something going on behind the scenes. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was still protected by copyright in 1920, and just as would happen with Nosferatu (also a Murnau film, curiously enough) two years later, The Janus Head’s producers didn’t feel like ponying up for the adaptation rights. (That may go some way toward explaining why that movie is counted among the lost today.) Perhaps some similar legal or political consideration accounts for I, Monster as well, but if so, I’ve had no luck discovering what it might have been. Amicus Productions’ stealth take on Jekyll and Hyde is in a sense even more puzzling, for here it’s only the title characters who have undergone name-changes. We have a Lanyon, an Utterson, an Enfield— even a Poole!— but in place of Henry Jekyll, it’s Dr. Charles Marlowe, and although Edward Hyde is still Edward, he’s now Edward Blake. Again, I have no idea what this is about. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella was safely in the public domain by the early 70’s, and in any case, I, Monster frankly acknowledges Stevenson in the opening credits (although it obfuscates just a tad by neglecting to specify from which of the author’s tales its script derives). And to deepen the mystery yet further, I, Monster has a better claim to the original title than many films, for it is in some respects the most faithful adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde I’ve seen, pointedly discarding all manner of accretions from its various stage and screen predecessors, and returning to the source for material that had seen little if any use on celluloid before.
The first thing you’ll notice is the absence of any General Carew from the scene, and with him any fetching adolescent daughter to serve as the Jekyll character’s love interest. Rather, Dr. Marlowe (Christopher Lee) leads an ascetic life dedicated wholly to his work. This being the 19th century, the practice of medicine is less strictly compartmentalized than it would be today, and Marlowe spends at least as much time and energy treating illnesses of the mind as he does treating illnesses of the body. In fact, he finds the former considerably more interesting than the latter, not least because of the revolutionary theories of mental architecture and operation lately put forward by a certain Viennese doctor. Perhaps you’ve heard of him— gentleman by the name of Sigmund Freud? What most fires Marlowe’s imagination is Freud’s insight that the psyche can be separated into functional layers that habitually act in opposition to one another, often beneath the notice of the conscious mind. In particular, the notion of conflict between the morally and normatively dictatorial superego and the impulsive, animalistic id inspires Marlowe, seeming as it does to explain so much of the counterproductive, self-defeating behavior that he observes in his psychiatric patients. Marlowe, however, is not content to be a mere disciple of Freud. His aim is to build on Freud’s work by developing drugs that can separate and selectively suppress those layers of the mind, permitting the therapist to engage each of them directly. In fact, as he tells his friends and confidants, attorney Frederick Utterson (Peter Cushing) and Doctors Lanyon (Gawain and the Green Knight’s Richard Hurndall) and Enfield (Mike Raven, from Crucible of Terror and Lust for a Vampire), he may already be in possession of just such a chemical. The drug certainly produces some striking psychoactive effects, but Marlowe isn’t quite sure as yet what those effects really signify.
The strongest evidence that Marlowe’s concoction draws out the id and/or suppresses the superego is that no two of his experimental subjects react to it in quite the same way, behaviorally speaking. All undergo a drastic personality shift under its influence, but the specifics are as varied as the animals and people on whom he tries it. This shows most clearly in the contrasting cases of two human subjects, both of them longtime psychiatric patients of Marlowe’s. One of these, an extremely successful businessman (Kenneth J. Warren, of The Creeping Flesh and Beyond Atlantis), is gruff, dominant, and demanding to the point of belligerence under ordinary circumstances, but an injection of Marlowe’s formula reduces him to a fearful, blubbering man-child. The other is an exceedingly prim and proper young lady (Susan Jameson), seemingly the perfect specimen of Victorian English womanhood. When Marlowe gives her the drug, she immediately strips off all her clothes and does everything within her considerable power to seduce him. In each case, it appears that the subject is manifesting aspects of his or her personality that are normally strongly repressed; the businessman gives vent to all the fears and insecurities, and the classy lady to all the sexual longings, that have no place in their regular lives.
As usual, the impetus for Marlowe’s subjecting himself to his own drug comes via the chiding of his friends, but I, Monster has an interesting twist on that premise. Although Lanyon takes the time-honored Some Things Man Was Not Meant to Know line in attempting to dissuade Marlowe from pursing his psyche-splitting research any further, Utterson frames his misgivings much more convincingly as a question of professional ethics: it’s no easy matter to abide by “First, do no harm” when you’re not really sure what the treatment method you’re using actually does. Taking the lawyer’s concerns to heart, Marlowe embarks upon an in-depth study of the drug’s effects, using himself as the guinea pig.
I’m sure you can all see the general shape of what’s to come without me spelling it out, but the lack of any clear analogue for Muriel Carew or Ivy Peterson gives the second half of I, Monster a very different flavor from the earlier, better-known film versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The shift from an escalating campaign of physical and psychological maltreatment against a single, long-suffering, and theoretically beloved victim back toward the novella’s haphazard rat-bastardry against a variety of random strangers makes for a less focused second and third acts than I’m accustomed to, but it also makes it rather more credible that Marlowe would persist in his project for as long as he does. That’s an important factor in I, Monster’s favor, because the Jekyll character’s motives are far and away the thorniest hazard faced by anyone attempting to tell a variation on this story. There needs to be a duality of some kind between the “good” Dr. Jekyll and the “evil” Mr. Hyde, but at the same time there must be some excuse for the former to keep letting the latter loose. Stevenson himself sidestepped the issue by gradually revealing that the doctor’s apparent goodness was always an illusion, more the product of Victorian England’s superficial fixation upon outward appearances of propriety than anything else. The MGM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde followed the author’s example, but other versions have sought different and more problematic solutions. Some make the Hyde formula addictive, as in Edge of Sanity, where the drug that turns Jekyll into Hyde is more or less explicitly cocaine. Others, like the Louis Meyer-Sheldon Lewis version from 1920, throw in the towel altogether on moral dichotomy between the title characters, drawing a feeble distinction between a reprobate Dr. Jekyll and a sociopathic Mr. Hyde. John Barrymore’s Jekyll, in still a fourth strategy, is just plain naïve, and the inadequacy of that answer is a big part of what makes the silent Paramount version the least of the three canonical Jekyll-and-Hyde films. The same studio’s remake from the 30’s, meanwhile, took the serviceable but inelegant approach of eliminating the habitual trading off between the two personalities; while Frederic March’s Hyde heaps a month of steady abuse on Ivy, his Jekyll simply ceases to exist. In I, Monster, though, Charles Marlowe never has to face any of Edward Blake’s victims, or even to remember them except as participants in a succession of isolated incidents. That ties neatly into what we know about him from before the experiment, for he never really seemed to see his patients as real people, either. Marlowe isn’t malicious, but that blindness to others’ autonomous humanity can lead him to be a bit of a cad even under the best of circumstances. It isn’t altogether surprising, then, that he’d have to paint himself into an inescapable moral corner before he’d put a stop to his investigations into the divisibility of the psyche.
I, Monster’s greatest strength, however, is clearly Christopher Lee’s performance. The early 70’s were a weird time in Lee’s career. On the one hand, he was growing visibly— indeed, outspokenly— frustrated with his accustomed position as Europe’s king of the horror ghetto, carping publicly about what he perceived as Hammer’s mishandling of their Dracula franchise and generally acting like he was too good for the kind of movies that had given him the chance to become more than just that tall guy who always played Thug #2. But at the same time, he rarely let his frustration stop him from accepting parts that genuinely were beneath him, as when he showed up for five minutes to give Donald Pleasence shit from behind a terrible fake moustache in Raw Meat. Put those two tendencies together, and it is perhaps not surprising that Lee could occasionally be caught merely going through the motions during this period. That’s not what he’s doing here, though. To all appearances, Marlowe/Blake was exactly the sort of role Lee was craving by the 70’s, and he gave I, Monster everything he had. The Marlowe side of the performance is a minor masterpiece of understatement, capturing perfectly the mien of someone you can’t quite bring yourself to trust for absolutely no reason that you can articulate. There’s nothing identifiably cruel or sleazy or violent or dishonest in Marlowe’s demeanor— not even the excess of charm that is sometimes the only sign that a person is dangerous to know. He seems competent, capable, and collected, and I have no doubt that he’s a good doctor by the standards of 18-whatever. No way in hell would I want him as my doctor, though, and I couldn’t begin to explain to anyone why. It’s perfectly credible, in other words, that Charles Marlowe could have Edward Blake tucked away inside him, buried under layers of education, socialization, and ethical indoctrination. As for Blake… well, let me ask you something. Have you ever seen Christopher Lee smile? I mean no-shit, ear-to-ear grin in utter, joyful abandon? I certainly hadn’t. I can totally understand why not, too, ‘cause it’s just about the creepiest fucking thing in the entire fucking world! In fact, it’s rather disappointing when I, Monster pulls out the old progressive makeup gambit, even if that’s realistically the only way even to attempt justifying the failure of characters who know Marlowe to recognize him when they see him as Blake. Even at the climax, the makeup in question is subtle and well thought-out, but the baggy eyelids and snaggly dentures are simply nowhere near as discomfiting a sight as Lee just looking effulgently happy.