Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part VII): I, Monster (1971) dir. Stephen Weeks

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's I, MONSTER (1971). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: The year 1971 saw Amicus return to standalone horror films with the release of I, MONSTER, a variation on the literary STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Until then, Amicus hadn't produced a standalone horror since 1966, when their insect-infused murder mystery THE DEADLY BEES failed to stir up much of a buzz with filmgoing audiences. Five years is a long period of time in small budget genre filmmaking-- heck, Amicus made eight additional films between the releases of THE DEADLY BEES and I, MONSTER-- so it's not absurd to imagine that Amicus honchos Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg were hesitant to dip back into horror in any context outside of their winning anthology formula. Consequently, the producers simply adopted another studio's once-winning formula for their next venture: I, MONSTER is a Hammer film in everything but credit. It's well-acknowledged (even within their own films; see: THE MONSTER CLUB [1980]) that Amicus made their horror films in a contemporary setting because it was cheaper to do so, but here we find ourselves transported back to an atmospheric vision of late Victorian England. The film's source material (for once) isn't the pulpy pages of a Robert Bloch story, but instead the classic, more mannered horror of Victorian author Robert Louis Stevenson. The starring roles are filled by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who-- though certainly no strangers to Amicus's films-- here seem to be correcting the error Hammer Productions made in never casting the constant duo in any of their versions of the JEKYLL & HYDE story, as they had for so many other cinematic monsters.

The problem is that with I, MONSTER Amicus made a circa-1960 Hammer film in 1971. In 1960, Hammer released THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, and one can easily chart the similarities between the subtle and restrained approach of that film and what we find in I, MONSTER. Yet the English cinematic horror of 1971 was not what it was in 1960. In 1971, English audiences were subjected to the lurid horrors of films like THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, and PSYCHOMANIA. More tellingly, 1971 saw Hammer release their second turn at Stevenson's story, the salacious gender-bending romp DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE, alongside other bold, violent, and raunchy material like COUNTESS DRACULA, HANDS OF THE RIPPER, and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. In contrast to what was happening in English horror cinema at the beginning of the 1970s, Amicus's over-serious, only slightly sleazy literary adaptation feels woefully out of step with the times. What's all the more ironic is that up until this effort the rest of Amicus's films acted as nose-thumbing heralds for the new garish style of horror cinema about to infect the country's screens. Thus, I, MONSTER feels like a misguided step backwards, a grab at the hopelessly out of reach carrot of respectability that couldn't have possibly occurred at a more inopportune time.

All of this noted, I don't dislike the film. It's far from the most daring cinematic adaptation of Stevenson's novella, but in the Amicus filmography its ambitions at least eclipse those of something like THE DEADLY BEES. I think there are aspects of I, MONSTER worth remarking upon, even if their cumulative effect inspires heads to nod off to sleep. But first, just to make sure you didn't fall into the land of slumber yourself, I'll turn the screen back to you for your general impressions.

GR: A “step back” is exactly the thought that I had after watching I, MONSTER (1971). (I actually wrote “two steps back” in all honesty.) Which is a real shame because, as you noted, the horror genre was going through such a wonderful experimental transition at this point after films like TARGETS (1968) had signaled the changing platform of the world’s terrors that all the elements seemed to be in place for something innovative or at least remotely entertaining to be assembled from Stevenson’s engaging little mystery, if nothing else than a faithful adaptation. But though certain details in the film remain quite close to the text (this is one of the few versions that retains Enfield’s “story of the door”), Subotsky makes some very odd exclusions and changes in his screen story. For instance, why does the film acknowledge its debt to the novel in the opening credits but has the name of the main character(s) changed from Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde to Dr. Charles Marlowe and Edward Blake? I fancied Subotsky was working in a literary allusion to Christopher Marlowe, the 17th century playwright who had penned the first famous version of the Faust legend for the stage—a drama that also shares a central figure who meddles in the nature of man through dark and mystical means—but I think that may be giving him a bit too much credit. My main beef with I, MONSTER is that everything seems so half-hearted and lackluster that it leaves me without much to praise or damn really. I say this all as a sucker of Victoriana, and while all of the fog and gaslights and heavy draperies and muttonchops brought a smile to my lips, the whole affair moved along at such an unwavering hum that all those images and aesthetics left my mind as quickly as they came in.

It might be too easy to lay all the blame at the feet of director Stephen Weeks (the filmmaker was twenty-three when he helmed I, MONSTER and he had only made short subjects up until that point; he only directed three other movies afterward, two of which were versions of the Sir Gawain legend), but it must be said that there isn’t too much style augmenting Subotsky’s mainly substance-free script that could have at least made the shortcomings of the screenplay work as a visually evocative horror piece. There is one good and surprising sequence where Blake’s trampling of a child (who I noticed was Chloe Franks from THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD [1971] though IMDb does not list her in their credits) is seen as a hazy dream where the characters move in slow motion and the villain is depicted as only having two mad eyes staring from a white, blank face, somewhat reminiscent of the excellent scene from the spaghetti Gothic NIGHTMARE CASTLE (1965). Alas, it is so fleeting as to be almost subliminal. 

I got the impression that Amicus was a tad nervous getting back into the standalone mode, and you see little hints that they were trying for that spicier flavor that Hammer was working into their productions. Repressed sexuality is discussed more than given any actual weight in the movie, but we do get a peek at some illicit photographs of models sans corsets and pantaloons in Dr. Marlowe’s study drawer that hint at a naughtiness the film never fully explores. Ditto too for the drug addiction implications of Jekyll/Marlowe’s scientific experimentation, though his gold case where he keeps the transforming liquid looks like a classy druggie’s kit. It’s too bad that they couldn’t go full bore with the trashier aspects, though this was never truly the Amicus house style anyway. There are things to like here, but at the end of the day I can’t seem to rid myself of the feeling that the audience was bereft of a truly solid piece of work. 

Now, if you are up to it, I turn it back it to you to fill us in on the specifics of your thoughts on this middling, bubbling brew.

NT: It's a queer evaluation to make, but to me it seems that Subotsky's script is so ambitious that it winds up tripping over itself in its attempts to incorporate as many novel interpretations of the Jekyll & Hyde story as it can, resulting in a film so thematically muddled and underdeveloped as to appear hollow. In the first act, Marlowe's admission to being a student of Freud couches his experiments quite literally in theories of psychoanalysis and psychology generally, though the novella and nearly all of its adaptations only elliptically address these issues. Marlowe's desire is for his serum to unleash his patients' primal Id while doing away with the pesky Superego. On a larger scale, this would, in effect, rid the population of society's enforced suppression of their basic desires, which fashions Marlowe (at least temporarily) into a sort of counter-cultural rebel with a cause (he gets into a knife fight, too, just like James Dean), who is setting out to free the minds of others with his groovy wonder drug. (Even if his serum only serves to make men into babies, women into sexpots, and cats into banshees, it's what their Ids wanted, isn't it?) 

From this interpretation, we then move into the drug addiction narrative, which you mention above. This theme could bear fine, relevant fruit on its own were it allowed the time to ripen, but soon enough the film has plucked it and cast it aside in favor of introducing yet another piece of thematic implication, this one involving the physical abuse Marlowe suffered from his father as a child. The film hints, in no uncertain terms, that the serum and its remarkable aging effects are transforming Marlowe, physically and temperamentally, into his own abusive, alcoholic, sexually frustrated father. Again, intriguing, but what does the film do with it? These specific thematic approaches to Stevenson's tale aren't as disparate as I, MONSTER makes them seem, and a smarter, tighter script could have found a way to condense and elaborate upon them. Instead, the film devotes much of its last act and a half to faithfully adapting specific scenes and sequences from the novella, all of which have lost the bulk of their relevance in this new context. The result? A final twenty minutes that beg your brain to hit the snooze button. And with a film that falls short of eighty minutes total, that's unfortunate.

But despite his relative inexperience and brief filmography, I hesitate to blame director Stephen Weeks for the messiest aspects of this production. I actually found myself quite impressed with the collaborative work between him and cinematographer Moray Grant (who was working with Hammer at the time on wonderfully atmospheric films like VAMPIRE CIRCUS [1972] and SCARS OF DRACULA [1970]). Many scenes are expertly imagined and executed, from Utterson's nightmare (which you mention above) to a personal favorite scene in which the devious Edward Blake woozily chats up a woman in a pub (which features the principal actors and all the surrounding extras slowly and perpetually shambling to the right hand side of the frame for the scene's duration while the camera follows them on a dolly, as if they were stuck in some sort of inebriated, partner-less ballroom dance or-- better yet-- trapped in a Peter Greenaway film). 

Moreover, I love that Weeks apparently felt no compulsion to rein in Christopher Lee's performance. Not content to simply chew the scenery, Weeks and Lee have his Blake/Hyde blow-torch it. Though the performance veers right along the edges of camp (someone should have perhaps pried the mirrors out of Lee's hands), it never fully descends into that trap: Lee goes so far out, commits so readily to his balding, increasingly stooped and mangled makeup, that a real sense of pathos begins to build in us for this abused, egotistical addict. Though much of this sympathy dissolves by the time we're hit with the standard issue thriller climax, it's notable that the film managed to generate any sympathy to begin with. The IMDb trivia section informs me that Peter Duffell, director of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971), was originally tapped to direct I, MONSTER but refused (perhaps giving credence to last week's hypothesis about his working relationship with Amicus). I'm happy he did refuse, as I could see a tonally indecisive director like him tempted to urge Lee to blissfully cross his eyes and whistle whenever he took a hit of the serum. If you can say nothing else about Weeks's direction, you can at least admit he was committed to a particular tone and vision, as hopelessly out of fashion as they may have been.

We might call I, MONSTER a botched, antiquated experiment in the Amicus filmography. That would be fair. There are greater sins one could commit, and when we contrast it with the botched experiment of Dr. Charles Marlowe displayed on screen, it no longer seems so egregious. For one, the experiment of I, MONSTER didn't require the stabbing to death of any pretty felines. There we go. That might be the nicest thing we can agree upon about the film: at least its production didn't murder any cats!

GR: Wow. I really hate to admit this, but I actually don’t remember any of that information or insinuation about Marlowe’s father at all. Typically I can follow along with a film no matter how unattached I might be to the events transpiring on the screen, but those details have abandoned my memory as completely as London fog dissipating at dawn. You discussed how the film’s final moments prompt the viewer to tune it all out and I suppose that I just did that much too well. This is quite the shame because that plot device actually sounds very interesting, but perhaps I would have only been disappointed by the lack of follow-through on that end. It’s accurate to say that Subotsky crams in too many (not completely disparate) ideas into the script so that the end result becomes a “Best Of” clip reel of all the themes that other adaptations and revisions to Stevenson’s story have incorporated (there’s also a bit where Marlowe discovers he’s transforming into his dark half one Sunday afternoon in the park like Fredric March did in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 iteration). This seems like a repeat of his old DR. TERROR practices, grasping at whatever threads looked intriguing or enlightening only to abandon them all like a cat becoming bored with a ball of yarn. (That last metaphor was written in memory of Trixie, Dr. Marlowe’s clobbered pet cat.) 

Lee’s characterization of the odious Blake is indeed noteworthy, especially as he very rarely got the chance to indulge in portrayals that really allowed him to let loose with wild abandon as opposed to being the ever-stoic pillars of evil that he depicted so many times. One of the rarities of seeing Christopher Lee in a movie that’s shown to us in I, MONSTER is also one of the most terrifying, and that’s when he smiles. Just the way his lips curl up in that depraved little grin is enough to convince you that Marlowe has peered into the abyss and has decided to cannonball into it with glee. Lee gives his moments as Blake some real gusto, especially his predatory stalking of the pub floozy and the way he barks “Now, look!” at Lanyon (Richard Hurndall). The gradual degradation of his features is cannily handled as well, like how his teeth become more pronounced, the skin seems to pale over time, and how Lee sinks his head down to produce a weird double-chin effect. It all builds up to the point that Lee resembles a diseased, jowly maggot slithering through the streets in his dark coat on the hunt for the dank flesh of corruption. That said I have to admit that the other half of that portrayal, our intrepid Dr. Marlowe, has to rank as one of the most “blah” Jekyll personas ever to strut across the laboratory in the search for the Truth. There is no real sense of conflict or drive to propel Marlowe forward in his researches; he is the epitome of the objective scientist, almost reaching the level of apathy as he discusses his findings and hypotheses to the stuffed shirts at the gentlemen’s club with all the vigor of an untenured professor giving a lecture to a room full of pigeons. Lee seems to lack the fire in his belly that you see depicted by Barrymore, Tracy, and even Palance in their respective versions. This might have been meant to act as some kind of layer of verisimilitude or an alternate take on Jekyll as concentrated scientist, but as a conductor of engaging drama it is basically a failure.

The rest of the film does have its share of modest flourishes and hiccups of originality. I had forgotten about that tracking shot in the seedy bar until you mentioned it, and it is a starkly dynamic way the scene is interpreted compared to some of the other stale stagings we’re forced through (most noticeable are the numerous club scenes I mentioned above where the characters sit like statues amongst the cushions with that cliché stock music you hear queued up anytime the world of the rich and fancy is presented to us playing in the background for an added dash of triteness). That scene between Blake and Lanyon becomes near-Expressionistic as it depicts the fiend downing the serum before focusing in on his looming shadow, showing it unwavering upon the wall before revealing the composed and clean Marlowe walking back into the frame. The whole bar scene actually has some other standouts, like when the floozy humiliates Blake in front of the crowd for his gruesome looks. The moment he takes to sheepishly gaze from side to side as the drunk party guffaws at the joke is a refreshingly humanistic approach to the Hyde character. We get a chance to look past his status as the Id personified to view him as an actual person capable of shame in spite of his unrelenting villainy. The later chase of said floozy is blocked a bit oddly, but it ends on a disturbingly effective note when the dame, finally cornered, moves to take off her clothing, apparently thinking that Blake is looking to sexually assault her. She has this attitude of “Alright, alright, if this is going to happen then let’s just get it over with,” but it’s only when she realizes the permanent punishment Blake has in mind that she truly begins to show fear. That was probably the most brilliant and terrifying moment from the entire film, and it’s the one thing that warrants congratulating Subotsky for, whether he fully understood the entire chilling implication of this seemingly throwaway detail or not upon adding it to the script. It speaks to a horror beyond mad science and transformations into boogeymen, to the universal ugliness that we force on each other and how we will, eventually, come to accept it as part of our everyday life. 

The majority of what’s left on screen though, as I said, seems to lack any real punch, and while I’d be more than happy to acknowledge Weeks’ commitment to a defined thematic tone for I, MONSTER, his film goes directly against the praise that I ended my estimation of Peter Duffell and his frenetic THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971) with: “[B]ut one thing it isn’t is boring.” And to say that of a film that strives for a high-thrills ending that includes Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (or their stunt doubles) throttling each other only to have Lee set ablaze and sent screaming down a flight of stairs only for both him and any sense of excitement we might have had to land with a resounding thud is just such a terrible let-down. I won’t go so far as to say that making I, MONSTER was a waste of time, but I’ll probably not be taking a swig of this concoction again on a black winter morning any time soon.

Next week: Asylum (1972)

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