A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #10: “I, Monster” (1971)
by A.J. Hakari
Creating a new adaptation of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is like writing a book report on “The Great Gatsby.” The Robert Louis Stevenson novel has been explored so often in so many permutations on film, television, and the stage, there’s virtually no way to say anything new. You can have Jekyll be young or old, and Hyde can be man or woman, but it still all boils down to one well-intentioned scientist and the personification of all repressed desires getting the best of him/her. I, Monster, a product of Hammer contemporary Amicus Productions, is a humble horror jaunt that’s maybe a little too quick in resigning itself to making any difference. The movie barely even tries sometimes, but some atmospheric slivers thankfully manage to peer through the cracks.
While I, Monster never utters the names “Jekyll” or “Hyde” once, Stevenson is still credited, and the set-up is the same. Christopher Lee plays Dr. Charles Marlowe, a psychologist on the verge of a major breakthrough. He’s developed a drug that allows his patients to unlock personalities within themselves that they’ve suppressed (a well-to-do waif becomes a sensual vixen, a bullish businessman becomes meek and mild, etc.). But of course, Marlowe can’t resist knowing just what his concoction can really do, eventually injecting himself with the strange brew. Thus, Edward Blake is born, an alternate persona who’s prone to mischief, murder, and all that the button-downed Marlowe stands against. It isn’t long before Blake’s influence grows stronger and stronger, pushing out the good doctor’s mentality and replacing it with pure, unrestrained anarchy.
It’s worth noting that I, Monster deviates from the traditional Jekyll/Hyde formula in a few particular areas. For one, there’s no romantic subplot, so that’s one mountain of cliches the film need not concern itself with ascending, but the most obvious difference is in Marlowe’s potion. Rather than turn anyone who partakes of it into a raging douche-canoe, it merely swaps their default personality, with how weak or evil they become depending on how they normally act. Blake isn’t a total monster from the get-go, acting as a child would and fiddling around with lab equipment after his first emergence. It’s only on each subsequent change that his acts and physical appearance get uglier, which might’ve had more of an impact, had the movie been kind enough to show us what drove Marlowe to bring on his transformations to begin with.
I, Monster is a little stingy when it comes to the whole motivation thing. Be it out of spite against skeptical colleagues or an addiction to indulging in his dark side, there’s no fleshed-out reasoning behind why Marlowe willingly summons Blake throughout the film. It gets to a point that the only conclusion one can drawn is that there’d simply be no movie if the doc didn’t go bad. Upon reflection, this sort of ties into how I, Monster doesn’t actually have much sympathy for Marlowe at all. As was the attitude of the 1931 and 1941 Jekyll/Hyde titles, the film ends up sitting back and letting the man wallow in the failures of his scientific pursuits, stopping short of literally saying, “I told you so!” That’s certainly how it plays out, what with the little insight into Marlowe’s psyche we get and the overly-stiff manner in which Lee portrays him. This is more of a criticism of Stephen Weeks’s passionless directing than of Lee, who’s not all bad and takes Blake from prankster to killer with startling effectiveness. It’s too bad the supporting cast amounts to so little, with Peter Cushing especially wasted in a minor part as Marlowe’s concerned compatriot.
Lee’s performance and solid period production values to rival those of Hammer’s notwithstanding, I, Monster is really unexciting. It sure seems poised to be a more dramatic and soul-baring take on the material than is often shown, but the script lacks the drive to take make it all come to pass. It’s a good thing I have The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll on standby, because it’ll be a while before I’ll be compelled to pay I, Monster a return visit.