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Though obscurely credited onscreen as "based on a story by [Stevenson]," it's clear five minutes in that I, Monster is Jekyll and Hyde with a name change. In this version, Freudian physician Dr. Charles Marlowe (Christopher Lee) uses experimental drugs to tap into man's subconscious. After using the drug on a housecat and several patients (these scenes are somewhat interesting), the introverted, staid Marlowe injects himself with the fluid and thus sets loose his Id. As "Mr. Blake," the uninhibited Marlowe rents run-down flat, chases after prostitutes, and beats anyone in his way with a gold-headed walking stick.
Soon addicted to this newfound "freedom," Marlowe/Blake finds that with each transformation Blake's personality becomes more brutal, uglier, and he begins phasing in and out without much prompting. Meanwhile, longtime friend and colleague Frederick Utterson (Peter Cushing), unaware that Blake and Marlowe are one and the same, suspects the mysteriously elusive Blake of blackmailing Marlowe and attempts to intercede on Marlowe's behalf.
I, Monster deserves points for not pandering to the flesh and blood trade the way Hammer was doing in their concurrent horror vehicles with Cushing and Lee. The practically bloodless, sexless film is more a throwback to the kind of pictures Hammer used to make in the late-1950s (especially The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, also with Lee) than, say, Dracula A.D. 1972, but the producers hedged their bets by distancing themselves from Stevenson and opting to shoot the film in a fake 3-D process that required a kind of mass hysteria on the part of its audience, which relied on an optical illusion of depth perception than anything like true 3-D cinematography.
The process used a single camera shooting a single image (as opposed to true 3-D movies, which film "left eye," "right eye" frames shot simultaneously), the idea being that if there was constant movement (i.e., continual tracking shots and/or scurrying actors), when viewed through glasses with one darkened lens and one clear one, the brain could be tricked (often only momentarily) into perceiving "depth."
Because the ersatz 3-D was abandoned partway through production (the cast and crew complained of headaches watching dailies, and most didn't see the 3-D effect), the film is mildly odd visually, with the camera moving in some scenes where movement isn't needed, static when a little movement would've helped. Generally though, those unaware of the 3-D issue probably won't notice its mildly peculiar design. Mostly, I, Monster looks like any other movie.
Twenty-two-year-old director Stephen Weeks, a neophyte filmmaker who got the job after Amicus's usual directors all turned it down, exhibits sporadic imagination in some scenes, such as a transformation played out in silhouette. Most of the picture is pretty listless, however, and the climatic showdown between Cushing and Lee is hardly on a level with Dracula or The Mummy.
The basic problem though is Lee, surprisingly miscast and as a character even less dimensional than I, Monster ever is. The script presents some interesting links between the then-cutting edge Freudian psychiatry and Marlowe/Jekyll's serum, but falls short by giving the doctor no backstory or interest on any level. He puts his serum to work as soon as the picture starts, leaving little room for anything like character exposition. Lee's much too stiff and inexpressive as Marlowe, like a block of ice. One might read extreme Edwardian repression into the character, but for most of the film Lee's Marlowe is hard to read on any level, though in later scenes he's very good at expressing fear that Blake has taken control of his life. As Blake, Lee's early scenes recall Fredric March's primate-like curiosity as Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), and Lee's grinning madman is disturbing to watch. (Lee knew how to affect creepy smiles: they also turn up in The Wicker Man, To the Devil, a Daughter.) His earliest scenes as Blake use no special make-up, and as the character's degradation deepens, the use of prosthetic teeth and other makeup effects are subtly done.
Peter Cushing, in an inconsequential role, is very good, giving a carefully measured performance that's subtly different from anything he had played before. Mike Raven, a sub-Robert Quarry, makes no impression at all as a member of Lee and Cushing's cramped gentlemen club, a tiny set. Carl Davis's (The World at War, the Kevin Brownlow documentaries) music is alternately effective and irritating, and overall not a good fit with the material.
Video & Audio
Retromedia's DVD, released through Image Entertainment, is a big disappointment. A disclaimer at the head of the film indicates that "several different video and audio elements" were sourced to create the "most complete version" of the film, but the entire non-anamorphic, 4:3 widescreen image (matted to about 1.85:1) is very soft with "hot" color, and looks like it's from a single source. There's print damage here and there, such as a hole burned into the frame at 17:05. The image is just plain unattractive, like an old VHS tape transferred to DVD. The sound is equally blah, and one critical scene is interrupted by some popping and crackling on the soundtrack. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
I, Monster may have fallen (or perceived to have fallen) into public domain. There's no notice on the disc indicating the original copyright (by Amicus Productions in 1971, according to the film), and for the onscreen title card Retromedia has video-supered a copyright notice of their own. Some prints run 74-75 minutes, though this version runs a full 80 minutes.
Supplements are limited to an extremely battered, color-drained Trailer, also matted, and a modest Still Gallery. A recreation of the British Pressbook is reportedly included, though this reviewer didn't receive one.
I, Monster shows some intelligence here and there, in both the script and the performances, but remains a curiously lifeless work. There's not much to latch onto character-wise, and in the end the picture is little more than a curiosity. Still, it's too bad Blue Underground, Mondo Macabro, or All Day Entertainment didn't get to this title first. It's no lost masterpiece, but this rarely revived thriller deserves a bit better treatment than it received.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.