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Edge of Sanity
Poster by Simon Woolham
Text by Howard S. Berger
The Strange Case Of Edge Of Sanity; Notes On A Story Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
On the surface, Gérard Kikoïne's EDGE OF SANITY (1989) identifies itself as yet another of the myriad screen adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's monumentally successful 1886 novel, The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. Stevenson's allegory is built around the tale of a doctor and member of 'respectable' society who creates a potion that intends to separate the evil, primal aspects of man's personality (or soul) from his good, rational aspects. This potion works as intended and, indeed, transforms Jekyll physically into a brutal, lusty creature capable of great sadism and violence that is immediately at war for dominance over Jekyll's body with his more kind, philanthropic half. His humanity becomes a war zone between the dual natures of good and evil. Kikoïne and his scenarists have taken this classic story (one that has been virtually rendered into cliché after nearly a century on stage, comic book and screen) and reconstructed its elements to fashion a new version that serves a far more painful and personal purpose than ever before.
Again, on the surface, we are meant to see the commercially exploitable elements ever-available to the story: violence and sex (Kikoïne, the director, being one of France's earliest and most elegant pornographers and its producer, Harry Alan Towers, himself
a screenwriter whose body of work repeatedly wrapped itself around Sadean concerns - namely his collaborations with the late cinematic eroticist Jess Franco, notorious men, all). The production sets to sell itself both to the hungry international horror film market and the soft-core sex market while simultaneously seeking acceptance as another well produced version of the classic morality tale. On the surface, the film also sells itself
as another 'Hollywood star vehicle' with its casting of Anthony Perkins, an actor whose career had been purloined by his association with the character of multiple personality-challenged Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960), a film that launched nearly as many variations and permutations as Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde. But it is with the casting of Perkins that the dimensionality of the production is expanded, the themes of the story are given skeleton and sinew and the morality given depth in the actor's ambidextrous ability to juggle ambiguity, complexity and soul. While this may be the most graphically sexual and violent incarnation of this scenario, it's also the most intensely subjective.
Perkins was an actor passionately devoted to his craft and equally devoted to protecting his success as a star. Having reached success early in his career (he received an Oscar for his performance in FRIENDLY PERSUASION, only his 2nd film) the pressures that fame put on his private life were insurmountable and, eventually, inconsolable. Perkins was a homosexual at a time when it was unacceptable to be open about it (not that things have changed all that much for the better nowadays, but in the 1950's and '60's
it was career suicide). In later years he fought against his natural inclinations with experimental psychiatry designed to dispel the "queer compulsion" from within him, even going so far as to try electroshock therapy as a more extreme method of exorcism. He refused seduction by such glamour sirens as Jane Fonda, finally submitting to Victoria Principal at the age of 39 and ultimately marrying photographer Berry Berenson two
years later and fathering two sons from that marriage. But stories of his kinky trysts with a cast of industry icons such as Marlon Brando, Stephen Sondheim, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Leonard Bernstein, Troy Donohue and James Dean surfaced as did revelations
of Perkins attending gay porn shops in NYC where he would watch men performing sex acts in dark corridors and stairways. He was, by all accounts, a conflicted, self-loathing man and this conflict is what ultimately became his greatest asset as an actor. Nearly
all of Perkins post-PSYCHO roles were those depicting men with an identity crisis, multiple personality disorders, emotional instability or delusional (deeply repressed homosexual) misogyny. Even the screenplay he co-wrote with Stephen Sondheim,
THE LAST OF SHEILA (Herbert Ross, 1973), dealt with a group of morally and sexually ‘corrupt’ and devious Hollywood types. The tragedy of Perkins' personal life seems to transform the Jekyll/Hyde character in EDGE OF SANITY and the story's subtext, into
an exaggerated, self-reflexive, semi-autobiographical internal drama. The decision to substitute a crack pipe for an elixir closely mimics Perkins' own late-life indulgence with drugs to dull the psychic pain. Jekyll's repulsion towards his wife mirrors what he must've felt towards women whose sexual advances most heterosexual men would have died for. (This same idea was later utilized in Ang Lee's THE HULK - another Jekyll/Hyde variant - where Eric Bana's tormented Dr. Bruce Banner is absolutely repulsed by his beautiful fiancée played by Jennifer Connelly – and the thought of his impending marriage sets him off on a scientific misadventure where his repressed homosexual yearnings expose themselves in the form of transformation into a massive, green raging monster).
Hyde's misogyny and preoccupation with whores and theatric bi-sexual voyeurism depicted in the film (for example the sequence where Hyde masturbates while watching a male and female whore coupling in front of him) closely recalls Perkins' own NYC experiences. Kikoïne also brings a heavy dose of Catholic guilt/arousal/revulsion into the mix to provide an even deeper ‘explanation’ for the emergence of the Jekyll/Perkins' Hyde-creature.
It's a fully embodied character and performance. The film crosses the line of the fantasy of acting with the deep repressions, duplicity and deceptions the career of Hollywood acting imposed on Perkins.
EDGE OF SANITY is also possibly the most cinematically self-aware version of the Jekyll/Hyde story. Kikoïne wittily uses German Expressionist shadowplay and camera angles to underscore Jekyll's physical, sexual and moral reconstitution. He relies on the audience's familiarity with Perkins' career stereotype
as a conflicted psycho-sexual neurotic to personalize the subtext of the dangers of sexual repression. He relies on the audience's familiarity with the Jekyll/Hyde tropes (the dual nature of good and evil within all men) as well as all previous filmed versions and variants of the story in order to commercially suture the film's stature amongst its sub-genre peers. This again points back to Perkins' conception of Hyde. Unlike Fredric March's hairy, simian features as depicted in the 1932 Rouben Mamoulian version, Perkins not only incorporates the devilish slink of John Barrymore's Hyde and Spencer Tracy's more subtle physical alterations to the character, but also relies on obvious elements
of Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrence from Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980). It is this particular incarnation of Jekyll/Hyde that ‘transforms’ the rhythm of Perkins performance into something more choreographed and more commercially embraceable – namely, the Nicholson/SHINING "Honey, I'm home…" sarcasm that punctuates Hyde's actions. (Kikoïne even goes as far as to contrive the film's climax to be a confrontation/chase between loving wife and maniac husband more closely to expectations set up in the Kubrick film than in any other previous version of Jekyll/Hyde.) The influence is also seen in the pre-title sequence that depicts Jekyll's dream of himself as a young boy in a hayloft peering down on a woman being enthusiastically ravished by a man amongst the bales. The woman spots him and, as he tries to escape, gets caught by the man who promptly pulls the boy's pants off and beats his bare bottom, much to the sadistic amusement
of the woman, who mocks him with laughter. As in the room 237 bathroom sequence
of THE SHINING, where Jack's beautiful nude female ghost shock cuts to a mocking, laughing decayed old crone, Kikoïne shock cuts from the beautiful woman to the same woman covered in blood - still laughing and
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mocking the boy/Jekyll. This device is used repeatedly throughout the film. Kikoïne uses set design and color schemes that, too, are reminiscent of Kubrick - the over-loaded symbolic primary colors (red in the whorehouse, white in Jekyll's laboratory). He also appropriates the satiric/anachronistic (and religious) humor
and cartoonish performances of the subordinate performers à la Ken Russell (Russell having previously utilized Perkins' unique brand of discombobulated sexual hysteria
for his equally raw-nerved and vulnerable CRIMES OF PASSION from five years earlier). Lastly, it is the profound similarity to the Freudian influence of John Huston (whether conscious or subconscious or coincidental) that seems to make an equally strong stamp on Kikoïne's direction. Excited white horses, a Freudian symbol prevalent in Huston's films, turn up throughout in EDGE OF SANITY - an anchor point to Jekyll's traumatic symbolic dream. The entire framework of the film is based on the premise that Jekyll's drug and sexual/violence experimentation will somehow help him reach a reconciliation with his repressed, neurotic self. This is the main theme of Huston's own FREUD, a film that shares many of the criticisms of narrow-minded, religion dominated society (and ‘science’) of the Victorian era. And ultimately, Huston's many bi/homo-sexual characters whose repression or whose outwardly flamboyant homosexual behavior (like George Sanders' character in THE KREMLIN LETTER) dangerously stigmatize them.
Like the character of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, EDGE OF SANITY, as a film, also has
a highly sophisticated, complex split personality. The smooth commercial surface stylization and reasoning of Gérard Kikoïne and the subterranean, self-abusive soul searching of Anthony Perkins fuse to force a dramatic emotional rift between it and any other imagining of Stevenson's novel, before or since.