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The end is sure and must be early...
on 2 October 2014
1971's Christopher Lee / Peter Cushing chiller I, Monster is most assuredly one of the runts of the litter in terms of the famous acting duo's many co-starring vehicles in the field of British horror; sadly, this is despite being scripted as one of the most faithful adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, made by the generally reliable Amicus Productions, and featuring Lee in the meaty central part(s) with Cushing lending support as the novella's narrator and protagonist, the solicitor Utterson. Altering the names of Lee's twin roles from Jekyll and Hyde to `Marlowe' and `Blake' but confusingly sticking to the names of all the book's secondary characters, it appears as though the filmmakers were trying to pursue the line that their film was merely `inspired by' Stevenson's classic, whilst heading off in a worthwhile new direction. Certainly, the inclusion of references to the work of Sigmund Freud (requiring the bringing forward of the tale into the early 1900s from the 1880s) seems like an interesting innovation, but in all other respects the film is a pretty straightforward take on the well-known story.
Originally conceived by producer Milton Subotsky as a 3D epic, the processes behind making the movie in this fashion eventually proved a challenge too far for the modest Amicus outfit and were abandoned soon after shooting started; the result of this being that the final film's impoverished look, coupled with a distinct lack of action and a shorter-than-average running time make the movie as a whole feel half-finished. It certainly looks tatty, with its conspicuously underpopulated London exterior shots, and a cramped corner of a soundstage dressed up as a supposedly opulent gentlemen's club standing out particularly badly. The first full-length feature of director Stephen Weeks (given the gig at Lee's suggestion because several directors Amicus had used previously wanted nothing to do with their 3D experiment), he adds what interesting visual flourishes there are to the film, but he is eventually defeated in his attempts to open out the story by Subotsky's flat screenplay and (presumably) by not having any money to spend on anything (Weeks has joked that most of the movie's budget was spent on painting the canteen at Shepperton studios). This is certainly evident in the film's most notoriously awkward scene, in which Cushing and co-star Mike Raven stroll down a street as Raven's Enfield tediously relates the story of how he witnessed Lee's Blake maul a young girl half to death. Of course, not only is this a key plot event that should have been shown outright, not described, within the film, the whole sequence is crippled dreadfully by the delivery of Raven, the BBC Radio 1 DJ who, around the turn of the 1970s, fancied himself as the next Vincent Price and managed to land himself supporting parts in a couple of Amicus and Hammer movies before embarking on a pair of truly diabolical self-produced horror flicks of his own. As a performer, Raven stinks worse than a Colchester condom; it is coming to something when even Peter Cushing, consummate professional that he was and Britain's finest horror movie actor, looks visibly uncomfortable playing opposite this utter stiff.
To Cushing's credit, he gives the project what enthusiasm he can muster (given that his wife was very ill during production, and indeed died just a couple of months later), but he is hampered by the script's inability to give Utterson any personality or a worthwhile motivation. He's just a chap, intrigued by what is happening to Lee's Marlowe and who resolves to stick his oar in; that the character works as the film's hero at all here owes nothing to the screenplay (or even to Stevenson's original plot, to be honest), but simply to the fact that it's Peter Cushing, going up against Christopher Lee once again. Lee, meanwhile, clearly relishes his opportunity to have a go at the twin figures at the centre of the story (he missed out on the chance a decade before, when Hammer declined to have him as the lead in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll); and whilst his Marlowe is really just one of Lee's typically cold ponces, the varying degrees of ugliness and viciousness he brings to the ever-degenerating Blake are marvellously shaded.
Despite the lead actors dragging the film over the finish line, I, Monster (presumably a pun on the title of the 1958 Roger Corman gangster film I Mobster, though why anyone thought referencing that was a good idea, heaven knows) is definitely a lesser movie in the annals of British horror. If you want to see Cushing and Lee on top form in a great film based on a classic horror story, my advice would be to check out one of their early Hammer efforts instead.