1971 /Stephen Weeks
On August 3, 2023, I noticed a name trending on a particular social media that seemed to be familiar to me. A simple click took me to the sad news that Carl Davis had died, aged 86. And it was a sad loss indeed – he was an American-born British composer of such incredible compositions as BBC’s Pride and Prejudice and the award-winning movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman (UK, Karl Reisz, 1981). When someone of such incredible talent dies, we take the opportunity to revisit their career, listening to the highlights of their talent and appreciating what they have left as a legacy for us to enjoy. It was surprising to me to see how many television shows and movie themes were composed by his hand. Among the incredibly diverse experiences the listener can have with Davis’s work, one little title appears rather unobtrusively. A movie that did not have great box office success perhaps, but one that appeared near the top of every list of his work. I, Monster. An Amicus film.
Now you probably wonder, like I did, why such a relatively unappreciated movie like that is listed so prominently on his resume. At the time I really did not think much more than that. That is until a couple of weeks later when I had the opportunity to revisit the most accurate retelling of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, an 1886 Gothic novella by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. The sign of a good score for a movie is that the music supports the action. It helps to move the emotions of the watcher to what the storyteller wants us to feel. Horror movies in particular rely on interpretive and incidental music to disturb us, stimulate the fear in us, move us to be slightly creeped out and then drive us toward suspense-filled climatic feelings. (If you have any doubt as to the power of the theme tune to impact in this way, watch the opening scene from Jaws (US, Steven Spielberg, 1975) with the sound turned off. It has very little impact without the driving acceleration of the repeated chords.) My own history with this movie comes in with the broader interaction I had as a college student. One of the random literature classes I took had us read Stevenson’s writing, and I went the extra mile to watch any film or television retellings I could lay my hands on. Other “monster” stories we read did not disturb me in the same way that the premise of The Strange Case… and I recall missing quite a few nights’ sleep as the idea that each of us has an internal struggle of good and evil, frankly, messed with my mind. It is a good reminder that what seems mild to some can be to others very frightening.
So Carl Davis was foremost in my thoughts as I watched I, Monster, and by the conclusion of the film I understood this to be an amazing example of the talents of this composer. The cast is solidly some of the best that work for Amicus, led by the duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The cinematography of Moray Grant allows for the visual movement between the every day and the horrific. When Davis’s score is added, we are treated to a film that is satisfying to all our senses. So if you are considering taking the opportunity to revisit – or visit for the first time – some Amicus classics, there are several scenes in this film that highlight the marrying of music, art and acting to put this classic on anyone’s list.
The actual plot is completely recognizable to any reader, even though other movie interpretations have changed so many points that this telling may feel quite different. By making few but effective changes in characters, Milton Subotsky’s approach of “do not fix what is not broken” serves this film well. The main character and his alter ego have been slightly altered from Stevenson’s original, and arguably changes like this make the story even better for modern audiences. Peter Cushing plays Utterson, a lawyer who becomes gradually concerned about his friend Dr. Charles Marlowe, a psychologist played by Christopher Lee. At the start of the story, Marlowe is developing a serum he believes will release people’s inhibitions and lead them to engage in behaviour they would not normally allow themselves to do. In the novella, Jekyll is a general practitioner who notices evil tendencies in himself that he wishes to repress. In turn, he develops the serum to separate his evil side from his good side. In our film, Marlowe is a doctor of the mind and more specifically a follower of Freud. This change makes his interest in chemically altering behaviour feel more believable to the modern audience. He begins his experimentation on the animals he has at hand, then accelerates into human experimentation on the patients that he sees on a regular basis. Unfortunately for his scientific approach, the serum seems to affect different subjects in different ways and he struggles to understand what is the true impact.
Of course, like most potential mad scientists, Marlowe is soon pushed to try repeat experiments on himself and enjoys the lowered moral standards of his counterpart, Edward Blake. It is during the initial trial on himself that the combination of fine acting and music interpretation begins. Lee’s performance of the change is not done through make-up or special effects. The jaunty music that comes to be associated with Blake highlights the sense of mania coming through Lee’s actions. The smile frozen on his face as the actor messes with equipment in his laboratory sets the tone of creepiness. He dances with a mirror as the music becomes more discordant. Blake then nearly kills a lab mouse before the serum wears off, and in the silence, the viewer can see his decision to shoot up again. I remember watching this particular scene as a teenager and feeling quite disturbed by this pivotal moment when the mild-mannered but curious psychologist stepped off into the realm of violence and moral depravity.
Marlowe then discusses his theory with a colleague and decides more experimentation is necessary. We are then back in the lab, where the next dose of serum drives Blake out of the confines and into public places. Our theme music is back, orchestrally fuller and even more fanciful. Blake’s whole physical demeanor changes, with a tall top hat and great physical confidence. Meanwhile, as the doctor’s tendencies become more questionable, and he establishes a residence in the seedier section of the city, Utterson and his friend Enfield (played by Mike Raven) discuss an unusual crime spree. Enfield expresses that it is as if the crimes are being committed “solely for the joy of committing them.” He shares a story with Utterson that convinces the lawyer that his friend and client Marlowe is being blackmailed. This leads to the inevitable conversation between Marlowe and Utterson, and the interplay between these two formidable actors is gold.
But it is of no use, and Blake continues to evolve into evil, which leads to another fantastic scene. Slowly over time, with gentle use of makeup and a set of yellowed teeth, Lee’s character visually becomes harsher and uglier. As he begins to feel he can engage in any act of pleasure, Blake is rejected as too ugly by a woman in a pub, and the laughter over the piano playing pushes him over the edge. He kills her with his cane, and when Utterson reads of it in the paper, he instantly recognizes it as the one carried by this madman, Blake. In an effort to intervene in the unacceptable blackmail situation, the lawyer confronts Marlowe, who says Blake is gone forever. Both men seem to be confidently convinced of this fact, and hopeful that the situation is put to rest. Of course, it is too late to reverse the serum’s effects, and while Marlowe is on a walk through a park, Davis’s musical support enhances the penultimate climax of the story. A small ensemble band plays the hymn Abide With Me as the doctor interacts with a small child. Suddenly, as he raises his hand and manipulates it in a weird contortion, the hymn crashes into a minor key that jars the viewer from slight creepiness into fear of what is to come. The score brilliantly announces the arrival of Blake and this time, it feels like he is here to stay.
The casting of Lee and Cushing in the main roles of this film gives greater credence to the friendship on screen. The best scenes are those where this pair of giants act off of each other and interact with the scenery. Carl Davis’s brilliant score builds slowly throughout the movie in a way that shows the devolution of the Marlowe/Blake character. And if that is not enough to recommend this film, then the beautiful cinematography of Moray Grant and the art direction of Tony Curtis should captivate any hesitant viewers. Images of Utterson shot through a rainy window show his unmistakable dreaming. Lee’s initial change as seen through his mirror reflection gives the character a sense of arrogance that is slowly built upon. When all of the best cast and crew come together to deliver a quality performance, a movie like I, Monster should securely take its place among the best that Amicus had to offer.