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Edge of Sanity (1989)



1989's Edge of Sanity, directed by Gérard Kikoïne and starring Anthony Perkins, offers a version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where Mr. Hyde is not only a serial killer, but quite possibly Jack the Ripper. This retelling of a classic tale of good versus evil unfortunately doesn't have a very high opinion of its main characters; it goes straight for tawdry erotic and gory thrills. Even Anthony Perkins' memorable performance of Mr. Hyde can't salvage this inarticulate film. It is a fun movie, but not recommended for anyone looking for a serious exploration of the duality of human nature.

A pre-credits prologue shows us Henry Jekyll as a child witnessing a couple having sex in a barn. When the man (possibly Jekyll's father) sees Jekyll watching, he savagely beats him while the woman laughs mercilessly. We then move to a grown Dr, Henry Jekyll who is experimenting with what looks like cocaine as an anesthetic. In a freak laboratory accident, the drug spills and Jekyll transforms into the sadistic Mr. Hyde (called Jack in this version, instead of the traditional Edward). He immediately begins prowling the brothels of London and viciously murdering prostitutes, as well as anyone else who gets in his way. Not even Scotland Yard can stop this new serial killer, who soon becomes known as the Ripper.

One of the better aspects of the film is the performance of Anthony Perkins. I can think of no other actor who better portrays twitchy nervousness. Perkins plays Hyde with a remarkable panache. His Mr. Hyde is a character that can only experience sexual pleasure by watching others have sex (a result of the silly Freudian opening to the film). Perkins's most notable decision is to play Hyde with a quiet voice and crooked smirk. Walking like Count Orlock from Nosferatu, he effectively portrays Hyde as someone who is obviously under the influence of a drug. His acts of violence come suddenly, and Perkins shows us Hyde as somewhat conflicted about his murdering of prostitutes. Before he slashes the throat of his second victim, Hyde says, almost weeping, “Oh, this is going to be so horrible!” As the film progresses, however, Hyde seems to enjoy his murderous work, sadistically leering and smiling when a man recognizes him as the Ripper. Near the end, when he says to his wife “You didn't think I was dead… did you?” he has gone over the top, but it is still fun to see.

However, despite his shining performance of Mr Hyde, Perkin's Dr. Jekyll is lacking. Perkins tries to look like a properly repressed Victorian gentleman, but he never manages to expresses the arrogant confidence or inquiring, free-spirited mind with which Dr. Jekyll is often presented. Affecting an unconvincing English accent, Perkins walks with a cane and a limp, yet we are never told why he is limping. The only reason for this is to show us that Hyde doesn't need a cane. Sadly, Perkins's Dr. Jekyll fails to present an effective counterpart to Mr. Hyde. The other characters often say what a wonderful and maverick doctor he is, but the acting leaves this claim unsupported. In Edge of Sanity, one feels no sympathy for Dr. Jekyll, and it seems that Perkins doesn't care too much about him either.

Apart from Anthony Perkins, the cast is bland and anonymous. Jekyll's wife Elisabeth, played by Glynis Barber, is nothing more than a chaste symbol of purity, there merely to contrast with the world of tempting prostitutes that Hyde inhabits. Sarah Maur Thorp plays Susannah, the prostitute with whom Hyde becomes enamored, but does little more than look tempting and laugh maniacally. Neither of these women are portrayed as real people with real desires. The rest of the cast is equally forgettable, leaving Perkins to shoulder the weight of the film.

Despite the lackluster acting in Edge of Sanity, the camera work and set design are surprisingly adept. Kikoïne makes wonderful use of strong primary colors. The brothel that Hyde often visits is almost exclusively red, while the place where Hyde murders his first victim is blue. These bold colors are usually seen when we are watching Hyde-- they reinforce his simplistic, unambiguous way of looking at the world. When he is in the brothel, he sees smoldering eroticism, and when he is murdering prostitutes, he sees icy cold death. This use of color, and excellent design, is exemplified by Dr. Jekyll's lab. It is covered in white tile and is very large and roomy. Near the end of the film, Dr. Jekyll's wife wanders into the lab, and sees that Hyde has covered it in blue hand prints and written the word “COW!” on the wall. Further, Kikoïne always accompanies Hyde's activities with off-kilter camera angles, representing his demented and violent way of thinking. Finally, the film also uses bold religious images, such as a prostitute masturbating before a crucifix in the brothel. Sadly, this imagery is only used to shock Mr. Hyde and presumably the more conservative members of the audience. It has no other significant function in the film. Edge of Sanity needs more than just superior art direction and set design. It needs a solid foundation for its ideas and a clear voice about what it is trying to say.

Sadly, Edge of Sanity is a movie that does not seem to know what it is saying. Rather than explore its darker themes of drug abuse and serial killers, the director decides to thrill and shock the audience. London as depicted in the film seems to be inhabited by nothing but hookers and criminals. We occasionally see a policeman, a clergyman, one of Jekyll's colleagues or Jekyll's wife, but mostly we get a steady dose of pimps, con-men, and ravishing courtesans. There is not a single prostitute in this film that is not visually appealing. However, having a Victorian brothel look like the Playboy mansion doesn't make the film very believable. Rather than show us truly terrorized women, Kikoïne offers us R-rated titillation finished off with appropriately gory murders. Given that director Kikoïne was an adult film director in the '70s and '80s, perhaps this is to be expected. Nevertheless, soft core pornography interrupted by grisly slashing does not make a good horror film.

The biggest problem with Edge of Sanity is that it wants to be everything at once. On one hand it wants to be a splatter-gore-fest with an over the top killer sadistically dispatching beautiful women. On the other hand it tries to be taken seriously as a study of good and evil. There is an all-too-brief discussion at a dinner party on the nature of true freedom that, while very simplistic, tries to make us think about Jekyll's inner struggle. However, this scene's questions are never touched upon again. Additionally, the child abuse scene in the beginning of the film tries to engender pity and understanding, but since we know nothing of who these people are or their previous relationships with Jekyll, it feels more like a tacked-on after-thought. Wanting to combine the wild, over the top violence of a film like The Evil Dead with the serious introspection of a film like The Silence of the Lambs, Edge of Sanity ends up doing neither very well.

Historically, the implication that Hyde is Jack the Ripper is interesting, because of modern speculation that the Ripper may indeed have had medical training. The film attempts to equate the fear caused by Hyde with the fear caused by the real Ripper. Murdered prostitutes, Victorian London in terror – it's obvious that we’re supposed to feel that Jekyll has become not only Mr. Hyde, but also the infamous killer of Whitechapel. We see people shrieking as they recognizing who he is, and a dogged but ineffectual Scotland Yard inspector who is unable to apprehend the fiend. But Kikoïne and the screenwriters never do anything with the idea. This idea isn’t used to present a Ripper-identity theory (a la From Hell) or examine the idea of a serial killing doctor. It’s used instead to present one more “shocking” aspect to a film already awash in loose threads and half-baked ideas. However, the Hyde-Ripper angle does lead to the film's one and only bit of originality-- the fact that Hyde actually survives in the end. It is too bad that the film couldn't have continued this trend of creativity. It would have made Edge of Sanity a much more engaging experience.

In the end, Edge of Sanity is a sub-par slasher film trying to be both shocking and important. Based on a classic novella and starting one of the genre's all time-greats, Anthony Perkins, the film should have the makings of a quality horror film. . However, rather than developing its potential, Edge of Sanity constantly takes the cheap and easy path to accomplish its goals. Perkins gives a noteworthy performance, and the film's compositions are often interesting, but its not enough. Edge of Sanity is not much more than a cheap exploitation film that unsuccessfully tries to be taken seriously.