(1971) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by: Brian Clemens; Starring: Ralph Bates, Martine Beswick, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander and Susan Brodrick;
Available formats: DVD (Out of print)
The early 70s marked a transitional phase for Hammer horror films, with productions that attempted to keep up with the public’s demand for more lurid content while often stretching the boundaries of taste. Many of Hammer’s output from this period attempted to maintain the atmosphere and production values of releases from the past couple of decades, but reflected the changing times. Thanks to a rapidly evolving sensibility and relaxed censorship, filmmakers could now show what could only be implied before. Although the films released by Hammer during this turbulent age were often uneven, the studio still had a few tricks up its collective sleeve. Hammer studios may have been past its prime, but it was still capable of creating some notable films with a distinctive touch (The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus spring to mind). Paradoxically, one of the best examples from that period is probably one of the least known and most underappreciated.
The dubiously titled Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde suggests that it could have easily been a quickie exercise in exploitation in less capable hands, but it manages to be a unique and witty addition to the genre. It’s a surprisingly effective film that breaks the rules by using the original Robert Louis Stevenson story as a launching point, not a bible. Screenwriter Brian Clemens created a unique, gender-bending take on a classic story, infusing his own original and darkly humorous tone into the well-worn source material.
The eponymous doctor tirelessly searches for an elixir that will extend human life. His experiments with female hormones lead him to a possible solution, but the side effect is a spontaneous change in gender. Encouraged by his initial results with a fly, Dr. Jekyll becomes his own guinea pig for further experimentation. When he suddenly becomes a she, Dr Jekyll is forced to pass off himself/herself as his own sister. As the gender shifts become increasingly unstable and more frequent, it becomes less clear which sex will prevail.
In order to continue his experiments, Dr. Jekyll requires a constant supply of female hormones. He initially secures the services of the infamous duo Burke and Hare to acquire the bodies of young women. When they’re unable to keep up with his demand for fresh corpses, he’s forced to take matters into his own hands. The brutal murders of several prostitutes in Whitechapel are conducted with surgical precision, suggesting that someone with a doctor’s knowledge of anatomy has committed the crimes. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde blends the factual incidents of Jack the Ripper and the Burke and Hare murders with Stevenson’s original work of fiction. The filmmakers took some liberties with the timeline of events in the varied source material, as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written in 1886, while the Jack the Ripper murders took place in 1888, and the Burke and Hare murders were in 1828. This scarcely seems to matter, as all of these elements are skillfully blended in service of the plot.
What sets Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde apart from other interpretations is Dr. Jekyll’s duality. The struggle is not between good and evil, but between man and woman. Martine Beswick endows Sister Hyde with a seductively menacing persona, as she exerts her formidable sexual charms to lure men to their doom. She’s all too happy to carry on with her doctor counterpart’s dirty work as well, continuing to increase the body count of the female victims. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde has much to say about sexual politics, and playfully turns the tables on classic gender expectations. Many of the men in the film are portrayed as predators of one type or another, viewing women as sex objects or potential victims. When Sister Hyde abruptly enters the scene, neither men nor women, are safe.
Ralph Bates’ restrained performance as the obsessive Dr. Jekyll is atypical of other filmed versions as well. He’s a far cry from the mild-mannered, genteel researcher who delved too far into the unknown, only to find his more animalistic side. His hands are just as bloody as Sister Hyde’s, as he deems his ideals of scientific discovery to supersede society’s laws and ethics. His moral ambiguity and relative lack of innocence leaves him as a less than sympathetic character. As a result, we’re left without a primary character as a protagonist. This might be considered a fault of the movie, but it’s unlikely that you’ll care, because the story is so much dark fun.
With its sense of wicked humor and unique take on the original story, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde stands as one of Hammer’s finest. The filmmakers were clearly cognizant of the inherent ridiculousness of the material, but that didn’t stop them from fashioning a refreshingly good yarn. While those expecting a straightforward interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale will likely be disappointed, others with a more modern perspective should be pleasantly surprised.