Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

The sexual transformation of a man into a woman will actually take place before your very eyes!

Dr Jekyll is a brilliant scientist who has spent his life trying to create an “antivirus” to cure some of the world’s most deadly diseases. But he realises that his quest to preserve life will ultimately be ended by his own death at some point and decides to test out a serum on himself which he hopes will prolong his life. He needs female hormones to be able to create this serum and enlists the aid of grave robbers Burke and Hare to provide him with fresh corpses to harvest. This supply doesn’t last long though as they are caught and he eventually turns to murdering prostitutes himself. The serum also has devastating side effects on him and he temporarily turns into a woman from time to time. Attempting to cover up the secret, he passes his alter ego off as widowed sister, Mrs Hyde. Realising where his work is taking him, Jekyll tries to stop the killing but Hyde is growing stronger inside him and beginning to take over his mind and body.

 

With Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Hammer has created a bizarre but workable mix of the Jekyll and Hyde story, the Jack the Ripper murder case and the true tale of Burke and Hare, the notorious grave robbers, to create arguably the most deadly version of Victorian London you’ll ever see on film. There’s even mention of Sweeney Todd and the infamous meat pies. The mix works well though as the idea of Jack the Ripper being Dr Jekyll killing prostitutes for his own research is explained as well as it could be. It also gives purpose to the inclusion of Burke and Hare although these two stories (which have easily stood on their own in the past) are included to the detriment of the main Jekyll and Hyde story.

Robert Louis Stephenson’s classic story has been made into films versions time and time again but this was the first version to attempt a different spin. What a master stroke it was having Jekyll turn into a woman instead of a man. The gender conflict about whether man or woman will come out on top is interesting and it’s a pity that the film doesn’t really do as much with it as it arguably could. Matters are made worse when Jekyll’s neighbour, Howard, falls in love with Mrs Hyde and Howard’s own sister falls in love with Jekyll. What you get is a bizarre love triangle (or should that be square) and watching how it pans out is one of the highlights of the film. This could easily have been turned into a comedy (how many films about men dressing as women end up as comedies – Mrs Doubtfire, Tootsie, Some Like It Hot, etc.) but the film is no laughing matter despite some attempts at black humour. In fact there is a rather disturbing sexual element underlying the entire film with the film crossing into boundaries of homosexuality, transvestitism and gender confusion. In one memorable scene, Miss Hyde has been caressing the face of Howard but is then unaware she has changed back into the male guise of Dr Jekyll. The film is a straight up horror film though and only touches upon these themes. There is no larger scope at work here, trying to grapple with ideas and take chances with the material – its intention is to scare and shock and that’s it.

The original story saw Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as contrasting opposites, with Hyde being the inner monster unleashed into the world by the repressive Jekyll. However in this adaptation, Jekyll himself is just as bad, if not worse, than Hyde. He kills under the name of science in an attempt to justify his actions. His attitude of sacrificing a few low lives in society so that millions more could be saved is how many man men in history have turned to mass murder and genocide. Unfortunately because he’s such a nasty piece of work before he transforms, there’s no audience sympathy for him when he begins to lose control to Hyde. The supporting characters (Howard and his sister, Susan) are much more sympathetic because we know that their love with both Jekyll and Hyde is tragic and doomed to fail in the end.

Hammer’s inclusion of blood and nudity may not have been as welcome and relevant in some of their other horror films but it works well here because of the ‘sexual’ nature of the story and the violent manner in which Jekyll acquires his hormones. Watching Jekyll come to terms with being a woman for the first time and exploring his newly-female body is rather fascinating. You couldn’t do that with a few boobs! Hammer’s trademark period settings are also at their glorious best with the Gothic and seedy back streets of London being drenched in fog, darkness and eternal despair.

Ralph Bates was seemingly groomed as Hammer’s eventual successor to the leading man roles of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. However, Bates never really convinced anyone despite getting a few top billed outings. This is arguably his best work and although he’s still somewhat restrained in the role, he tries to conjure up his best mannerisms, tone of voices and attitude to bring this admittedly challenging role to life. Martine Beswick is Mrs Hyde and apparently only got the job because Caroline Munro wouldn’t go nude (damn it, I’d have paid to see that!). She oozes sexual aggression though, gets naked a few times and looks pretty unpleasant when she’s in murder mode. She does look a bit like Bates too so taking them as the same person is easy enough to believe. It’s a bit hard on her though to find her attractive in this film knowing who she is really portraying in the film.

 

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is one of the better Hammer films to come out of the 70s when their output was dwindling in quality. Everyone involved seems to have pulled together to craft a suspenseful, atmospheric and at times graphic re-imagining of the classic novel. It’s highly underrated in the Hammer cannon but a definite must watch for fans of old school horror.

 

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