Movie of the Week: Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971)

Written by Brian Clemens
Based on the story by Robert Louis Stevenson
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Starring Ralph Bates, Martine Beswick, Gerald Sim
Released October 17, 1971 (UK)
RT 97
Home Video Studio Canal (UK, Blu-ray)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

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At one of the trips to the Enid Drive-In about which I write so often, I saw the trailer for Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Like most other horror movies at the time, I began hounding my parents to take me to see it when it came to Enid.  For some reason, with all the movies they took me to see, this was the one to which they objected.  I remember my father asking me, “There are operations that turn men into women; do you really want to see a movie like that?”  How’s a seven or eight year old boy supposed to respond to that?  “No!” I said.  And, until fairly recently, I had never watched Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

Of course, it’s not about gender reassignment surgery at all. Instead, it’s a clever take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale about an obsessed doctor and his alternative personality.  It’s basically the same story, but instead of transforming into Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll transforms into Sister Hyde.  It’s a potentially fascinating angle from which to approach the source material, considering that we all have a masculine and feminine side.  We occasionally get in touch with this other side, but not usually with murderous results.

The gender reversal for the villainous Hyde is not the only interesting twist this Hammer Film takes. In addition to that, it integrates the mystery of London’s notorious Whitechapel Murders.  The movie doesn’t identify the killer as Jack the Ripper, but we all know that’s who it is.  But is Jack the Ripper also Dr. Jekyll or Sister Hyde?  And on top of that, two characters integral to the plot are Burke and Hare, famous grave robbers from Scotland who, in one of the literary licenses the movie takes, are relocated to London.

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The opening of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is as schizophrenic as the title characters themselves. With the lush score by David Whitaker, it doesn’t feel like a horror movie.  However, after the titles roll, the first shot is a fast zoom out from the eye of a dead rabbit as the butcher sharpens his knife.  We then witness a Whitechapel murder, the scene of blood splashing on the wall intercut with scenes of the rabbit being butchered.   Overall, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is one of the bloodier Hammer horrors.  Tame by today’s standards, but five years from its demise, the studio was pushing the limits of gore in its movies.

The story then flashes back as Dr. Jekyll, age 30, is writing his testament. He claims his “exciting scientific adventure” started with the arrival of Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim).  Jekyll (Ralph Bates) has been working on an antivirus to treat many diseases, but Robertson discourages him that he’ll be long dead before he’d ever see the results of his research.  So he decides to explore a new avenue of research: an elixir of life.  After working long days and nights, he falls asleep for three days, during which time a fly to which he gave the elixir has survived way past its life expectancy.  Jekyll also finds out, though, that the fly’s sex changed from male to female in those three days.

Jekyll employs Burke and Hare (Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin) to procure bodies of dead females, no more than 20 years old. He needs as many as he can get to extract the hormone that’s apparently the basis for his elixir.  (Later, when the supply of bodies runs out, the Whitechapel Murders begin.)  Jekyll first tastes the elixir himself almost 25 minutes into the movie.  Without the use of potentially fake special effects, director Roy Ward Baker uses his camera and a mirror to depict the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde.  Bates is a pretty man as it is and, with his hair long in the movie, you can easily imagine him turning into Martine Beswick.

Throughout Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, there is industrious use of minimal resources to make the male to female transformations realistic and effective. I particularly like some of the scenes during (or after) transformations when a hairy, male hand might caress a smooth, female breast.  In the finale, a broken mirror is used to not only demonstrate the change, but also to symbolize the split personalities of Jekyll and Hyde.  It’s even more effective than the usual Jekyll/Hyde split when you see/hear a man temporarily speaking with a woman’s voice (or vice versa).

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Ten minutes (in the movie’s running time) after Jekyll first transforms, he realizes he might be “messing with things he shouldn’t be.” But that doesn’t deter him.  He goes through the typical debate about sacrificing “the lifeboat to save the streamliner.”  By any means, though?  Of course.  Jekyll decides to take human life so he can ultimately prolong it.  And the Whitechapel Murders begin.  Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is as dark and gritty a movie as the location in which it takes place.  Near the end, a character states that the fog is like pea soup.  And the movie looks like it was filmed through a slight bit of the fog itself.

There are many little touches I appreciate in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. For one, Sister Hyde, needing something to wear when she goes out, tears down a red curtain and quickly puts together a fashionable dress.  (Scarlett O’Hara, or at least Carol Burnett, would be proud!)  For another, when the police turn up the heat on their pursuit of the killer, they don’t for one minute consider that it could be a woman.  And another, as Hyde becomes more dominant (and Jekyll realizes it), the thing he seems to get most upset about is that women’s clothes keep arriving at his apartment.  A final example is a line when Hyde is seducing Robertson.  She tells a meddling neighbor, “Two’s company; three’s a positive deviation.”

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde concludes much like any other movie based on Stevenson’s novel. But it’s neither the opening nor the closing that makes this movie special; it’s everything that happens in between.  Overall, it’s not as entertaining as some other Hammer horror films.  But it’s a solid effort.  I’ll credit screenwriter Brian Clemens for its originality.  He’d again mesh components from different sources three years later in Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (as well as write the awesome The Golden Voyage of Sinbad).  Don’t listen to your father on this one.  You should really watch Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

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