Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971/1972) ***½
Hammer Film Productions made three movies based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde between 1959 and 1971. But curiously (given the company leadership’s great enthusiasm for the franchise as a business model), the three Jekyll-and-Hyde pictures don’t add up to a series, even in the extremely loose sense that might be claimed for the Hammer mummy films. Also worthy of note is that not one of the aforementioned movies is anything like a straight adaptation of the source novella. The first of the trio, The Ugly Duckling, is a comedy in which a nebbishy, unsociable Jekyll transforms himself into a sexy, smooth-talking, charismatic Hyde. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, made the very next year, proceeds from much the same premise, only it plays the material conventionally, for scares instead of laughs, with a Hyde whose lady-killing tends toward the literal variety. Hammer’s final interpretation of the Jekyll-and-Hyde story was the least straight of all, however. Indeed, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde is downright queer.
You can start by forgetting pretty much everything you think you know about Dr. Henry Jekyll (Ralph Bates, from The Devil Within Her and Lust for a Vampire). The Soho charity clinic, the worshipful fiancee, the starchy future father-in-law, the sexually insistent music hall girl, even the fixation on moral and spiritual duality— go right ahead and toss all of it. This Dr. Jekyll is just an ordinary Victorian medical researcher, striving after practical applications for the twin recent insights of acquired immunity and the germ theory of disease. That’s not to say that Jekyll isn’t as hubristically ambitious as any mad movie scientist, however. Whereas most doctors in his position would be content to defeat just typhus or just yellow fever or just influenza, Jekyll is gunning for all communicable disease. But when he presents his progress to his friend and mentor, Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim, of The Man who Haunted Himself and Dr. Phibes Rises Again), the older doctor is surprisingly dismissive. Yes, it’s noble work Jekyll is doing, but at his present rate of advancement, he’ll never live to complete it. Hell, he’ll never even make a dent in it! Robertson might have intended his remark to pull Jekyll back down to earth, and to refocus his attention on plausibly attainable goals, but that’s not how his old protégé takes it. Instead, Jekyll launches off on an even wilder flight of scientific fancy. Developing vaccines against all human disease is the work of a hundred lifetimes, Robertson says? Very well, then— Jekyll will simply have to figure out how to extend his own lifespan accordingly first!
He begins his search for the elixir of life in an oddly reasonable place, given the present state of learning on the subject of human physiology. Observing that women, all other things being equal, tend to outlive men significantly, Jekyll starts looking into female hormones. Naturally that puts him in the market for women’s sex organs, which in turn leads him to seek out Byker (Philip Madoc, from Berserk and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun), the morgue attendant at the hospital where Robertson practices and teaches, who doesn’t mind taking a few quid under the table in exchange for a little unauthorized dissection. The trouble is, Jekyll needs rather a lot of ovaries, uteruses, and whatnot, while Byker has a finite supply of female cadavers. The attendant does know some people who might be able to help, though, provided that Jekyll can keep a secret— a couple of fellows called Burke (Ivor Dean, of The Oblong Box and The Sorcerers) and Hare (Tony Calvin, from Masters of Venus and Theater of Blood).
A few words now about Dr. Jekyll’s living arrangements. Jekyll rents a large flat on the ground floor of a slightly seedy tenement house; most of the apartment is given over to laboratory space. Upstairs lives a middle-aged widow by the name of Spencer (Dorothy Alison, from Journey into Darkness and See No Evil), together with her son, Howard (Lewis Fiander, of The Doctor and the Devils and Who Can Kill a Child?), and daughter, Susan (Susan Brodrick, from Countess Dracula and Journey to Midnight). Howard doesn’t care very much for Jekyll. He thinks the reclusive downstairs tenant is certainly a weirdo, and very likely a poofter as well. So naturally it is the cause of much derisive mirth around the Spencer place when it comes out that Susan has a crush on Jekyll. Mind you, all of that is completely lost on Jekyll himself. He has no time or attention to spare for anything but his work, and he just barely realizes that the neighbors exist.
Anyway, Jekyll’s first breakthrough comes with, of all things, a housefly. I assume that he has the same motive for using insects in his experiments as geneticists sometimes do— their extremely brief natural lifespans make it easy to see if his drugs are having any effect. After much pulping of feminine plumbing and many formulations of the extracts from same, Jekyll manages to keep a fly alive for several weeks, even though the normal adult lifespan of its species is better measured in days. Justly proud of himself, he shows off the fly to Robertson the next time the professor stops by to visit. Robertson is again unimpressed, however. True, the age Jekyll reports for his fly would be most extraordinary were the insect a male, but it’s well within the natural range for the much longer-lived females. Jekyll protests that his fly is a male— he knows the discrepant longevity of the species just as well as Robertson does, and he made certain to use only male flies in his research for that very reason. Ridiculous, says the professor. Jekyll’s fly has a clutch of eggs in the jar with it, and males don’t lay those.
You see where this is going, I’m sure. Jekyll and Robertson are both right; the fly was male when Jekyll began experimenting on it, but repeated exposure to his hormone-derived drug has changed its sex. A fly isn’t a person, though, and in an attempt to discover whether his chemical will do similar things further up the evolutionary scale, Jekyll administers a dose to himself. The result is his instant and evidently painful— but fortunately also reversible— transformation into a woman (Martine Beswick, from Prehistoric Women and One Million Years B.C.)! Obviously that means it’s back to the drawing board. After all, “WARNING: Possible side-effects include spontaneous sex change” would be one hell of a surgeon general’s advisory. Jekyll will need more raw materials, of course, but Byker happens to be fresh out of female stiffs just now. Worse yet, Burke and Hare have finally pissed off the wrong people. Seems one of the bodies they snatched was still being used by its rightful owner at the time, and now a mob of the victim’s friends have lynched Burke and blinded Hare by tossing him face-first into a hopper full of lime. Jekyll’s work is too vital to stop now— not when he’s so close to success. But without more ladyparts to grind up and distill, he’s just as plainly stuck where he is.
Enter Susan Spencer. Now it isn’t that Jekyll is so far gone in devotion to his research that he’s ready to start harvesting organs from the neighbors, but he has begun performing cost-benefit analyses weighing the potential value of his work against the lives of undesirables— prostitutes, drug addicts, people like that. He can’t make up his mind, though, so he puts the question to Susan when she finally invents an excuse to come downstairs and see him. He phrases the question in so heavily veiled a form that she doesn’t fully understand what she’s been asked, of course, but her answer persuades Jekyll that an immortality dedicated to ridding the world of disease is worth a few dead hookers here and there. Thus it is that Whitechapel becomes a notoriously dangerous place for women of a certain profession to hang out late at night.
So by this point, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde has been both a Burke and Hare movie and a Jack the Ripper movie, but it’s shown little inclination to do the usual Jekyll/Hyde thing. It won’t ever develop such an inclination, either. The closest it comes is when that female alter ego Jekyll briefly called into being begins reasserting herself from the depths of his mind, and inducing him to dose himself with the unsuccessful prototype hormone drug again. Jekyll explains the unwonted intermittent appearance of a woman in his flat by claiming that his recently widowed sister, whom he dubs “Mrs. Hyde,” has come to stay with him for a while. Hyde, as you might expect, soon shows herself to be every bit as deadly as Henry the Ripper, but she at least has a rather better excuse, in that her alter ego’s drug is the only thing enabling her to exist in the first place. When she carves up a whore and absconds with her reproductive system, it’s a matter of self-preservation. There are important differences between Jekyll’s personality and Hyde’s, however. Hyde is far more of a sexual being than Jekyll, and she exhibits degrees of assertiveness and self-possession that are completely beyond the reach of her weak-willed other self. So while Jekyll is largely oblivious to Susan’s interest in him, and impervious to her charms on those rare occasions when something does filter through his cluelessness shield, Hyde is eager to reciprocate when Howard comes sniffing after the hot young widow on the ground floor. Howard’s advances push the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde in an unusual direction, too. Much like in the little-seen American multiple personality melodrama, Bewitched, Hyde decides that Jekyll is wasting their life with his timidity, and that he doesn’t deserve to be in control of their shared body.
If you’re at all conversant with any of the more normative interpretations of the Jekyll-and-Hyde story, you’ll notice immediately that something is missing from this one that traditionally serves as the tale’s thematic core. Most Hydes are presented as their Jekylls’ evil sides (whatever the individual writers may take that to mean), but no such interpretation makes any sort of sense in Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde. It’s Jekyll who initiates the Ripper murders, after all, however much Hyde contributes to them later, and it’s difficult to say who ultimately racks up the higher body-count. If anything, Hyde is morally preferable to Jekyll, because she at least is honest enough not to hide behind delusional justifications for her crimes, and because she literally cannot exist without the drug manufactured from their spoils. There is a duality here, but good and evil have nothing to do with it. Rather, Hyde is Jekyll’s alive side, his free side, the side of him that is true to itself and to its desires. Hyde is the part that appreciates the possibilities of pleasure and sensation, but she is nevertheless not the purely emotional creature familiar from the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde— nor, for all her unapologetic amorality, is she much like the calculating sadist of the 1941 version. And of particular interest considering the open enmity that eventually develops between her and Jekyll, she does not apparently start off as a truly separate persona. The first time Dr. Jekyll imbibes his hormone potion, he spends the entire duration of his time in female form admiring himself in the mirror and caressing his own transformed flesh. That is, his reaction is exactly that of a 20-something boor joking about what he’d do if he had tits— of a man relating to Hyde’s body as an object separate from himself, rather than a woman relating to it as an aspect or an expression of who she is. And significantly, the mirror incident is the first sign of sexual feeling that we ever see from Jekyll. Things become much more complicated later on, though, as Jekyll apparently loses the ability to control Hyde’s body, and she begins acquiring the ability to control his. Clearly the scene was written as a joke, but there’s just as clearly something going on below the surface when Howard runs into Jekyll outside the women’s clothier where he purchases Hyde’s wardrobe, and she asserts herself to flirt with Spencer even while remaining physically Jekyll. Perhaps what Hyde really represents is Jekyll’s pent-up sexual desire erupting polymorphously through the cracks in his self-control left by that one initial auto-erotic indiscretion.
Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde was written by Brian Clemens, who went on to script the frustrating Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. Clemens’s two films for Hammer have a lot in common, as you might expect. Both are wildly bizarre and imaginative departures from a well-worn premise. Both overexert themselves trying to cram in the extra characters and plot curlicues that set them apart from other, outwardly similar movies. And both are hampered by the limited abilities of the actor in the starring role. That said, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde works significantly better than Captain Kronos. Partly, that’s because Ralph Bates was a better casting choice than Horst Janson. While no more capable an actor, Bates is presented here with a part that he can plausibly play; his one performance setting— ineffectual intensity— is exactly what the role calls for. Also helpful is the natural mutual affinity of the disparate materials going into the overstuffed plot. Temporal and geographical objections notwithstanding, Dr. Jekyll and the Edinburgh resurrectionists both hail from stories of medical malfeasance, and may therefore be treated as compatible. Meanwhile, history itself very quickly drew the connection between Hyde and Jack the Ripper; Richard Mansfield, who was playing Jekyll and Hyde onstage during the Ripper’s reign of terror, was briefly considered a suspect, apparently on the strength of an all-too-effective interpretation of the latter role! Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde’s ace in the hole, though, is Martine Beswick. Impossible as this may sound, her uncanny resemblance to Ralph Bates is but a fortuitous coincidence. The producers originally wanted Caroline Munro to play Hyde, but she was adamant as always about not doing nudity. Intended or not, however, it’s eerily effective to see Bates turn into a woman who really does look just like him. More significantly, Beswick resembles her character in having all the energy, force, and personal magnetism that Bates so conspicuously lacks. She renders her costar forgivable by contrast, both by being good enough to make putting up with him worth our while, and by underscoring the thematic appropriateness of his schmuckery.