Deneb does Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde

dr_jekyll_and_sister_hyde_poster_02“It is I who exists, Dr. Jekyll, not you. It is I who will be rid of you!”

The Scoop: 1971 PG, directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Ralph Bates, Martine Beswick, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander, Susan Brodrick, Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin.

Tagline: This film is filled with… SHOCK! AFTER SHOCK!

Summary Capsule: Dr. Jekyll comes up with a potion, as you’d expect him to do. There are… certain subtle differences this time around.

denebbannerDeneb’s Rating: Four suddenly-seductive dressing gowns out of five.

Deneb’s Review: If there’s one time-worn cliché that still has a bit of punch to it, it’s that one should never take things for granted. Just when you think you’ve got something safely categorized, BOING! Up pops a surprise like a jack-in-the-box and whomps you upside the nose.

Even when things do turn out more or less as you expected, they’re never exactly so, and it’s one of our failings as a species that we tend to expect them to be. Surprise is the cream pie out of nowhere that jolts us out of such complacency, and forces us to look at things from a new viewpoint – for instance, one somewhat smeared by pie filling.

Such a pie – hmm… you know, between this and Bugsy Malone, my reviews have been taking rather a pie-themed turn lately, haven’t they? Oh well; pastries are our secret rulers – such a pie is (or turned out to be for me) Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

How so? Well, I’ll get to that. But first, let’s delve into the plot a bit, shall we?

The film is set, as you will doubtless be unsurprised to learn, in Victorian London, where a well-to-do young medical researcher, one Dr. Henry Jekyll (Ralph Bates), is busily at work. An ambitious project has he – he means to create the anti-virus to end all anti-viruses, one that’ll handle every major infectious disease that plagues mankind. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The trouble is, as he comes to realize, this is an immensely complicated and long-term process he’s initiated. Coming up with a miracle cure for just one of the many ills that humanity is subject to will take, optimistically, a year or two of hard research and experimentation, but all of them, the lot? We’re talking decades and decades of work here, all with only a remote possibility of success at the end of it, a success that, at the projected rate of progress, he might not live to witness.

Now, at this point your average scientist would probably shrug his shoulders and go ‘oh well; at least I can do a really bang-up job of tackling the Yellow Fever’. Dr. Jekyll, however, is not your average scientist, and instead decides to solve one seemingly insurmountable problem through the working out of another seemingly insurmountable problem. His grand project will take more time than he likely has allotted to him? No worries; he’ll just whip up a quick potion to extend human life indefinitely. That’ll give him lots of time! What could be simpler?

Well, quite a few things, actually. Still, the doctor has SCIENCE! on his side, so he devotes himself obsessively to the project. And credit where credit is due, he comes up with a pretty promising avenue of research fairly quickly. Females, he realizes, tend on the whole to remain healthy and vital for much longer than males do, so there must be something in feminine hormones that promotes a longer lifespan. If he can just manage to isolate and amplify this factor, then he may have his elixir of life after all.

You can probably tell where this is going. After a period of exhaustive research, Jekyll manages to come up with a formula that just might do the trick. Except, of course, that it doesn’t – what it does do is transform him into a beautiful female version of himself (Martine Beswick). He changes back fairly quickly, but hey, he sure must have amplified something, right? A qualified success! Soldier on!

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that he runs into a bit of a sticking point. You see, in order to mess around with lady hormones he’s got to have some on hand, and that mean access to more young female cadavers than can easily be procured. Even a working agreement with the infamous grave robbers Burke and Hare (Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin) does little good, as they’re soon taken out of the picture and he’s back to square one. What to do?

After a lot of rationalizing, he decides that there’s only one thing he can do. His work is too important to stop now; if he can’t get what he needs in the usual way, then he’ll have to resort to less savory methods – in other words, he’s going to have to kill for them.

This leads to two more serious complications in Henry Jekyll’s ever-more-complicated life. First, of course, is the fact that he is now a serial killer, something that the local constabulary tends to frown upon. Second, and arguably more serious, is this business with the potion. You see, he’s kept on taking it while he tinkers around with the formula, and his new female persona has decided that she’s rather fond of her new state of being, and doesn’t much care for being locked away inside a nebbishy scientist all the time. She’d rather take hold of the reins herself – permanently. Unless Jekyll can figure out a way to salvage the situation, this “Mrs. Hyde” may just be here to stay…

I couldn’t pinpoint the exact time when I became aware of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde’s existence, but it was, at the very least, several years ago, maybe even as much as a decade. I don’t know – how could I? (‘Dear Diary – today, at precisely 8:25 AM and five seconds, I learned of an obscure horror movie from the early 1970s. Must jot this down for future reference.’) What I do know is that from the first, it produced in me a chortling anticipation.

Don’t give me that puzzled look. You know what I mean, even if I just made up the term (and I probably did). A chortling anticipation is the sort engendered when something crosses your radar and you go ‘oh, I gotta see/read/watch/experience/whatever this’ – only you chortle at the same time. You know; you go ‘p’heh!’ or ‘hoo hoo!’ or ‘m’hihihih!’, or however your involuntary chortle/chuckle/snort sound goes. In other words, you do genuinely look forward to experiencing this thing, but it’s not because of an ‘oh, this is going to be awesome!’ expectation, it’s because when you heard about it, it made you laugh.

This is due to the fact that, whether we deny it or not, we’re a great big conglomeration of hipsters these days, and the last several generations have been poisoned by irony. I’m not saying that we can’t unironically enjoy anything these days; of course we can; it’s just that an extra factor has been added, a beret-and-sunglasses-wearing factor that nudges you right in the common sense and goes ‘you have got to experience this thing, whether or not it is any good. Your sense of jaded intellectualism demands it’.

In short, while I was legitimately interested in seeing this film, there was still that chortling anticipation that went ‘M’hihihih – Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Of course. Inevitable, really.’ So on some level, even after I’d heard a little more about the film and its merits, I was expecting something vaguely comedic. I think, to be exact, I was expecting something a bit cheesy and maybe rooted in 1970s sexual politics in a somewhat dated way. I was still expecting to enjoy myself; it’s just that my inner beret-and-sunglasses was expecting to scoff heartily at some point and feel superior.

Yeah, well, too bad, Mr. Inner-Beret-Guy. Maybe next time. Because here’s the deal, folks; I was dead wrong about this movie. I was expecting something vaguely farcical, whereas what I got was a genuine, completely unironic Good Movie.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a great little piece of classic Hammer Horror. It’s taut, suspenseful, psychological, and yes, even a little bit funny in parts. It held my attention the whole way through, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again. It’s good.

Before I get into the larger reasons for this, though – the plot, the themes, etc. – I’m going to have to switch things up a little and discuss characters first. Because this is nothing if not a character-driven movie, and my discussion of all the rest won’t make a lick of sense if I haven’t established the interpersonal relationships first.

The main lead, of course, is Dr. Jekyll, who is both very like and very unlike most screen Jekylls we’ve seen thus far. So far as the similarities go, he is deeply idealistic and devoted – probably too devoted – to his work, to the point where he finds experimenting on himself with a bizarre potion to be a perfectly logical thing to do. He is unlike most in that this Jekyll has already crossed the boundaries of goodliness long before his Hyde starts becoming a problem.

This Jekyll kills. He kills repeatedly. He corners women in foggy alleyways and slices them up. True, he does so reluctantly, and for what he sees as the best possible reasons – and in the very long run, he’s probably right; we are, after all, talking about things that would, if perfected, be of immeasurable benefit to mankind – but still, he is a murderer, a cold-blooded killer of innocents. The fact that he still comes across as a sympathetic protagonist is a testament to Ralph Bates’ performance – he gives the doctor a combination of unworldly, if sophisticated, innocence, devotion to his work and an iron determination that starts to crack under the strain as his situation rapidly becomes untenable – but even as he struggles against the evils that he has unleashed, you are very aware that this is far from the simple black-and-white morality tale that Jekyll and Hyde movies usually specialize in.

This is further complicated by the fact that his Hyde is far from the usual Hyde. The fact that they’re different genders is the least of what I’m talking about here; this Hyde actually has quite good reasons, as she sees it, for what she does, just as good as her counterpart’s, and with equally distressing results.

It’s never firmly established as to when Mrs. Hyde stops being merely a gender-switched Jekyll and starts to achieve a personality of her own, but whenever it is, the personality in question is not evil, per se, but amoral, and therefore a funhouse mirror image of the good doctor’s obsessive factoring and rationalizing of his actions – he does the bad things he does, after all, because he thinks the good outweighs them; he is effectively sacrificing his personal morality on the altar of the greater good. Hyde, on the other hand, doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss for such lofty aims; she merely wishes to retain her existence, because she, unlike her ‘brother’, actually enjoys life. She is a sensuous creature who doesn’t hesitate to use her sexuality to get what she wants; one could mutter about how this reflects on the screenwriters’ conceptions of femininity and such – clearly the female bad guy must be a slinky vixen because that’s all dem girls is good for, amirite?, that sort of thing – but it actually does make a fair amount of sense when you consider what this is adapted from.

Hyde is, in a sense more literal than most, a side of Jekyll that has never been released before. Where he is intensely introverted, she is the opposite, but not in a rah-rah-let’s-have-a-party way, simply in the sense that she puts her needs, the ones that Jekyll has clearly ignored up ‘til now, first and foremost, and as she’s just as intelligent as he is, knows just how to achieve them. Where he is socially clumsy, she is directly and effectively seductive, because hey, if you were the flipside of a guy like him, you’d probably be interested in a little somethin’ somethin’ too. Where his primary concern is the good of humanity as a whole, hers is for that of herself specifically, and it’s just as unrestrained and damaging as his ultimately turns out to be. The two may uncomfortably co-exist for a little while – after all, she desires a continued supply of more and better potions as much as he does – but as with any J&H story, it can’t possibly last; the two are too intrinsically different for that, and she is too intrinsically self-centered. She must have it all, and that can end well for nobody.

Still, just as one can’t really dislike Jekyll despite his actions, it’s difficult to really hate Hyde here. After all, her basic desire is simple self-preservation, and who can’t sympathize with that? She just wants to live; it’s unfortunate that her living necessitates others dying. Combine all this with Martine Beswick’s intense performance, and you’ve got a really interesting, complex villain/co-protagonist.

So far as the supporting cast goes, it would probably be best to start with Susan Spencer (Susan Brodrick) and her brother Howard (Lewis Fiander), Jekyll’s neighbors who live upstairs. They are significant not so much in and of themselves as for the relationship they have with the doctor – or should I say, relationships. You see, Susan has quite the crush on Dr. J, one that’s more or less reciprocated when he looks up from his test tubes. Howard, on the other hand, is none too wowed by the Doc, but he is head over heels in lust with that sexy “sister” of his, Mrs. Hyde – and there is no ‘more or less’ about her reciprocation, let me assure you. Jekyll basically spends the entire movie playing emotional tag with poor Susan (it’s a little difficult to stop and explain things nicely when you’re about to turn into a murderous female version of yourself), or, when transformed, come-hither with Howard. Needless to say, neither sibling is exactly well=equipped to deal with the truth of the situation, so they keep leaping to conclusions and being generally puzzled the whole way through.

To both the screenwriter’s and the actors’ credit, though, neither devolve into stock caricatures, which they easily could have. Susan may be an innocent, pure-hearted love interest of the sort that mustache-twirling villains would be sorely tempted to tie to train tracks, but she’s got a bit more to her than that – she can err on the stubborn side, she squabbles with her brother, and she overall comes across as a believable young lady of the period. As for Howard, he’s a snide, middle-class fop, but he’s not unlikable – if nothing else, he does clearly care for his sister and is considerate of her feelings. The two are not particularly deep, perhaps, but they carry off their roles well, and are at least convincing as a pair of siblings.

The final three consist of one goody and two baddies. The goody is Jekyll’s friend and mentor, Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim). He’s an interesting character for several reasons, but mainly because he belongs to a type common to such tales, the ladies’ man that tempts the hero to sin. The interesting part is that this doesn’t count as a strike against him, as in many films it would – there’s no moralizing about the way he lives his life, and no particular indication that he’s at all misguided in doing so. Indeed, he’s quite a nice fellow who seems to have a perfectly balanced attitude to things, at least in comparison to Jekyll. He’s not a brainless hedonist, either; he’s one of the smartest characters in the film, and the one who comes closest to… ah, but that would be telling. The baddies are Burke and Hare, who honestly don’t have all that big of an impact on the story, but they’re well-portrayed – Ivor Dean’s Burke is particularly creepy – and deserve mention simply due to their status as actual historical figures.

The film’s chief strength, as I said, is in its characters, but also in the fact that it uses said characters in clever ways. The bizarre love quadrangle between the Spencers and Jekyll/Hyde, for instance, could have been excised without affecting the plot much, but the movie would have been much the poorer for it, as it is the source of some of the film’s best moments (including a rather hilariously awkward one where Hyde’s personality briefly bleeds through into Jekyll’s at a most inconvenient juncture). The central character arc is very stripped-down – it’s Jekyll struggling against Hyde; that’s pretty much it – but it’s to DJaSH’s credit that it paces itself and allows us to gaze at all the people on the sidelines as we pass them by. Everyone in this movie is fleshed out and three-dimensional; even most of Jekyll/Hyde’s victims get a few brief humanizing moments, and they’re literally only there to be killed. There’s not a flat character from start to finish, and that’s not something many films can boast.

Even divorced from the characters, DJaSH stands well on its own. The plot itself is really just a variation on the usual J&H formula, but it goes into areas that most such films don’t touch. There is, of course, the gender-bending, the Jack the Ripper-esque murder spree (it’s never explicitly stated whether Jekyll is actually supposed to be the Ripper here or merely shares similarities with him; either way, this is clearly taking place at the same time as the actual Ripper murders), the implicit gay subtext – lots of stuff. The film is far from deep and ponderous, but it is not brainless; there are things to talk about here.

Moreover, nobody does stupid things. This sounds like an obvious prerequisite, but there are an incredible number of films out there that are driven entirely by people doing exactly that. (‘A monster is after us! Let’s split up!’) On the contrary, this film is driven by the fact that its characters are smart. Jekyll knows that the police are after him and covers his tracks accordingly; the police, in turn, are intelligent and persistent and never turn into the ‘‘Ere now, what’s all this then?’-type Bobbies that they so easily could have. Sure, there are a few blunders made by otherwise-intelligent people, but they’re all well within said people’s established characters; you never go ‘oh, he/she wouldn’t do that!’ It’s quite refreshing.

So far as the look and feel of the movie goes, Hammer was known for putting out good-looking films on a tight budget, and it shows. The overall atmosphere is a pitch-perfect evocation of period London, complete with dark, foggy alleyways, street merchants bawling out their slogans, men in top hats and women in flouncy dresses. Then, of course, there’s Jekyll’s laboratory full of Mysterious Equipment, Mrs. Hyde’s signature blood-red outfits, bawdy beer halls, stained-glass windows casting splashes of color – lots and lots of nice sets and costumes and cool stuff. Not to be ignored, either, is the amazing similarity between Martine Beswick’s and Ralph Bates’ facial features, apparently a complete coincidence discovered only after the film had been cast. She really does look quite a lot like a beautiful female version of him, which adds a good deal of authenticity to the transformation sequences, accomplished solely through skillful trick photography. Top hole.

Now, I never have reviewed a perfect movie so far, and this one is no exception. Given the time it was made, the film skates over a lot of themes that I’m sure some modern audiences would prefer to see a bit more of – the obvious sexual issues, for instance, or the fact that we are basically dealing with a recipe for instant do-it-yourself transgenderism. Also, there are a few minor flubs in the set-up, not the least of which being Burke and Hare having been moved several decades forward in time and from Edinburgh to London. Also, while I thought the ending was fine, apparently some have complained of it being a tad on the uninspired side. If you seek to find fault with the movie, it is there to be found.

Really, though, why would you? Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a minor gem of early ‘70’s Hammer. It’s intense without being brutal, the acting is good, the characters are interesting, and it’s overall an intriguing variation on a classic tale. There’s even just a touch of that camp I was expecting going in. It may not be for everyone; it’s not The Greatest Movie Ever, but if you are at all a fan of any of the stuff just mentioned, or think you might be, then you could certainly do a lot worse.

As for me, my metaphorical nose is still a little swollen. I think perhaps I’d better get some ice.

Aww, man - don't you just hate it when that happens?

Aww, man – don’t you just hate it when that happens?

Intermission!

  • The film apparently had its genesis in a lunchtime conversation where the Hammer top brass were trying to come up with something new. Producer Brian Clemens volunteered the title as a joke. Two days later, he was ushered into an office where they showed him a poster concept and asked him if he’d like to co-produce it.
  • Several other actresses were offered the role of Hyde before Martine Beswick, but turned it down because of the brief nudity involved. Beswick had no problem with this, as she saw it as integral to the character.
  • How exactly does one repeatedly gain an extra foot of hair and then lose it again?
  • Ralph Bates met his future wife, Virginia Wetherell, during filming. She was cast as Dr. Jekyll’s first victim.
  • The initial transformation sequence was done all in one take.
  • Given the fact that Jekyll is clearly heterosexual, shouldn’t Mrs. Hyde be, well… not? (It could have happened, too, since this was round about the time Hammer was putting out its well-known lesbian vampire trilogy. A lesbian Hyde would have fit in nicely.)

Groovy Quotes:

Robertson: Well, keep away from me, my dear boy. I’m having far too much fun the way I am.

Howard: How is your brother?
Mrs. Hyde: ‘Brother’?
Howard: Dr. Jekyll.
Mrs. Hyde: Oh; he… he hasn’t been himself of late.

Hare: What d’you think he does with ‘em?
Burke: I dunno – but I was you, I wouldn’t eat any meat pies in this neighbor’ood.

Robertson: If two’s company, three… positive deviation.

Mrs. Hyde: A fascinating situation, don’t you think? It’ll be interesting to see who wins.

Byker: A Burke by name, and a berk by nature.

Robertson: I was on the job, too – research, you know. A delicious blonde fragment from the chorus at the Alhambra.
Dr. Jekyll: Come now, Professor, ‘research’?
Robertson: Oh, it’s certainly of great benefit to mankind – well, a small section of it, at any rate.

Mrs. Hyde: It is I who exists, Dr. Jekyll, not you. It is I who will be rid of you!

Howard: Jekyll having a sister like that…! Never thought he had it in him.

Mrs. Hyde: We’ll see who wins.
Dr. Jekyll: We’ll see.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Any Jekyll and Hyde film – particularly the 1931 Fredrick March version
  • The Body Snatcher
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4 Comments

  1. Another Hammer film from that same period was The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, in which Van Helsing goes to China and teams up with a family of martial artists to take on the local undead.

    Two things I remember in particular. First, one of Van Helsing’s companions is a Norwegian noblewoman whose job is to be the Damsel and do damselly things, like be in distress and have a heaving bosum (which she has in spades). Listening to her, I thought about what a cheesy accent she had. Later, I looked up the movie on IMDB and found out that the actress in question is Norwegian.

    The other occurs in a scene when the titular vampires are raiding a village of panicking peasants. One of the vampires rides past a screaming female peasant and rips off her blouse. She continues screaming for several seconds before noticing that her rack is on display and she covers up, the whole time never letting up on her screaming.

    I suppose I should apologize for the lame pun in the previous paragraph.

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