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Battle of the Sexes, Hammer Horror Style

Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde

by Tony Nash

(#6 in The Month of Hammer Horror)

(Spoilers will be present)

(all opinions are of the author alone)

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Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) R ****

Ralph Bates: Dr. Henry Jekyll

Martine Beswick: (Sister) Mrs. E. Hyde

Gerald Sim: Professor Robertson

Susan Brodrick: Susan Spencer

Lewis Flander: Howard Spencer

Paul Whitsun-Jones: Sergeant Danvers

Dorothy Alison: Mrs. Spencer

Philip Madoc: Byker

Neil Wilson: The Older Policeman

Ivor Dean: William Burke

Tony Calvin: William Hare

Julia Wright: The Street Singer

Written by: Brian Clemens

Loosely adapted from the Novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Directed by: Roy Ward Baker

Synopsis: Determined to find a way to extend human life, Dr. Henry Jekyll utilizes the hormone glands of murdered young women, which he believes holds the key to longevity, in his experiments. Upon testing it on himself, Jekyll turns into a beautiful, but cold woman calling herself the widowed Mrs. Hyde, whom Jekyll says is his sister. When Jekyll’s forced into murdering local area prostitutes for the glands to continue his work, “Sister” Hyde begins to exert her control more and more on him, to the point she plans to murder the woman Jekyll’s come to love.

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Hammer Films, in the early seventies, began welcoming independent filmmakers to showcase their talents. An early case led to a unique adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Science Fiction shocker of Good vs. Evil The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  In this version of the story, Dr. Jekyll is hoping to find a way to increase longevity in people, so he can find the cure to various diseases plaguing England. While a test proves his formula works, Jekyll is puzzled why the male fly he used for the test suddenly showed signs of female anatomy. Testing it on himself leads to the birth of a woman who slowly becomes mad upon realizing how she came to be. Writer Brian Clemens, most famous for two hit British TV series, The Avengers and The Professionals, takes Stevenson’s concept of Good vs. Evil and places it within the roles of men and women in Victorian era London. Dr. Jekyll is very quiet and dedicated to his work, with little interest in a social or married life, Mrs. Hyde, on the other hand, is very outgoing, full of vigor and spirit, hating the idea of being cooped up in one place. When Hyde starts becoming the more dominant and vicious personality, Jekyll must find a way to break free of his predicament. In a way the film becomes both a battle of wills and a battle of the sexes, as the audience wonders which personality, and gender, will win the final test of endurance.

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An interesting note for those who also enjoy History is the film’s inclusion of the infamous duo Burke and Hare. Burke and Hare were 19th century petty thieves who turned to murder and grave robbing for profit. Like in the film the majority of the bodies they pilfered from cemeteries were for the local medical schools to practice dissection and organ transplants. A historical inaccuracy in the film is that the duo’s murderous rampage didn’t begin with one doctor like Jekyll in need of a major supply, but because so many medical schools were in need of cadavers, the supply quickly dried up. Also different is how the duo met their ends. In real life they were tried and executed for their acts and in the early stages of the film are shown as being lynched by the locals of the ghettos for their actions. Also, the two were nowhere near England, but in Scotland when the revelation of what they were doing became public knowledge.

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Alan Bates, a British character actor whose career dwindled when Hammer made an unsuccessful attempt to have him become Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee’s successor when the veterans grew tired of Hammer’s offers, is actually quite good and sympathetic in the role of Dr. Henry Jekyll. Much like the character of the novella, Bates plays Jekyll as only wishing to benefit mankind, but in this version he’s looking for a way to extend and preserve the quality of life rather than finding out what makes men good and evil. Bates has Jekyll as a shy and unassuming man, very much like how he is most film adaptations and the book itself, but also adds a touch of the introverted as he seems to have no interest in love or a social life. Unlike the novel version of Jekyll, who realizes some ends never justify the means, Bates’ Jekyll resolves there can be no other course but to break the law to find his answers and thus begins to murder the prostitutes of London. It isn’t too long before he realizes the error he’s made when the female alter-ego of his experiments, Mrs. Hyde, begins taking over his body and mind, resulting in Jekyll’s realization of a friend’s warning not to meddle in certain elements of nature. While his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, Bates balances this out with Jekyll’s late recognition of humanity and love of fellow beings in trying to protect his upstairs neighbors, a sister and brother who’ve become close to him and his “sister”. While equally similar and different, Bates manages to keep Stevenson’s original concept of a good man destroyed by his own intentions alive and well.

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Martine Beswick, a Jamaican-Naturalized British-American actress who’s most famous for her appearances in the James Bond films From Russia with Love (she’s one of the two Gypsy cat fighters) and Thunderball (as an MI-6 agent and friend of Bond’s), and as Raquel Welch’s rival in the Hammer/Ray Harryhausen co-production One Million Years B.C., is beautiful, expressive, and vicious as Mrs. Hyde. Ironically the role had been offered to up-in-coming actress Caroline Munro, who turned it down because of the nude scenes, and in a way the film is actually better for it as Beswick had a great talent for playing wicked women very well. Like the book, Mrs. Hyde is Jekyll’s polar opposite: outgoing, sociable, and romantic. Also like the book counterpart, Hyde is very aggressive and lets very little get in her way. The character is very much in the vein of the modern woman: self-assured, assertive, intelligent, and wanting control of her own destiny. While it’s plausible for this to be seen as an attack on New Wave Feminism, because Mrs. Hyde is depicted as ultra-evil without any concept of right or wrong, not caring who she kills to prolong her existence audiences have no reason to see her as a woman to be discouraged.. What Beswick and Bates collaborate on is the uncertainty if Hyde is a completely separate personality the moment Jekyll takes the formula or if she gradually comes into her own as an individual with each regression. How Beswick makes Hyde even more frightening is that she clearly is the stronger persona of the two, very aware of what she wants. This configures back to Stevenson’s original concept the more volatile personality tended to be the stronger one if the originating personality was a little on the weak side.

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Another interesting note to history buffs is the parallel of the film to the figure known as Jack the Ripper. The method in which Jekyll, and then Hyde, kill their victims is very similar to how the Ripper was known to kill his prey. The idea that Dr. Jekyll/Mrs. Hyde was in fact Jack the Ripper is an interesting analogy as it certainly would explain the choice of prostitutes as the victims and the revelation that the murders were performed with the proficiency of a surgeon/physician. While the year the film is set in is never mentioned, that the newspapers refer to Jekyll/Hyde’s crimes as the Whitechapel Killings is a clear indication of the Ripper’s MO and style. Ralph Bates even dresses similarly to the fiend with a top hat and cape, thus completing the effect.

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A truly different take on one of the many classic literature of the 19th century, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde offers thrills and some chills, and a unique mystery that leaves those who discover the truth dumbfounded and shocked. Bizarre and intriguing, the film shows what Hammer could’ve easily accomplished if they hadn’t relied so much on low-end blood and gore vampire films. Like with Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, the film mixes suspense with a brooding atmosphere and interesting characters that leave the viewer wondering how events are going to play. The nice mixture of historical figures and legends into the fictitious story adds a nice touch as it gives an interesting what if scenario to real life happenings. While the idea of gender bending transformation at the time seemed very implausible, strides were being made in sex change operations, and the options for today’s transgender communities has flourished greatly. Whether the film can be seen as an insight into things to come as far as gender is anyone’s personal viewpoint, what is known is that it’s a fine film with an interesting premise and unique ideas.

(Like with Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, the R rating is solely my own personal one, given the nudity and violence, though the violence is shown through shadows and minimal blood. I do recommend it for those looking for something different in Horror in general or would like to see a different take on the Jekyll/Hyde story. The UK Blu Ray and DVD look very well with fine transfers and decent audio and extras.)

All images courtesy of images and their respective owners

For more information

(Note: Since the Blu Ray also includes a DVD, I’m not sure if the original DVD release is still eligible for shipping to the US, though this may change over time)

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

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