London fog, thick as pea soup. A street butcher sharpens his blade and readies himself to carve up a rabbit. A street walker sings an off-key folk tune. A man in a top hat and cloak emerges from the darkness,stalking a lady of the evening. The cloaked man removes a long knife from a medical bag. The camera angles in on the butcher’s blade shredding through flesh and fur. Next red blood splatters on a white wanted poster. The Ripper has finished his work and flees the scene. He enters a darkened room, cleans the gore off of himself and begins to write in a journal. “This is the testament of Dr. Henry Jekyll, age 30, male…male…MALE!”
Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde was Hammer Studio’s third stab at Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous horror tale. The first being the comedic Ugly Duckling and the second being the somber Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. “Sister Hyde” is often regarded as Hammer’s best take on the Jekyll story and it’s certainly one of the most gonzo films in Hammer’s catalogue. Original conceived as merely a joke by writer Brian Clemens, this original take on the material trades in the traditional duality of good and evil for gender identity. It also grafts some loose historical aspects into the Hyde by bringing in Burke and Hare and revealing that Jack the Ripper was none other than Dr. Jekyll. If the movie sounds wonderfully off it’s rocker, it’s because it is.
Clemens, who also wrote the equally iconoclastic Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, has a certain outlook on the Hammer formula. Turn it on it’s head. In the case of this film, Jekyll is researching a way to prolong life and bases his formula in female hormones. The result is a version of Hyde that is not a brutish monster, but a seductive woman (a concept that would be played out less successfully in 1995’s Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde). This battle of the sexes approach removes the typical good/evil morality play present in the story. Both Jekyll and Hyde are varying shades of evil. Jekyll might be a reluctant serial killer, but he’s a full-on mad scientist who sees human life as only a small cost in progressing science. Sister Hyde on the other hand is an icy vamp, who embraces her dark desires. Their feud isn’t a moral one, it’s a personal one. A kind of biological property dispute over who gets control over Jekyll’s meat suit.
It could be said that by removing the moral framework, you’re taking some of the sting out of Jekyll and Hyde. But surely such a well-worn story can survive radical reinvention at least once. Indeed, a big part of the reason the movie ultimately works, despite its possibly comical set-up is that stars Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick make it work. Though they reportedly only bore a passing resemblance in person, on screen they could be twins.
Bates should be a familiar face to Hammer Horror fans, as he appeared in several of their late period films. At the time of Sister Hyde, the studio was grooming him to be their next big horror star. His Henry Jekyll is a seemingly naive, but driven man. More at home in his lab than with other people, Jekyll believes he is working towards a noble goal for all of mankind. It’s because Bates sells the detached, obsessive nature of Jekyll that his turn towards serial murder doesn’t feel totally forced. This Dr. Jekyll isn’t as sympathetic as more classical versions, but he’s certainly just as tormented. This is probably Bates’ best appearance in a Hammer horror film.
Beswick’s female Hyde is an all-together different kind of evil. She’s smooth, with a chilling confidence. A million light years away from the ape-like freak brought to life by Fredric March in 1931. Though they both share a certain youthful exuberance. The fact that she is an attractive villain is of course, very Hammer. Beswick is best known to Hammer fans from appearances in two of their infamous cave-girl movies, but I think this is also her best Hammer role.
What makes this movie really hold together is the way Bates and Beswick work together to essentially create one character. Yes, Jekyll and Hyde are different, but they are also similar. Both sharing similar facial expressions and mannerisms. And despite the fact the Jekyll somewhat resists his evil nature and Hyde embraces it, both get a look of orgasmic pleasure on their face while murdering someone. I can only imagine the conversations between both actors while preparing for this role.
Director Roy Ward Baker was also a Hammer regular, with a background in thrillers that reaches back to working with the famed Alfred Hitchcock as an assistant director on The Lady Vanishes. His best remembered Hammer film is the amazingQuartermass and the Pit, but Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is also a stylishly directed film. The use of color firmly puts this film in the 1970’s by making bold, almost psychedelic choices. There is also several dramatic close-ups, such as the aforementioned butcher scene, that sets this apart from other b-horror pictures of the day. Unfortunately, we’re also treated to several corny jump-cuts, that date the movie badly. Despite this one flaw, this is overall a nice looking movie and holds up well for this viewer.
Many other critics have noted possibly sexist, transphobic, or homophobic underlinings to the film’s plot. While I can see why someone might pick up of that possibility, I tend to think that the filmmakers merely had the straight forward objective of an exploitation film when dealing with the debatably kinky subtext. Jekyll & Hyde’s gender issues is dealt with in the most on the nose fashion. So while it might not be the sensitive portrayal of the subject, I think it’s important to remember that it is really just a monster movie made in a more innocent time.
Films from the final years of Hammer’s classic period are heavily debated movies. A lot of horror fans tend to write them off as garbage and frankly I can understand why. However, as Hammer experimented with new ideas, we did get a few interesting films that are worth revisiting. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is certainly one such film. Do yourself a favor and track it down next time you’re feeling like taking in some Gothic horror.