Saturday, October 10, 2009


DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (1971) Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Starring Ralph Bates. Martine Beswick. Gerald Sim.

The end of the 1960’s saw something of a downturn in the fortunes of the British film industry. Audiences were falling, tastes were changing and, worst of all, the American money which had shored up production was rapidly vanishing back across the Atlantic.

Hammer Films, which had long relied on U.S funding, found itself in something of a quandary. Their response was to sex up their movies and to experiment with the formula which had hitherto served them so well: hence such films as Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, Hands of the Ripper, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires and – perhaps the most bizarre of them all – Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

An extremely loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde mixes Stevenson’s gothic psychodrama with Jack the Ripper, Burke and Hare (displaced in both space and time from Edinburgh in the 1840’s to 1880’s London) and, of course, the gender-swapping implied by the title.

Ralph Bates (who at that time was being groomed as a potential replacement for Peter Cushing) plays the titular Dr Jekyll, searching for a universal panacea that will cure all mankind’s ills. However, when lecherous colleague Dr Robertson (Gerald Sim in fine sleazy form) points out to him that this work could very likely take an entire lifetime to complete, Dr Jekyll switches tack and instead resolves to discover the secret of eternal youth.

A few experiments later and he is able to extend the life of a short-lived insect for several days, thus proving that he has now mastered death. Hurray! There are one or two side effects, however, the principal one being that his experimental elixir causes the user to change gender due to the large amount of female hormones used in said potion. In this case, it causes long-haired dandy Ralph Bates to become snarling eyed fashionista Martine Beswick. Dr Ralph is, understandably, somewhat taken aback by this but resolves to continue his experiments . But since he needs more female hormones and since the local morgue has run out of the right kind of young female corpses, he turns instead to local resurrectionists Burke and Hare (Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin) to provide him with his raw materials, which they do through the simple yet effective medium of murdering local prostitutes.

Things take a turn for the worse when local vigilantes decide to deliver a spot of mob justice, lynching Burke and throwing Hare into a pit full of quick lime. Forced to fall back on his own resources, Jekyll takes a leaf from Burke and Hare’s book - “you’ve got to do bad to do good” – and starts murdering ladies of the night on his own.

However, with these Ripper-esque murders attracting the attention of the local constabulary, and posters all over town telling the citizens to beware of tall dark strangers in top hats and black cloaks Dr Jekyll in his infinite wisdom then decides to unleash his inner woman to do the dirty work for him. Of course, once let out, Sister Hyde is understandably reluctant to go back in again and thus a battle of wills ensues between the ying and yang that are Dr Jekyll and his 'sister', Mrs Hyde (a name chosen somewhat conveniently from the headlines when Jekyll’s comely upstairs neighbour asks who was that strange woman I didn’t see you with last night) ending with a rooftop chase and some of the strangest makeup ever to grace a Hammer Film.

It’s a silly, hodge-podge of a film but Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde nonetheless has a strange bravado all of its own that transcends its own daft premise and studio-bound sets to provide a hugely enjoyable ninety odd (very odd) minutes of off-kilter horror and blacker-than-black comedy.

It’s helped by a wittily knowing script from Brian Clemens (who would also write and direct one of the very best of the late period Hammers, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter), elegant yet unobtrusive direction from Roy Ward Baker (who also helmed Quatermass and the Pit, Scars of Dracula, The Vault of Horror and Asylum, among others) and a top-notch cast who stubbornly refuse to let the audience know that they’re in on the joke.

Clemens’ in particular provides some brilliant and knowingly daft dialogue, all of which is delivered with remarkably straight faces by the cast:

Dr Robertson: “Put a woman in your life… and one day you’ll wake up, look at yourself in the mirror and see a changed man.”

Sister Hyde (referring to the missing Dr Jekyll): “He hasn’t been himself lately.”

Dr Robertson: “It’s a queer business, sergeant, very queer.”

Ralph Bates and Martin Beswick are both impressive in their roles – Bates, all tortured genius determined to help mankind even if it means bumping off a few of them and Beswick sultry and beautiful to the extent that any man who looks at her practically has to loosen his collar and utter the words ‘Ding Dong’ in a Leslie Phillips style sotto voce.

The supporting cast are uniformally excellent, too, from Dean and Calvin’s turn as Burke and Hare to upstairs love interest brother-and-sister Howard and Susan Spencer (Lewis Fiander and Susan Broderick, Fiander boasting a fine bouffant hairdo that probably looked a bit odd even then). Gerald Sim’s Dr Robertson makes a fine foil/nemesis for both Jekyll and Hyde while the film’s principal delights are to be found in Paul Whitsun-Jones as archetypal London bobby Sergeant Danvers and, particularly, Philip Madoc’s sinister turn as mortuary attendant Byker.

Roy Ward Baker – once described as ‘the grand old man of British horror’ makes the most of his fog-bound sets and stages the various murders with a restrained yet bloody glee, using his camera to give the film a texture and depth which elevates it far above its thin storyline and miniscule budget. As an example of two craftsmen – Baker and Clemens – making an impressively silky purse out of a sow’s ear it’s hard to beat.

Although hardly classic Hammer, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is an enjoyably silly romp, perhaps best viewed with an open mind whilst sampling the alcoholic beverage of your choice.

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