Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Review of Hammer Film's 1971 Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde

Secret fact, I first saw this as a fourteen year old girl trapped in a boy’s body.  I just watched it on youtube over the weekend on a whim.

Even in the original short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, it was hinted that Dr. Jekyll’s formula might bring out different sorts of polar opposites in other subjects.  In 1971 Hammer Films showed us exactly that.  In a movie that made but little noise at the time of release has picked up quite a cult following over the years.  The film is clearly among the best Hammer ever made.  It has all the perfect atmosphere, costumes, and gothic sets that are the hallmarks of the studio.  It has buxom ladies and black cloaked villains, and a powerful film score.  And it has the one of the most innovative and shocking twists of all Hammer films.  It’s downright subversive in its transgender theme.  But don’t look for Peter Cushing or Chris Lee, they skipped this one.
At the beginning of the film Henry Jekyll (Ralph Bates) is an obsessed brilliant young medical researcher in Victorian England, the White Chapel area of London to be specific.  He’s working on a formula, a universal vaccine, when his playboy friend points out that he’ll be long dead before he can finish his work to save mankind from disease.  And just like that, old Henry decides he has to instead work on a formula to keep himself young so he can do all that good for humanity.  He comes up with a secret formula based on female hormones he extracts from the lady bits of cadavers.  Our brave and noble Dr. Jekyll tries the formula on himself.

The formula turns Jekyll into a hot, sexy young woman (played superbly by Bond Girl Martine Beswick) who quickly discovers Autogynophilia.  Whereas, male Jekyll is devoted to his work to the exclusion of all else, the female version delights in life and its pleasures.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear (but we can guess), Jekyll keeps up with his research, first hiring killers to find him young bodies once the morgue runs dry, and then to hit the streets and become Jack the Ripper to gain his needed lady bits for his/her formula.

A battle of wills develops as “Mrs. Hyde”, officially Henry’s widowed sister, decides she should be the one living full time and Henry should be relegated to extinction.  Both commit murders for the sake of their formula, but Hyde at least is battling for her very existence, and Henry is just in it for “the greater good” allegedly.  And if some Victorian hookers gotta die so Henry Jekyll can feel herself up, I guess that’s what’s gonna happen.  There is no good versus evil story here.

It really is a deep movie in a lot of ways, and they were obviously afraid for pushing things too far, crossing such taboos as they already were.  Bates and Beswick actually look like brother and sister so that part works convincingly.  But in the end no one knew how to end the story, and it feels unsatisfying.  Worth checking out on youtube sometime if you like Hammer Films.

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