Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971)

JUNE 23, 2011


I’m all for combining real life unsolved mysteries with the plots of horror movies, with Jack The Ripper being the most common example (though I particularly liked From Dusk Till Dawn 3 chalking up Ambrose Pierce’s disappearance to vampires), but sometimes they can go a little overboard and kill the fun. Such is the case with Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which was already high concept enough what with a guy turning into a very attractive and seemingly horny woman (the Freudian/homoerotic subtext alone could cover a movie), but then they have to tie it into Jack the Ripper AND the Burke & Hare cases.

Not only does this present a major anachronistic issue, being that Burke & Hare operated 50-60 years before the Ripper murders (and in another country to boot), but it also means we lose focus of the most novel idea in the film – changing Hyde’s sex. I don’t know how much of a horror movie it would be if that was all there was to it, but it would certainly be more perversely interesting, especially since Jekyll is in love with Susan, a girl who lives upstairs, and then Hyde in turn falls for Susan’s brother. Again with the homoerotic subtext - when the brother starts putting the moves on Hyde, audiences must have been fairly shocked at what was really happening between the lines if they put that much thought into it. And whether it was meant to be funny or not, I’m unsure, but I laughed like a loon when he/she changed for the first time and wasted no time groping “her” own breast. Kinky shit.

Sadly, they either couldn’t or didn’t want to do much with that aspect of the movie, and thus as it goes on, the movie doesn’t really play out much differently than most other Jekyll & Hyde movies. It’s a good idea to tie it into Jack (probably why it’s been done a couple times, including Edge of Sanity – I assume this was the first to do it though?), but while a movie like From Hell can work as a genuine possible solution to the case (within reason), there’s no way to really believe that Dr. Jekyll, the sex-changing mad scientist, was responsible for the atrocities in Whitechapel. So it’s not as chilling, but just sort of fun – something that I’m sure any descendants of the Ripper’s real victims probably don’t appreciate.

And then when they bring Burke & Hare into the damn thing, it becomes about one character short of being a lost prequel to the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Again, it’s kind of a fun idea to have them be the guys supplying Jekyll with his bodies (and committing the first few murders, I think? I was a bit hazy on that), but it doesn’t really work as a real theory, and thus it’s impossible to take the movie seriously even though that is what they are going for.

Because that’s another issue – it’s too damn stuffy. I mean, a lot of Hammer movies are classy and feature upper class characters, but half the time I felt like I should have been sipping a cognac while I was watching. The kills are few and far between, and of course they never bother to humanize any of Jack’s victims (since they’re all hookers), so pretty much all of our characters, good or bad, are rich jerks. There are occasional bits of dry humor – I particularly enjoyed Jekyll’s reaction to a wanted posted that described the killer as a tall man with a tall hat and dark cloak (the very outfit he had on at the time), and some of Burke & Hare’s quips are worthy of a chuckle, but not nearly enough. In fact, the plotting and history bungling seems more fit for an AIP film with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, where they would be having fun more consistently.

But it’s not without merit. Ralph Bates is a terrific Jekyll, toeing the line between driven scientist trying to do good and crazed madman perfectly. And kudos to the casting folks for finding an actress (Martine Beswick) who was not only quite sultry but also had enough of a physical resemblance to Bates for the concept to work without resorting to putting someone in drag. I also like that they both shared a mole on their cheek, something I don’t think anyone ever noticed. There’s a bit early on that seems to have influenced Mrs. Doubtfire, with one character looking for Jekyll and another looking for Hyde at the same time, and he/she has to switch back and forth – I wish someone had made the connection earlier, especially since no one seems particularly shocked at the end when (spoiler) Jekyll falls off the roof and dies in mid-transformation. There’s also a great stalk scene in the final reel as Hyde tries to get Susan in the foggy streets of London, which works not only for the atmosphere but also because it’s one of the very few potential victims in the movie that has a name.

So, overall, not a classic Hammer film, but not a disaster either. Mildly enjoyable, just above a time-waster. Would love to see someone tackle the concept (Cronenberg?) and really dive into the psychosexual aspects of the idea rather than more or less do the same old thing.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. Well, of course there's the comedy Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde starring Tim Daly and Sean Young. I always thought that one was pretty fun and silly. It's pretty much 0% horror though, so it wouldn't work for your column, but still, it might be interesting to watch it to see how someone else tackles a similar concept.


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