The first of only two projects writer-producer Brian Clemens completed for Hammer productions with his production partner Albert Fennell in the early seventies, “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde” is a tour-de-force of knowing Victorian cliché played completely straight by director Roy Ward Baker, despite a script replete with snigger-inducing double entendre throughout. All three had worked together before on Emma Peel era episodes of “The Avengers” when Baker was ubiquitous in British TV, and the highly stylised look of “ … Sister Hyde” -- with its dank and dark cobbled alleyways swathed in a persistent green murk of choking fog -- plays to exactly the same sensibility Clemens and co had once displayed in the classic ‘60s series for creating complete on-screen worlds of heightened fantasy, as vivid as they were unrealistic.
This one is dressed up in an almost comical assortment of Victorian standbys -- from street urchins and foot vendors selling steaming baked potatoes on the corner, to noisy street singers and jolly, boisterous ‘ladies of the night’ falling out of roistering gin houses while more respectable chaperoned young ladies look askance as they’re being escorted from the more genteel Lyons tea rooms. There is no compunction displayed here in the forgoing of all period accuracy or verisimilitude: the fashions are all over the place and the milieu is so non-specific that Clemens seems to have no care for the fact that his plot sees the 1830s Edinburgh grave robbers Burke & Hair (Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin) circulating among the denizens of the same fusty backstreets and London rookeries as Jack the Ripper -- who didn’t get to work on Whitechapel’s prostitute population till the late 1880s! It’s as anachronistic and bizarre as the idea of Winston Churchill being portrayed as a contemporary of Margaret Thatcher, and the two joining forces to defeat the twin threat of Arthur Scargill and Hitler!
But the film rather revels in its own absurdity. Clemens’ subversion of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of the divided self is as tellingly evocative of its era as the original was in its own time. While Stevenson was inspired by dark fears that the edifice of virtuous Victorian civilisation was falsely built on a buried bestial nature (which was then just being uncovered by Darwinian science) and prone to atavistic eruptions of primal masculinity, Clemens’ reworking is a winking, nudge-nudge poke in the ribs of a semi mythical Victorian society in which hypocrisy and misogyny are perceived as the exclusive handmaidens of the era’s rigid attitudes, both to the fixed gender roles assigned to the sexes, and with regard to the mores of their everyday interactions.
Of course, it’s inevitably a reading taken from an early-seventies perspective, when gender roles had apparently broken down but when there was still more than a residual layer of nervousness about the sexual free-for-all. This was the era when, building on exaggerated late-Edwardian ideas, the Victorians were seen as grinding straight-laced prudes who felt it indecent to leave even the legs on the drawing room piano uncovered. From a modern-day viewpoint the prejudices of ’70s Britain are just as apparent in Clemens’ treatment of the subject as the courtship rituals and repressed neurosis he satirises, with the ‘70’s nascent gender-bending an obvious inspiration.
Rising Hammer star Ralph Bates is perfectly cast as the boyish Dr. Jekyll; at the time, his particular brand of fey good looks located him almost exactly half-way between foppish Regency dandy and androgynous long-haired ’70s loverboy -- perfect for the role of someone rapidly losing a grip on their sexual identity. Clemens loads the script with business that seeks to highlight at every turn the era’s stultifying moral attitudes and the hypocritical behaviour running rampant all around, while Bates obliviously continues his experiments in his lodgings' backroom laboratory.
Jekyll is intent on fabricating a cure-all ‘anti-virus’ designed to rid the world of all infectious diseases. However, his friend and fellow gentleman doctor Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim) reminds him that it would undoubtedly take him more than his own lifetime to perfect such a serum. Robertson seems more intent on getting his mitts on the chorus girls at the Alhambra Theatre, despite his studied air of gentlemanly respectability, and he advises Jekyll that he really should be doing the same. But the good doctor merely switches the focus of his work to the on-going search for an elixir of youth instead, and it’s at this point that all his troubles truly begin. Based on the rather dubious reasoning that female hormones beget extended youth, Jekyll beavers away in his lab concocting a test solution made with the glands of female corpses procured from a dodgy morgue attendant (“I was rather fond of that one!” the odd fellow intones gloomily when Jekyll requests a particular female body) and he isn’t even put off downing the concoction even when it appears to have turned a male fly into a female one in the process of extending its life by the human equivalent of two hundred years.
Meanwhile, across the corridor, the serious but handsome young doctor has not gone unnoticed by innocent home-body Susan Spencer (Susan Brodrick) who lives in the same cramped lodging rooms with her mother (Dorothy Alison) and restless brother Howard (Lewis Fiander), the women diligently pursuing traditional ‘womanly’ hobbies such as needlepoint in the frigid silence of their knick-knack cluttered parlor, while Susan dreams of romantic tryst with the good doctor Jekyll. Howard, meanwhile has become besotted with the voluptuous raven-haired beauty who seems to occasionally lodge with their secretive neighbour, and is as delighted as Susan when Jekyll informs him that the woman is, in fact, his widowed sister Mrs. Hyde!
Obviously the two are one and the same person, Jekyll having been transformed into the ravishing ex Bond girl Martine Beswicke by his newly minted elixir. Clemens then spends plenty of time developing the farcical double union forged between a delicately chaste Jekyll and the virginal Susan, and the far more torrid escapades of Mrs Hyde & Howard Spencer. Sexual confusion soon abounds with Jekyll eventually starting to lose control of his mind and his masculinity, forgetting himself and automatically tenderly embracing Howard in the street at one point, much to the young man’s shock -- particularly as his neighbour is emerging from a dress shop at the time!
Although it wasn’t included or required in Clemens’ original script, Beswicke eventually succumbed to Hammer’s insistence on full nudity; but true to form, it ends up being a rather peek-a-boo variety, with the actress pictured delightedly groping her own breasts upon Bates’ initial transformation and then later shown briefly disrobing in order to display her womanly expertise by knocking up a semi respectable-looking evening gown out of an old pair of velvet curtains, in seconds flat!
With the increasing tendency for her nightly seductions of Howard in Jekyll’s drawing room to be spoilt by a sudden realisation that her caresses are being carried out by Jekyll’s hairy hand instead of her own, the increasingly dominant Mrs. Hyde decides that her alter ego needs to be banished once and for all, so that she may thrive uninterrupted. The cross-gender confusion is enhanced by Jekyll becoming increasingly feminine and submissive while Hyde is ever more assertive and confident. With the supply of female corpses drying up after Jekyll’s associate, Professor Robertson, starts to become slightly suspicious, and his suppliers Burke and Hair are respectively hanged and blinded in a Lime pit by a baying mob, Mrs. Hyde begins stalking the streets, knife in garter belt, to continue the ugly work that Jekyll had previously been forced to carry out himself: slicing out slithery hormonal ‘glands’ from drunken streetwalkers in grimy night-time alleyways, thus perpetuating the legend of Jack the Ripper. Roy Ward Baker colours the ‘Carry On’ sexual capers and liberal gender confusion with generous helpings of Grand Guignol spectacle, vivid sploshes of blood sullying Virginia Wetherell’s heaving bosom (Ralph Bates’ future wife!) as Jekyll slices her up in her gloomy lodging rooms, and Professor Robertson’s inveterate philandering eventually earning him the pleasure of being himself ’penetrated’ with a phallic-looking dagger-in-the-back by the corseted Mrs. Hyde.
Since it never took itself seriously in the first place, it is impossible to chastise Clemens’ outrageous, gory, sex-obsessed farce for its ludicrousness. A tongue set firmly in its cheek and an attractive display of Victorian urban gothic horror excess makes this a perennial favourite for connoisseurs of British horror, marred only by a weak and lazy resort to the ‘fall-from-a-rooftop-while-being-pursued-by-an-angry-mob conclusion, along with the obligatory hasty admonishment for ‘messing with nature’ at the end. The new DVD release by Optimum Releasing is welcome, although it appears to be exactly the same print and quality as the previous UK VCI release, again with the cheesy theatrical trailer as its only extra. It’s a shame that we couldn't have had the Clemens, Baker and Beswicke commentary track from the discontinued region 1 Anchor Bay release ported over here, but needless to say the film is an essential addition to any Hammer fan’s DVD library.