Thursday, October 27, 2016

31 Days of Halloween – Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

By Jerry Chandler

When one says the words “Hammer Horror” in most company, the talk frequently turns towards the classics. Dracula is almost instantly brought up with Frankenstein and the Mummy quickly following. Names like Cushing and Lee pepper every conversation, and men of a certain age- those ages being anything over the age of ten –will likely start discussing Caroline Munro in rather short order. Thank you ever so much Lamb's Navy Rum. Ingrid Pitt will also become an intense topic of discussion.

You’ll probably get mentions of things like The Curse of the Werewolf, The Reptile, and The Plague of the Zombies. Maybe you’ll get someone who brings up The Gorgon or even the Quatermass films. But it seems that in large part the casual Hammer horror fan tends to leave a large chunk of Hammer films out of their viewing habits; especially with 1970’s Hammer horror. This needs to change. Despite the long held talking point that many use when discussing 1970’s Hammer horror, they actually put out quite a few films in that decade that were enjoyably entertaining and/or interesting attempts at playing with the genre. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is definitely a film that fits both of those categories.

The story takes the classic tale of the mad scientist who unleashes his more vicious side and turns it into one where he unleashes his more vivacious side. Fortunately for the drama and tension aspects of our story, Sister Hyde also keeps the classic character’s vicious streak. The consequence of this change with regards to the storytelling is to give us a Hyde that uses cunning and guile more than many other screen versions of the character, and thus makes the moments of her stark brutality more shocking when it’s on display.

Our story finds Dr. Jekyll (Ralph Bates) trying to create new medical treatments to save lives. His methods and experiments are very long game though, and many could be years or decades in the making. This idea has apparently escaped his notice as a joking comment along those lines by his friend Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim) sends a shiver down his spine. The realization that he may die long before any of his treatments become a reality sends him down a new path- seeking the elixir of life.

He eventually determines that the secret to creating such a formula is to be found with female hormones. It’s at this point that Jekyll begins to abandon ethical research. He employs two men, the infamous pair of grave robbers known as Burke & Hare, to bring him fresh cadavers to extract what he needs. We see the first signs of him going over the edge in his quest when he recognizes one of the bodies and the viewer is made aware that he realizes this wasn’t a natural death. After a brief exchange with Burke & Hare he agrees to pay them to continue bringing him bodies- no questions asked.

He finally creates a formula he believes to be the one and tests it on flies. It’s here he finally achieves success. After inviting Professor Robertson over he points out that the fly he injected has been alive for three days when its normal lifespan is about a day. Robertson laughs at Jekyll over one basic failure of science- misidentifying an important component of his experiment. He chides Jekyll for referring to the fly as a male when the subject is obviously a female of the species. Jekyll looks dumbfounded, but blows it off.

He continues to work while simultaneously being blind to the early affections of his upstairs neighbor. Susan Spencer (Susan Brodrick) openly acts rather smitten by Jekyll- much to the amusement of her brother Howard (Louis Fiander). It’s Howard who finally decides to approach Jekyll when they hear crashing sounds and moans from his apartment. But the sounds are the results of Jekyll choosing to test his formula on himself. When he enters the apartment he sees a woman baring her breasts in front of a mirror and quickly excuses himself in a fit of embarrassment and makes an exit.

From there the story is well and truly on. The conflict between the two personalities, the fight for control, and the struggle for who will actually live and exist begins to intensify, the desperation for a cure and a permanent fix leads to a greater and greater body count, and the desire of Sister Hyde to emotionally break Dr. Jekyll leads to moments of true tension and suspense. The film also gives us some excellent atmosphere and FX visuals.

The first one is a bit of a no-brainer. It was both a Hammer horror film and an English period piece. Between the sets, the available actors, the costumes, and the props, getting the look and atmosphere right was something that any film coming out of that era of British filmmaking could do with period pieces no matter how strapped the budget. But the genius behind some of the FX visuals seen in the film is the work of Hammer’s ever reliable director, Roy Ward Baker.

Roy Ward Baker did not believe in doing things in a pedestrian manner even when handed a below average script. When something was going to have his name on it, he put his best effort into it. You can first truly see the effort and thought that he and the others put into filming Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde with the first transformation of Jekyll into Hyde. He could have gone the route of any number of horror film transformations before this film- cutting away and back repeatedly, blurring the face, have the person thrashing about madly to hide when and where they cut and added more makeup, etc. –but he didn’t. They really thought about how to do some of these transformations, and it still is a beautiful thing to behold.

The first transformation is done in one long shot. As Jekyll begins to transform he begins to feel the intense pain that the first transformation brings with it. He staggers out of his study, down a set of stairs, and over to a chair. As he collapses into the chair we see his reflection in a mirror a few feet in front of him. The camera moves around to focus on his face and show us the pain he’s in. As Jekyll covers his face with his hands and collapses forward, the camera- never once moving off of him –shifts around so that we’re looking from behind him over his shoulder at his reflection in the mirror. As he straightens up he moves his hands away from his face and we see (still as his reflection) Sister Hyde uncovering her face and looking in shock and wonder at her reflection.

Looking at it after the fact it’s an easy shot to figure out the mechanics of, but it was by no means a typical shot for this type of scene in films before this. Even a later transformation that falls more in line with the typical way these things were done had extra thought put into it. Towards the end of the film there’s a transformation that’s done with the more traditional trick of switching back and forth from seeing the Jekyll’s face to Hyde’s face and back again several times while keeping both of their faces in the same spot, but Baker again uses a mirror. Earlier the mirror is cracked into multiple pieces still stuck in place when it’s struck in a moment of anguish and anger. The close-up we see of their faces is in the distorted reflection of this cracked mirror. Since the image of the face we first see is already fractured and distorted, the old fashioned trick looks less dated and more convincing. It also serves to underscore the fractured mental and emotional state of both Jekyll and Hyde at this point in the story.

This film was made when Hammer was trying to find a new way forward in a changing film landscape. Popular horror films in general were getting more risqué and marketing a film featuring more sex and nudity was sometimes becoming a larger selling point than the traditional style of film that Hammer put out. Even as they were seeking to be more risqué and modern though, they still clung to the Hammer of old at this point. This works well for the film as it offers more to maintain its longevity as a watchable film- maybe sometimes if only by accident –than some other films of that era.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde plays a little bit with the concepts of gender in society and with how we view what is “proper” and “improper” with gender and sexual roles. Some of this is by playing to stereotype with how male characters and their actions in seeking the opposite sex are contrasted against how the film portrays such actions by female characters. It also plays with a concept that probably made more than a few members of the audience- and largely the men in the various audiences –squirm a bit.

Hyde is every bit the instigator of sexual situations as some of the male characters in the film, and certainly more so than Jekyll. As Hyde seemingly seeks to seduce certain male characters in the film, some people have had negative visceral reactions when realizing that- even though she’s physically a female and an entirely separate personality than Hyde –she’s going to seek to use a body that was male and will be male again to have sex with a man. There’s also an interesting reaction shot by a male character when he realizes that Hyde, who he quite fancied, was also a man. Given the nature of the sexual politics of the late 1960s and the 1970s, it is actually interesting to look back at what can be found in this film of that era and try to figure out what was in the film’s story that was intentionally placed there vs what only appears to be there now with hindsight.

But beyond that, it’s just an interesting and enjoyable take on the classic story of Jekyll and Hyde. It’s well written, extremely well-acted, amazingly directed, and just generally enjoyable. It’s a solid horror film from Hammer that stands up as just a horror film, but it’s also a film worth looking at to see an interesting snapshot of where film studios like Hammer were in that era and how they were trying to remain relevant and profitable when horror cinema was largely leaving behind the classic style of horror that Hammer and others made their names on.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a film that’s well worth seeking out.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

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