Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

          Go figure that this gender-flipping take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde is one of the best movies the British horror company Hammer made during the ’70s. Although the cheesy title suggests that a sexploitation romp might be in store, the movie is instead a creepy meditation on twisted psychology. The sex-switching premise is also a provocative (and appropriate) elaboration of Stevenson’s theme of the duality in man; really, is the idea of a scientist using chemicals to alter his gender any more preposterous than that of a scientist using chemicals to release the monster within?
          In screenwriter Brian Clemens’ clever narrative, Victorian-era genius Dr. Jekyll (Ralph Bates) experiments with female hormones because of their youth-extending qualities. Unfortunately, he needs dead female bodies from which to extract the hormones, so he enlists the aid of infamous real-life murderers Burke and Hare; furthermore, the killings that provide Jekyll his raw materials get labeled by newspapers as the so-called “Whitechapel Murders.” In other words, this inventive take on Stevenson identifies Jekyll as not only as a scientific madman but also as Jack the Ripper.
          Clemens’ script is imaginative and playful right from the beginning, even if it takes a while for the sci-fi/horror stuff to get going (the first transformation occurs around the 25-minute mark, and the movie’s only 97 minutes long). The fluid staging provided by stalwart Hammer director Roy Ward Baker adds muscle to the storytelling, however, so there’s not only tension throughout the movie but also a sense of narrative purpose.
          Eventually, the storyline contrives a perverse romantic quadrangle involving Jekyll, his chemically created female self (whom he introduces as a widow named “Mrs. Hyde”), and the siblings who live upstairs from the good doctor in a boardinghouse. Watching the filmmakers blur the lines of the quadrangle is delicious, particularly during the scene in which Jekyll flirts with the man who’s been courting him while he’s in Hyde mode.
        Bates is a fine standard-issue Hammer leading man, all uptight repression and latent psychosis, and Martine Beswick is darkly alluring as Mrs. Hyde; for once, Hammer casts a striking beauty for a better reason than mere visual appeal, because Jekyll is weirdly attracted to/fascinated by the lissome creature he becomes when under the influence. Better still, the filmmakers do terrific job of moving all the pieces in place for a rousing climax, complete with a great final image that underscores the movie’s transgressive themes. As are Hammer’s best Frankenstein movies, this monster show is as much about ravaged souls as it is about ravaged flesh.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde: GROOVY

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