I sometimes wonder what the authors of the stories that inspired the greatest hits of monsterdom would think of the latter-day adaptations of their works. Oscar Wilde would likely be delighted with the pansexually groovy Italian version of his novella "Picture of Dorian Gray," while Mary Shelley might be significantly less delighted by the ghastly excess of "Flesh for Frankenstein." If it's true that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" during a days-long cocaine binge in 1886, then he might appreciate "Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde," the gender-bending 1971 Hammer Films adaptation of his tale.
Dr. Jekyll (Ralph Bates, who is a not-loved-enough member of the Hammer Horror stable) is a scientist fixated on creating antiviruses to cure the diseases that plague humanity. After a conversation with his cynical and worldly colleague Professor Robertson, he realizes that he'll never be able to complete his work within an average human lifespan, and he becomes obsessed with finding a formula to prolong his life. Right about here is where the audience needs to check all of their scientific expectations, because the key to Dr. Jekyll's experiments is female hormones--because, apparently, the not-frequent occurrence of baldness in women is proof that they hold the key to immortality.
Where-oh-where is a good doctor to find a steady supply of female hormones in late Nineteenth Century London? I'm still not sure, but I now know that a morally ambiguous doctor can get in touch with Burke and Hare, who have travelled across space and time from early Nineteenth Century Edinburgh to continue their body snatching* in a fresh environment. Having accumulated enough lady-juice from the lady-bits of marginalized women to create a potent transformative cocktail, Jekyll quaffs his estrogen-rich brew, only to be transformed into a Barbara-Steele-esque uber-babe (played Martine Beswick, a woman who should teach a master class in haughty gorgeousness). And yes, the very first thing said female alter ego does is feel herself up and cackle madly--wouldn't you? Things continue apace as the infamous graverobbers are only too happy to assist Jekyll, but after an angry mob lynches Burke and blinds Hare, the doctor is forced to find his own supply of uterii, adding a Jack the Ripper** plot to the film.
*Interestingly, R.L. Stevenson also wrote a Burke and Hare-inspired story, titled "The Body Snatchers," thus giving this meeting of monsters a rather neat literary pedigree.
** Additionally interestingly, one of men who was briefly a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders was an actor who played the role of Jekyll and Hyde in the stage adaptation of Stevenson's story. More info is here, for the curious.
While all this womb-carving occurs in an off-screen, only-moderately-bloody fashion, Dr. Jekyll's upstairs neighbor, the lovely if dim-witted English rose Susan, is developing a crush on the intense young physician. Things get more complicated when Susan's brother Howard, who may have been spawned from the same Bokanovsky Group as Hugh Grant, develops his own amorous feelings for Jekyll's female alter-ego, who Jekyll dubs Mrs. Hyde. It's bad enough that this femme is hardcore fatale, but she also has a penchant for seducing men from Jekyll's social circle and--worse yet--she has a savage hatred of her male side and wants to erase him from her psyche permanently.
Like other British films of this period, the SHOCKS that are promised in the poster are implied rather than displayed. Sure, there's some blood-splatter and there is a set of bare breasts (those of Ms. Beswick, famously displayed during the first transformation sequence), but for a movie about a mad scientist with a female alter ego that bangs his upstairs neighbor when he/she is not carving out the reproductive organs of prostitutes, there's a reluctance to get graphic. In fact, it's never mentioned from whence the female hormones come. There's some leering dialogue between Burke and Hare about Jekyll leaving "the top half" of his victims intact, and there are two blink-and-you'll-miss-them shots of Jekyll lifting the skirts of inanimate women, but unless you're paying attention, you'll miss this entirely.
Any movie that features prostitutes has plentiful opportunities for gaudy exhibitionism, but "Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde" never goes down this path. While Jess Franco's similarly-sexualized "Jack the Ripper" has ample buxom set-dressing, there's a more demure attitude to this film, preferring to show its cockney-accented canon fodder fully clothed.
As a person whose sexual preferences run towards women and creeps, this movie had a not-insignificant charm. Bates has a certain haunted awkwardness to his portrayal of Dr. Jekyll, a man who is willing to do terrible, terrible things in the name of the greater good. Martine Beswick steals the show as the predatory Mrs. Hyde, a woman who exudes a sense of erotic menace in every frame of film she graces. I won't lie to you, interpals--that production photo above does something for me, somewhere in my jaded, thrill-seeking pants.
There's a wonderfully perverse sense of humor at work in this film. After Jekyll's transformations into Mrs. Hyde begin, crimson-colored couture gowns and wasp-waisted corsets begin showing up at his flat, causing great confusion in the doctor and eliciting a variety of amused responses from his colleagues, who are *always* in the room with him when he's unwrapping an elaborate new fashion confection. Jekyll is only vaguely aware of Hyde's actions when she is in control of their shared body, and his flustered responses when he's forced to explain her away are nothing short of comedic. This is in stark contrast to the calculating ease with which Hyde manipulates those around her. Then there's the highly unlikely conceit that Jekyll and his upper-crust neighbors appear to live in the Whitechapel neighborhood, where the hooker-hunting is easy.
Those seeking an explicitly sexual take on the Jekyll and Hyde tale might have their needs better met by Walerian Borowczyk's jaw-dropping "Dr. Jekyll and His Women." That having been said, "Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde" is a delightfully depraved film in its own right. What punches it pulls in terms of graphic depictions of sex and violence are made up for with lurid implications and gallows humor. Fans of gothic horrors will be thrilled by this lesser-known entry in the Hammer oeuvre.