One day you'll look at yourself in the mirror and see a changed man.
The time was 1971 and Hammer, the home of horror for over a decade was running both out of time and out of steam. Like any entity that knows in the back of their mind that there are fewer days ahead than behind, the studio was doing whatever it could to survive. This meant trying to keep up with the times. Thus, the studio churned out more films that featured a greater degree of graphic nudity and gore. It goes without saying that with this mindset, quality was on a major decline and the well constructed little thrillers, which the studio had once produced with such great frequency, were slowing to a trickle. So, it is with great surprise that a movie with such an exploitative name as Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde would manage to emerge from the pack as one of the best examples of the kind of thought provoking little horror film Hammer once produced with ease.
In honor of this scary and thoughtful little black comedy, Anchor Bay has lavished the kind of attention that most studios would never dream of. Attention, that in this case, is well deserved.
Facts of the Case
Welcome to the fog drenched streets of London and meet Dr. Henry Jekyll (Ralph Bates, Lust For A Vampire), a young scientist searching to invent a cure for all of humankind's various plagues and aliments. Upon realizing the true enormity of his task and the time it will take, the good doctor steps backs and considers a different route: create a formula to produce eternal youth. Using hormones taken from the bodies of recently deceased young women, the doctor soon makes a discovery that will send him on a path of no redemption. Testing his formula on a fly whose life expectancy is mere hours, Jekyll finds that he can extend the creature's life cycle by days. Knowing that he is close, all the doctor needs now is access to more hormones. Unfortunately, the supply to the kind of cadavers he requires has dried up. Still, this is hardly enough to put off the good doctor when he is so close. Put in touch with some less than savory undertaker types who know how desperate Jekyll is, he soon finds himself with uncommonly fresh raw material. It is with this source that Jekyll makes his true breakthrough.
Like every good movie scientist, he tests the formula on himself. Soon thereafter, Jekyll is painfully transformed into the beautiful Sister Hyde (Martine Beswick, Thunderball, One Million Years BC). So, like an insect drawn to a flame, Jekyll soon finds himself unable to resist the need to change. Requiring more hormones, Jekyll once more finds himself at a crossroads when the gentlemen who were providing him with material are the victims of an angry mob. Seems the people of White Chapel didn't take kindly to undertakers both killing and selling their product. A decision needs to be made. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a precious few? After a conversation with a friend, a new dawn for Dr. Henry Jekyll arrives. Soon, he is prowling the night in search of the prostitutes that work the White Chapel area. Ripping what he needs out of the girls with surgical precision, a name, which will forever live in infamy, is born.
As the experiments continue, the Hyde persona begins to exert more and more control. Very quickly, it is she which prowls the night after Jekyll is suspected of the crimes by his friend and mentor, Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Gandhi). A cycle of pain and death has thus begun. A cycle that shows a once good man crossing over to the darkest of all possible sides. A cycle that pits a man against another part of himself. A part that wants to live and experience at all costs. An epic battle of personal proportions is being waged. A battle that can have no clear cut victor and can only cause tears, a battle for the life and eternal soul of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.
Over the years, there have been numerous versions of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" done in many a medium. It is probably the inherent discussion of duality that fascinates most writers and artists, man and the beast locked within is fertile ground. From the earliest days of cinema, to television, and on through such pop culture icons like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's "The Incredible Hulk," many have given their take on the material first written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886. Still, none quite have the initial shock value of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. According to the story told on the disc's excellent commentary track, Hammer head honcho Jimmy Carreras was never one to let a titillating idea go to waste or to collect dust. The mere title of the movie was pitched to the master showman on a Monday, and by Wednesday a poster was already up at Hammer House announcing its impending arrival, all without a plot or anything written!
When pen was finally put to paper, what screenwriter Brian Clemens fashioned was a scenario that not only put a gender bending twist on the original concept, but also used the legend of Jack the Ripper and the infamous grave robbers, Burke and Hare, to give this tale both an air of authenticity and of place. Top it off with several healthy dollops of black humor and you have one of the more engaging scripts Hammer had filmed in years. It is this sparkling of humor that almost gives the movie a farcical edge that is nowhere more evident than in the potential sexual implications of the relationships both the good doctor and his female alter ego attempt to enter into. Both involve Jekyll's upstairs neighbors. For Dr. Jekyll, there is the sweet innocence and pure love of Susan Spencer (Susan Broderick), while her roguish brother, Howard (Lewis Fiander), arouses the carnal appetites of Sister Hyde. As their identities swirl together and out of control, these desires are crossed over from one entity to the other as a contest for superiority ensues to lay claim to the one body both now share. Granted, quite a few more questions are asked by this film than are answered. This was, after all, a project of limited scope. There is no doubt that Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde was a horror film designed to get in, tell a bloody yarn, flash a little flesh, and get out. Yet, it is rare to find many films in this genre, not to mention from this period willing to take the kind of chances and raise the kind of issues played out onscreen. As penned, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is stylishly written entertainment with a great sense of wit and economy.
If the writing is economical then Roy Ward Baker's (A Night To Remember, The Vampire Lovers), brisk direction is an equal partner and asset. At 96 minutes, the movie fits in the "under 100 minute" mandate of Hammer yet never feels rushed or forced. Scenes progress naturally with many sequences featuring clever directorial sleight of hand. Performances are given a chance to breathe and the director takes the time to let everything unfold at a natural pace. Ward Baker takes in the little details that most directors would wash over and gives his little thriller a level of craftsmanship normally ignored by the genre. Still, in film no one man is an army, and Ward Baker is certainly helped by evocative lighting of cinematographer Norman Warwick and the beautiful cutting by Hammer house editor James Leeds (Quatermass 2, The Reptile). This professionalism throughout the production ranks was often a hallmark of Hammer Films and is what set them apart from the other British horror factories of the period.
On the performance side, I have screened little of Ralph Bates' work outside of Hammer but of what I have seen Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is easily his most assured performance. There are few false notes and he resists the urge to turn it all into camp which helps the film's tone tremendously. His Hyde is a weak, naïve, yet well meaning creature that is simply ill-equipped to put Pandora back in the box after she has gotten a taste of the world. There is an excitement to his discovery and real feeling of fear as he begins to understand what is happening to his life.
As the inner woman who bursts out in a major way, Martine Beswick rules the roost. Sexy, strong, dangerous, and very much alive, her Sister Hyde is a fascinating creation. If Hyde is the soul searching intellectual, then Hyde is the pragmatic animal. She understands that to survive, she must kill. Operating without guilt or a moral code, she takes and casts away what she needs. It's a gem of a performance that has a frightening ring of the contemporary and one made even more remarkable considering the lack of screen time she really has.
As a disc, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a mixed bag. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and on the plus side features a surprisingly clean print that is free of nicks and scratches. Colors are generally acceptable and the transfer handles all of the many fog-bound sequences with relative ease. Yet it is the indoor sequences that disturb. There is a tremendous amount of grain present that is especially noticeable in the beginning half of the presentation. Things improved as the movie rolled along, but it was quite distracting early on. I can only imagine how bad it would look on even bigger display unit than the one I use at home. I'm willing to assume that it was a problem with the available source elements, but in spots this is one of the weakest pictures I have seen from Anchor Bay in some time.
Typical of most of the Hammer Collection movies, sound is of the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono variety and in good fashion, it does not disappoint. Particularly vibrant is the lushly romantic score of Philip Martell, while dialogue and sound effects are heard clearly and are very pleasing. There is little to no tape hiss or background distortions audible and I must say from a technical point of view I enjoyed listening to Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde more than I enjoyed watching it.
As is often the case with quite a view of the Hammer Collection discs, Anchor Bay has seen fit to gather some folks together and record a commentary track. Here we have the comforting presence of Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn along with star Martine Beswick, writer/co-producer Brian Clemens, and director Roy Ward Baker. All were recorded together and there is a serious amount of affection for the fellow participants and the film to be heard. As is often the case with these class reunion commentaries there is quite a lot of mutual admiration going on with Mr. Hearn being the one to ask questions and gently push for information. When nudged the group generally has interesting things to say and the workings of Hammer at the time are discussed in some degree of detail. It is nice to hear the thoughts and feelings of people who just sound so normal talking about a movie and not discussing a film. If you take the time to listen to a number of commentary tracks you know the kind of lame, overbearing, and pretentious tracks I'm referring to. Thus, I find it good to hear the people involved with a flick I like would be fun to just hang out with and drink a pint or two. Is it the greatest and most informative commentary track in the world? No, its not. Yet, if you love Hammer Films and can't make it to any of the fan conventions, it's a nice way to spend 96 minutes. Also available upon the disc for your inspection is the theatrical trailer, radio spots, poster and still galleries, as well as some nicely written talent bios. This is almost turning into Anchor Bay's standard package for Hammer movies and it's one I approve of. I know these films were shot quickly and with little money, but maybe one of these days Anchor Bay could unearth some deleted footage or produce some original documentaries on the features themselves. Take this not as a complaint but more as a suggestion.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No, this is not your father's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If you can accept the conceit of the movie, then you are in for an enjoyable experience. If not there, there are always the versions starring such actors as Lon Chaney, Frederic March, Jack Palance, and yes, Sean Young out there waiting to greet you with open arms and extended blades.
As usual, there are no close captions or subtitles but this time we do have an audio track in French. Come and feel my excitement.
Just when you think you have seen it all, here comes Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Certainly, the first reaction upon hearing the title of this movie is to smirk and think, "Yeah, right." Well, I don't know if it was the right alignment of the stars, but Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde ends up being a pretty good movie. Of all the post-1970 Hammer projects, this movie is the one that takes what was best about the studio, interesting writing, solid acting, and sumptuous attention to detail mixing it with the modern Hammer (i.e., T&A and graphic bloodletting) coming up with a solid final product.
As a Hammer novice, I suppose one could do worse than making this your first time with the house that meant horror. The movie itself is a keeper but the picture is less than ideal and newbies are encouraged to rent, while the Hammer faithful have already given this disc a spin or three.
Innocent of being a bloody good time, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is free to roam the fog-filled streets of London long into the night. Anchor Bay is fined $100 for a sub-par transfer and is given yet another warning from the bench in regard to its lack of options for the hearing impaired. That is all I have today. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Hammer Films Historian Marcus Hearn, Actor Martine Beswick, Director Roy Ward Baker and Writer/Co-Producer Brian Clemens
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