When one says the words “Hammer Horror” in most genre company, the talk frequently turns towards the classics. Dracula is a name almost instantly brought up along with Frankenstein and then 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 frequently become the topic of intense discussion.
You’ll even occasionally get mentions of things like The Curse of the Werewolf, The Reptile, and The Plague of the Zombies. Maybe you’ll even get someone who brings up The Gorgon or even the Quatermass films. However, it seems that in large part the casual fan of Hammer’s horror offerings tends to leave a large chunk of Hammer films out of their viewing habits; especially when it comes to 1970’s Hammer horror. This very much needs to change. Despite the long-held talking point that many put forward when discussing 1970’s Hammer horror, they actually put out quite a few films in that decade that were wonderfully entertaining and/or interesting attempts at playing with the concepts and characters of 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 nature intact as well. One of the consequences 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 this makes the moments of her stark brutality all the more shocking when it’s put on full 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 desperate and dangerous new path. He begins seeking the legendary 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 and enter into the darker worlds of his city’s underbelly. He employs two men, the infamous pair of grave robbers known as Burke & Hare, to bring him fresh cadavers to extract the hormones 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 seemingly rather quickly puts this matter out of his mind and agrees to pay them to continue bringing him fresh new 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. These 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 as the only one, 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 some very clever FX visuals.
Delivering to us as viewers that first one was 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 the British studios 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 way of any number of horror film transformations before this film- cutting away and back repeatedly, blurring the face, having 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 to make them feel like they spent way more money than they did and make them look impressive as hell, and it is still, to this very day, 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 and moves his hands away from his face 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 noticeable 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 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 states 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 were typically becoming more risqué and marketing a film featuring more sex and nudity was sometimes becoming a larger selling point with distributors and audiences than the traditional style of film that Hammer had spent years making. Even as they were at this point in their history seeking to be more risqué and modern, they still clung to the Hammer of old. This works well for this 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 more than just a wee bit.
Hyde is every bit the instigator of various sexual situations that some of the male characters in the film are, and certainly more so than Jekyll is. 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 was also an interesting reaction shot by a male character when he realizes that Hyde, who this character quite fancied, was, while in her moments of control and existence truly and completely a woman, also at times 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 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 when seen through the lens of 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 well directed, and just generally enjoyable all the way around. 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 who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.