You have to wonder whether Robert Louis Stephenson had any idea of the longevity that his novella ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ would command long after his own death. Since the short story was released in 1886, there have been a spectacular number of adaptations, including stage and screen, from the sublime of James Nesbitt’s Jekyll to the ridiculously handled CGI morphed ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentleman’ and ‘Van Helsing’.
For me, there are a number of definitive adaptations, including ‘Abbot & Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1953) for a typically good Boris Karloff performance and the 1920 John Barrymore vehicle. But any horror fan with a claim to real generic passion will tell you that a horror story is not worth its salt unless it has been given the Hammer Horror treatment, and in 1971 the British giants of genre film-making obliged for a second time with ‘Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde’, following 1960′s ‘The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll‘.
And it was bloody good.
The movie came out of Hammer’s most difficult time- the 1960s had seen a shift in audience type; with the release of more sophisticated horror fare like Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘, and as a result Hammer would go on to try various new approaches, mostly with familiar material, adding different and new films to already bloated franchises.
At the same time, audiences were becoming more familiar with excessive blood and gore- thanks to the horror revolution riding the crest of ‘Night of the Living Dead’s‘ wave: Hammer were presented with a dilemma, whether to attempt to emulate the more expertly achieved gore of the new American offerings, which would surely have compromised the renowned budgetry confinements the company had built its reputation on, or potentially risk falling behind. What they actually did was inspired, but very short lived.
Following an established European trend, Hammer began to play up the sexuality of their films; a decision which no doubt precipitated the appearance of ‘Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde’- but which also ensured that the quality of the films they produced began to vastly decline; after the late 1960s the hits pretty much dried up, so it was somewhat of a shock when this seemingly exploitative, sexually charged film cast off the chains of a faltering studio and rehit the heights of some of the studio’s best earlier works.
My favourite thing about ‘Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde’ is the way it mixes horror legends with historical legend: the plot is a familiar mash-up of Stephenson’s original story with Ralph Bates‘ Dr Henry Jekyll searching to invent a formula for eternal youth in order to cease mankind’s various illnessess and ailments: using hormones taken from the bodies of recently deceased young women provided by the legendary Burke and Hare (look out for them soon played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis), he discovers the first secrets of extending life and eventually tests the formula on himself.
Naturally, he is transformed- not into the traditional mianthrope Hyde, he becomes a beautiful female version, played by Martine Beswick.
Soon, Jekyll is ensnared by the transformation process, and in an insatiable quest for the hormones he requires from Burke and Hare’s cadavers- unfortunately for him, the grave robbers end up at the wrong end of a lynch mob and the cadavers soon dry up, leaving Hyde with no other option than to kill his own victims for their delicious hormones. Here, as with the inclusion of Burke and Hare, Hammer made the decision to include legendary figures from history, introducing an alternate origin story for Jack the Ripper: Hyde begins to exert more and more control over Jekyll and eventually it is she who perpetrates the Ripper murders, while Jekyll struggles to exert his own power over his newly created evil double. It is of course this struggle which typifies the lasting appeal of the Jekyll/Hyde legend.
The script is perfect- it is balanced to an intricate level with dark humour and compelling plot details; the acting is spot on, from Ralph Bates’ frail and shrinking Jekyll to Beswick’s irresistible, sexy Hyde; and everything comes together for one final Hammer hoorah before the company scared its last proper scare.
Unfortunately the passage of time will point an accusing finger at ‘Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde’ in the case against a later, obviously indebted adaptation of Stephenson’s classic tale of misanthropy- ‘Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde‘ (1995), which hands-down wins the accolade of worst Jekyll and Hyde screen manifestation.
For there will always be a worrying amount in common between the two extremes of the spectrum thanks to David Price’s decision to steal the added concept from the Hammer classic. If you haven’ t seen the terrible Price version, it takes the same gender-bending premise and stars presumably unwitting trans-gender icon, and manly named veteran of many a terrible film, Sean Young (Ace Ventura), opposite TV’s Dr Richard Kimble- Tim Daly, with the only difference being an attempt at comedy. A mis-hit attempt at comedy. But I urge you all to forgive the Hammer version of this apparent transgression- had Hammer been even remotely involved in the evolution of the 1995 sibling, surely some better decisions would have been made somewhere along the way.