Format: Austin Film Society
Director: Roy Ward Baker
The last movie I saw in a theater was March 5th, 2020. Simon and I went to see Shane, because when they show Shane, you go see it. But then COVID and the complete re-writing of movie distribution on the fly happened, and my sense of cinema FOMO ceased to exist.
So... what could draw me back to the cinema after 2.5 years away? Well, the promise of gender-bending adaptation of a classic horror tale, murder, mayhem and some mild nudity, of course. And- part of Hammer's 1970's output of throwing madness at the wall to see what sticks.
Take a look at the poster above and ponder - the actual actors from this movie are not seen here. The seeming murder? Not part of the movie. At times, Hammer would create a poster first, and then a movie. This is pure pulpy hucksterism at it's finest, and I think more stuff needs to be made this way. "I dunno, we pre-sold something called 'Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde' and promised sex changes and blood. It writes itself! Go make it!" AND THEY DID.
Y'all, maybe it's the thrill of leaving the house to see a film on the big screen. Maybe I'm easily swayed by five seconds of boobs, but I found this movie an absolute delight.
Look, you can apply your film criticism hat and do the thing where you face facts and say "this movie may not have intentionally been saying things, but society...!" and that's legit-ish. You can also say "look, they very quickly made a movie that was about a kooky concept and the main reason it's not horrendously offensive is that no one read the book it's based on and made Hyde what he was in the book as a woman." And I think both ways of viewing the movie have value.
We all know the story of Jekyll and Hyde - a scientist looking to quite literally use chemistry to separate the "good" side of one's character from the "evil" side. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1972) sees a well-intentioned Jekyll who is, instead, seeking to prolong life and believes that something in the female physiology will assist with this chemical reaction. After an early success with a @#$%ing housefly, where he believes he mistook a female fly for a male fly, he leaps 1000 steps ahead and experiments on himself, transforming from the passably handsome Ralph Bates into Martine Beswick. Might as well become a knock-out, I guess.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jekyll's neighbors, the Spencers, because man is this where the film feels knowingly perverse. A mother and her son and daughter move in upstairs (and invention of the film) and let us say that their downstairs neighbor is split in his interest between the brother and sister. It may not be horror, but it is *interesting* and there's a killer scene that really tells us how Jekyll is unravelling, and it very much illustrates the dynamics of what's occurring with Jekyll/ Hyde.
The movie is a bit unusual in appearance for a Hammer Horror. I assume it was filmed on rented sets to get the right claustrophobic feeling of London of the 1880's. and the seemingly perpetually darkened streets. And it's packed with extras, bit parts and multi-room, multi-level sets.
Also - amazing plot twist - the Dr. Jekyll here is also Jack the Ripper. The famed precision of the murders is now part of Henry Jekyll's need to collect, like, thyroids or something. It's actually an interesting bit of change - and really, that's what I liked about the movie is that it isn't just a game of telephone or a movie that tries to improve on something that works just fine. They're just kind of going bananas to do as much as possible (the publication of the novel predates the murders by only 2 years, so it basically kinda works).
Oh, the film school papers that could be written about this film as misogynistic swill. One can only imagine how the very notion of the film would be enough to pre-write a 1000 opening paragraphs in need of supporting evidence.
Is it "horror" to *become* a woman? The movie doesn't exactly comment upon that notion or make it seem bad - just different. Jekyll doesn't seem as upset that he's becoming a woman from time-to-time as he is that someone is taking over his brain and body. He's a scientist, and the fact that he's a woman is a weird but not infuriating side-effect. The character of Jekyll could potentially, in today's terms, be considered asexual, and the biggest difference is that Sister Hyde is... not.
But but but... I mean, Hyde's "evil" side is (duhn duhn duuuuuhn) a woman! Curiously, the movie either on purpose or by accident doesn't really make that distinction. Jekyll already runs around paying off morticians for access to the dead bodies of young women (a common practice til the early 20th Century), and he has no problem looking the other way when he asks some thugs to provide him with dead girls. Arguably, all "Sister Hyde" does is look great and try to continue existing - before the murder, I guess. But that's just to cover for the fact that s/he can't go out looking for women anymore as Dr. Jekyll. The pure evil of Hyde in the novel is not present here despite the promise bestowed by the copy on the posters.
Even the permission Jekyll seeks from an unknowing young woman regarding his trolley car problem of needing to murder young ladies FOR SCIENCE is phrased in the kindest possible framing. She doesn't know what she's telling Jekyll to go do.
The title is probably a fairly good indicator of how seriously the creators seemed to take their own film. It's fun, bloody, weird and a bit sexy. I might have put it off had it not been a Halloween showing at Austin Film Society, and I'm glad I did get to see it.