Adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde seem to fall into pairs…one good… one evil.
Comedy versions: THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (original) = good. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (remake) = evil.
Eurotrash versions: DR JEKYLL AND THE WOMEN = good. DR JEKYLL AND THE WEREWOLF = evil.
Lost versions: DER JANUSKOPF (Murnau) = no doubt good. THE UGLY DUCKLING (Comfort) = probably fairly evil.
Transgender versions: DR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE = good. DR JEKYLL AND MISS HYDE = pure evil.
Well, I say good, but the Hammer sex-change version is a mixture of crass errors and unexpected joys. The idea and title could strike you as cheesy, but then they have an amazing casting coup in Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick as the titular pair, their physiognomies lining up in a remarkably convincing way. “Sister Hyde” isn’t a nun, or a nurse, she’s literally alibied as Jekyll’s sister, and there’s a convincing family resemblance. Both actors seem to exude some kind of powerful pheromone that makes them appealing to gay audiences. It’s a real shame the film doesn’t find that much for Martine to do — she barely speaks, and though she clashed with Baker and Hammer films over their urge for more nudity, the film doesn’t even allow Mrs. Hyde to experience sex as a woman. They’re slightly afraid of the story’s possibilities.
Note: NEVER be afraid or ashamed of the story you’re telling! If you are, don’t tell it.
Remembering the good things, one always starts the film with high hopes, and it never fails to disappoint. The opening is truly spirited, with a foggy Victorian London set and a gory reenactment of a Jack the Ripper attack. Roy Ward Baker directs with, if not gusto, then a cheap, non-brand-name equivalent. He’s a bit zoom-happy, and I always feel he wasn’t quite happy in the horror genre that Hammer landed him in (although his QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is a favourite), but he does some interesting things with the camera and creates a bit of pace and atmos, helped immensely by Norman Warwick’s misty night cinematography, all shafts of light and lurking silhouettes. Production designer Robert Jones, following screenwriter Brian Clemens from TV’s The Avengers, designs the exteriors in monochrome, so that splashes of red photograph more brightly.
First transformation: Bates to Beswick in one shot: the camera wobbles around Bates as he crouches in an armchair before a full length mirror. With his head in shot the whole time, we end on his back, looking past Beswick reflected back at us in the glass. At first I thought this was a fake mirror, really a door leading into a duplicate set, as in the Mamoulian version — but no! Just a real mirror angles so as to reflect Beswick, sitting ALONGSIDE Bates, moving in synchronisation with her.
Beswick, and the shoulder of Bates.
Doing a transgender Jekyll isn’t enough for writer Clemens, he fuses Jekyll with Jack the Ripper (Jekyll needs to harvest fresh organs to supply him with female hormones for his experiments) and throws in Burke and Hare as well (in the wrong city, 60 years after Burke was executed, long after medical grave-robbing was effectively stamped out). This is either way too much of a good thing, or not quite enough. But I like the way Hare gets blinded by an angry mob and transforms into the blind “witness” from Fritz Lang’s M.
My problem is more with blending real and fake horror. Anyone who’s researched the Ripper case, as Fiona and I did for a screenplay entitled THE DAUGHTERS OF JOY (still available if there are any takers) will realise that the Whitechapel murders are not funny. Of course, there was very little Ripper lit when Clemens wrote his screenplay, so I guess the nostalgically safe horror of Madame Tussaud’s was easier to swallow. But within just a few years, the idea of an anonymous madman murdering impoverished working girls would cease to be so distant. And I still don’t see what could really have struck anybody as funny about it.
Fun stuff —
Beswick whipping together a slinky red outfit from a pair of curtains in mere seconds, like a wicked Von Trapp kid. The buying an even slinkier red dress, which Fiona admired (though not as much as she covets Fenella Fielding’s outfit from CARRY ON SCREAMING). I thought the cossie was a bit fancy dress, like something for an Anne Summers costume party, but Fiona thinks that may be the point: “Remember, it was bought by a man.”
The not-quite gratuitous scene of Martine examining her new breasts before the mirror — it’s what would happen. That, or she might curl up in a ball bemoaning the loss of her wedding tackle. It’s followed by an even more surprisingly blatant shot: as she squeezes her bosom, she notices that the hand doing the squeezing is now male. A lot of the transitions are done this way, with Bates’ hands suddenly womaning out on him at odd moments.
The first transition also features a cutaway of one of those little weather houses, where the man disappears into one door and the woman emerges from another. A witty touch, in a film that more often resorts to enjoyably shit lines like “Burke by name and berk by nature!”
We were also amused by the “ironic” death scene, where Jekyll, fleeing over the rooftops, loses his grip on a drainpipe thanks to Hyde’s weak, womanish fingers, and falls to his/her death/s. And for the only time in a J&H film, Hyde does not revert to a peaceful Jekyll in death — instead we get a mutant hermaphrodite, face split between Bates and Beswick (by way of a crude makeup) like the Janus-face of Bergman’s PERSONA.