Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde
You can almost imagine the deep sigh, shrug and ‘why not?’ when someone walked into Hammer one day and said ‘What about Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde?’ And you can also imagine that when the money men heard about it and asked why, the answer was presumably ‘Boobs?’ And I can’t believe the expressions on the faces of the people who queued up at the cinema to see it could ever be described as ‘hopeful’.
But the truth is that a whole movie never rests entirely on one concept, no matter how cheesy. And even the idea that instead of Jekyll transforming into a base and homicidal monster, he transforms into a beautiful and homicidal woman, has a lot of questions that need answering. Not deep important questions of existence, because come on, but the simple questions of ‘how will this movie work?’ Questions like: how does he transform into a woman? Now, the thing is, any question like that always leads to another question. Because the answer to how Dr Jekyll transforms is always some kind of funky potion he brewed up in a lab. But what sort of potion, exactly? If this was going to be a terrible movie, then the answer would be ‘What does it matter what sort of potion? An effing purple one? Who cares!’ But Hammer had been going a long time by the time Sister Hyde comes along and they know that ‘who cares?’ is death to a movie, not just because that sort of apathy is bound to be reflected onscreen, but because if you can’t be bothered to come up with interesting answers to these basic question then you are going to have a whole lot of nothing happening in your movie. You come up with good answers so that stuff happens, really happens, in your movie. And Hammer had learned by the time the seventies came along that the answer to basic questions should never be ‘who cares?’ but always ‘what if?’
Because what if the potion to turn Jekyll into a beautiful young woman could only be taken from other young women? And what if those women had to be dead for him to get it? Well, that would mean you would have a doctor, someone with surgical knowledge, running around the streets of Victorian London murdering young women he thinks won’t be missed. Wait, someone in the room would say, that sounds awfully familiar. And before you know it, they’ve gone from asking what if Jekyll’s potion turned him into a woman, to what if Dr. Jekyll was Jack the Ripper? And that is a bloody concept to build a movie around.
Because then, instead of a movie filled with demoralising smut and cheesy cross-dressing gags, and the laughable notion that a man becoming a woman unleashes his violent side, you end up with a brutal, claustrophobic little horror set entirely in Jekyll’s house and the permanent fog enveloping the streets around it. It becomes a movie of tall hats and black capes melting into that fog, of bright and sudden violence exploding out of its choking greyness, of the things people will do to survive in a city where no-one can see your face until they’re right in front of you. There is a huge difference between a movie where they have trouble filling the time because there’s only one idea, and a movie with so many ideas that every time you have space for one it’s an opportunity for a good one. There’s the blind organ grinder who can sense that the Doctor and the Sister are the same, as they dash past him away from murder scenes, as if there is a damned part of Jekyll that cannot be hidden by a different face or the pervading fog. There’s the lecherous and permanently amused old friend of Jekyll’s there to plant the notion that one of the reasons Jekyll is in so much trouble is that he knows nothing about women and that telling himself he is so devoted to science that he has no time for other, baser desires is no protection when those desires grab you by the throat and scream ‘Look! Boobs!’ Because, now that I think about it, if the original Mr Hyde was about the animal nature that still lives in man demanding satisfaction for primitive needs, then Sister Hyde is more about a buttoned up Victorian suddenly confronted with the heady thrill of being kinky. This, by the way, is neatly (if accidentally) underlined by the fact that Ralph Bates playing Dr. Jekyll looks spookily like the lead singer of the Kinks, Ray Davies.
So there is, rather wonderfully, a whole heck of a lot more going on in this movie that anyone might have reasonably expected. The what if’s are all over the place, including a ‘what if Jekyll gets what he needs from already dead bodies before he starts killing?’ And the answer is he would probably have to run out of bodies in order to resort to murder, which would mean he’d be forced to go from the local morgue to grave robbers, which would mean... what if he did business with Burke and Hare?
And all these great ideas packed into one funny little movie obviously energised everyone involved, with even trusty old Roy Ward Baker delivering some of the best direction of his career; including an opening ten minutes which is one of the best Jack the Ripper sequences I have ever seen.
The whole things really is a boat load of fun, I’m not kidding, and is so much better than it has any right to be, and all because Hammer had learned how to take an old story and turn it into something strange and compelling. She may have been old and getting near the end by 1971, but she still had a few tricks up her sleeve; finding her own magical potion to transform a well told tale into something new and weird and wonderful. And that’s the sort of potion you can’t help but enjoy. Speaking of which…