Monday 19 December 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Director: Roy Ward Baker
Writer: Brian Clemens, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stars: Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick

Index: 2016 Centennials.

Watching in 2016, this film seems surprisingly timely. The last decade has seen a strong rise in the number of folk who understand what LGBT means (though it’s far from fully inclusive and I’ve seen many more letters added). However, this film, which came out (pun well and truly intended) in the year I was born, foreshadows that conversation. Yes, it’s the old Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story by Robert Louis Stevenson, but instead of Hyde bringing out Jekyll’s dark side, this time it’s Hyde bringing out Jekyll’s female (but not necessarily feminine) side. To make this work best, Jekyll’s transformation wasn’t achieved through make-up effects being applied to Ralph Bates, it was achieved by casting an actual woman as Hyde, Martine Beswick. The usual battle for control ensues and these two different aspects start to merge into one. There’s a vast potential here to explore the different sexualities of men and women and the film does start to walk down that road, but it’s a long road and we haven’t found the end yet.

What surprised me most about Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is that it wasn’t what I remembered at all. I saw most of the classic Hammer horrors when I was knee high to a grasshopper, watching late at night on my sister’s television, this one included and I remember their movies of the seventies as being more and more obsessed with sex. Now, that’s hardly a bad thing, says the red-blooded teen that I was when I saw these, but over time they blurred together and I tend to remember the boobs a lot more than the drama. For the iconic stories, I remember their fifties and sixties pictures instead, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee reinventing all the classics for a Technicolor age. Yet, this has surprisingly little nudity, especially given the sexual subject matter, and it’s far from a cheap excuse to show Beswick’s boobs. There has been talk of a remake and, for once, that’s a good idea as, done right, it could be fascinating. And no, neither Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (a teen comedy) nor The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckel & Ms. Hyde (a porno) count.

There are other imaginative changes here too, that make Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde forward-looking. In the 21st century, we’re used to creative concepts like the mashup, in which existing stories are transposed into a new genre; the crossover, in which multiple characters from diverse sources are combined into a new story; and remix culture, which can include both the above and also add in real people from history as well. This is nothing new as, after all, Dracula met Frankenstein, Abbott & Costello met everyone of importance on the big screen and Jesse James even met Frankenstein’s daughter, but the way that this film ties reality and fantasy without apparent comment feels a little ahead of its time. For instance, the central story is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but this ties them both to Burke and Hare and to Jack the Ripper, real British graverobbers and murderers from the Victorian era, and I wonder how innovative that felt in 1971. Jekyll as Jack? Nowadays, it just feels like an episode of Penny Dreadful.

The stage is set well. We’re in Whitechapel and a gentleman with a tall hat and black cloak follows a prostitute into the foggy back alleys away from the lively pub and its mournful street singer; the whore screams before he stabs her and the arterial spray neatly splashes the £200 wanted poster. The murderer hasn’t gone far when a policeman’s whistle blows and a blind hurdy gurdy player in trippy glasses points the pursuers in the right direction. None of this should be surprising, of course. Hammer had a long string of horror movies by this point and the folk involved knew exactly what they were doing. The screenplay was by Brian Clemens, an experienced hand in film and especially TV who also co-produced the picture; the cinematography was by Norman Warwick, who had just shot The Abominable Dr. Phibes; and the director was Roy Ward Baker, who had made a number of iconic films for Hammer, including Quatermass and the Pit, The Anniversary and The Vampire Lovers. He would have been a hundred years old today.
Unlike today, when directors often end up stuck in a particular genre, the Hammer directors were a versatile bunch and Baker was no exception. He started out for Gainsborough Pictures, moving up from teaboy and runner to assistant director in only a year. His first directorial credit was as third assistant director on the Will Hay title, Boys Will Be Boys, and his most important film there was surely Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes in 1938, for which he was the assistant director (never mind ‘third’ at this point). World War II got in the way of further movement, so he joined the Army Kinematograph Unit to shoot documentaries for the war effort. One of his bosses there, novelist Eric Ambler, gave him his break after the war, insisting that Baker direct The October Man from his novel. The success of Morning Departure led him to Hollywood, where he directed Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck and Robert Ryan, but his greatest success came back in the UK: the Golden Globe winning A Night to Remember, from Ambler’s screenplay about the Titanic.

It was his television experience that got him into the horror genre, because he knew how to do a lot with a little; budgets on shows like The Baron, The Avengers and The Saint were not high but he made them go a long way. Hammer combined one of his episodes of Journey to the Unknown with another for their feature length Journey to Midnight and put him to work on original movies: Quatermass and the Pit; The Anniversary, with Bette Davis; and Moon Zero Two. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde was the third of a second batch of features at Hammer, including The Vampire Lovers and Scars of Dracula, by which time Amicus wanted him too and he continued to shoot for both of them for a number of years, though he focused in on television towards the end of his career, retiring after three episodes of The Good Guys in 1992. The wildest movie he made is surely The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a co-production between Hammer and Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, which he co-directed with Cheh Chang. I was very tempted to choose that film for this project!
In the end, though, I stuck with this one because it resonates for a number of reasons. One is the choice of leads: both Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick. Bates, who had already made three horror movies for Hammer during the previous year (Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Horror of Frankenstein and, his least favourite of all his films, Lust for a Vampire) was so appropriate a choice to play Dr. Jekyll that I wonder if Clemens factored his family history into the script. You see, he was the great-great nephew of Louis Pasteur, the French scientist regarded as the ‘father of microbiology’. Beyond the process of pasteurisation which bears his name, Pasteur pioneered vaccination, which had been invented by Edward Jenner, and he created the first vaccines for both anthrax and rabies. Jekyll, in this film, is working on an anti-virus he calls the ‘universal panacea’, one cure for many diseases: diphtheria, cholera and onwards. The trigger for the plot is the observation that there are too many, so he realises he needs to create an elixir of life.

Beyond extrapolating neatly on Pasteur, Bates looked the part. He had dark hair and a pale complexion, which makes it easy to see him as a member of a goth band. That look continues down the cast; his bandmates could easily be Byker, the necrophiliac coroner played by Philip Madoc, and Hare, of Burke and Hare, played by Tony Calvin. Fortunately, they don’t haul out their instruments to launch into a music video, but there were points where I half expected that to happen. More to the point, he’s clearly male but also androgynous enough in that haircut to morph believably into Martine Beswick, whose well defined cheekbones have never looked more severe. At points she seems cadaverous and could easily be the singer in that goth band! The transitions, either handled with the aid of props, like a broken mirror and textured glass, or through clever overlays, are excellently handled and Beswick’s ‘shock’ at discovering she has female parts is incredibly well done.
Everything comes back to this sex change and the ramifications that it brings. The concept has validity: Jekyll realises that women live longer than men, on average, so uses female hormones to try to extend the male life span. The source is young corpses but, as the supply is limited, he lowers his morals to allow for the supply to continue. At least it works, with flies; while they should live for a couple of hours, he demonstrates one to his friend, Prof. Robertson, that has survived for three days under a bell jar. He’s clearly a genius, though his arithmetic is awful; that only translates into two hundred years in human terms if life expectancy at the time was five. Naturally, the next step is a human trial and who better to experiment on than himself? Sadly, he skips over the importance of his discussion with Robertson; he knew the fly was male, but Robertson points out that it’s laid eggs. He must be dedicated if an outrageous side effect like an impromptu sex change doesn’t stop him from trying his serum out on himself!

Now, Jekyll doesn’t merely change from male to female; there are other changes too, like his sexual appetite. Susan Spencer, living upstairs, clearly has designs on the good doctor and she’s not hard on the eyes, but he’s too wrapped up with work to acknowledge her. He declines when she invites him up to dinner because of a ‘prior engagement’ and her brother Howard suggests that he may be ‘impervious to women’. The ensuing transformation, which the Spencers hear through the ceiling, prompts their investigation and Susan is livid to discover that Jekyll passed them over for a woman until he mentions that she’s his sister, a widow named Mrs. Hyde, the name plucked from the front page of the paper. Howard is much happier about this new arrival and we find ourselves in the odd situation where Susan wants Jekyll but her brother wants Hyde, each unaware, of course, that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same. This leads to great dialogue. ‘How’s your brother?’ Howard asks Hyde. ‘He hasn’t been himself of late,’ she replies.
The knowing dialogue shines around the most telling scene in the film. We’ve got to the point where confusion reigns. Robertson thinks Jekyll is having a relationship with Hyde, Susan believes she’s his sister and we have to wonder quite what Howard must be thinking about Jekyll, even as we know what he’s thinking about Hyde. He bumps into Jekyll, as the latter leaves a clothes shop for women, and asks how his sister is. Jekyll, with a notably immobile face, replies, ‘Fine. Excellent. I am in excellent health.’ Then he reaches out tenderly as if to touch Howard’s face. ‘Howard,’ he sighs, almost pleadingly. Only then does he realise that he’s Jekyll and not Hyde and rushes on, leaving Howard dumbstruck in his wake. After this scene, Robertson tells Jekyll, ‘One day you’ll look in the mirror and you’ll be a changed man.’ Before it, he tells a cop, ‘It’s a queer business, sergeant. Very queer.’ This has been an interesting film throughout but suddenly it leaps into thesis territory.

In the classic story, Jekyll and Hyde are moral opposites. At its simplest, this manifests as Jekyll being good and Hyde evil, although novelist Vladimir Nabokov pointed out that Jekyll was hardly morally good by Victorian standards. Like anything Victorian, class is part of the discussion, with an easy reading that Jekyll is a respectable member of the upper class, maintaining control as required by polite society, while Hyde is a thoroughly disreputable member of the working class, eager and willing to explore every one of his base urges. This includes sex, of course, because the hypocrisy of the Victorian era is ably highlighted by what biographer J. R. Hammond described as ‘outward respectability and inward lust’. Jekyll can maintain the boundary between the two, while Hyde is either unable or unwilling to do so. It’s not only sex, though, because Hyde gets up to a lot more than just sexual deviance, even in Stevenson’s original novella, not least murder. Here, Jekyll prompts murder before Hyde ever appears, so it’s all about sex.
And, given that it was the first picture to use a scientific experiment to examine what happens to sexuality as the genders change, blending both genders and the sexuality of both genders into a single character, I really shouldn’t complain that it only starts that conversation. The problem with the Jekyll and Hyde framework, of course, is that it’s a dichotomy: you’re either one or the other and, if you try to be both, those two sides will fight each other until one wins out for good. Science nowadays suggests that human sexuality is far from a dichotomy; it’s a sliding scale and we all have a little of both. The logical remake of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is one where neither side wins and the title characters come to terms with each other, coexisting as halves in a yin yang fashion. It’s surely time for a movie where Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde share a knowing partner, especially if they change back and forth during a sexual act rather than outside of it. Talk about a challenging role for an actor though!

Ralph Bates had good reason to remember this movie because it’s where he met his second wife. She’s Virginia Wetherell, who he murders on screen; she plays Betsy, a whore who takes Jekyll to her place, only for him to slice her right after her corset laces. He divorced his first wife in 1973 and married her; they remained together until he died in 1991. Martine Beswick made many more movies than Bates, who struggled after Hammer horrors fell out of fashion, but she never managed to eclipse her two James Bond roles, in From Russia with Love in 1963 and Thunderball two years later. Hammer helped perpetuate her sex symbol image by casting her in One Million Years B.C. and Slave Girls aka Prehistoric Women, but this was a much better use of her acting talents. The film itself has the potential to outlast them both, as well as Clemens, Baker and others who worked on it because it was just a beginning. We don’t have the end in sight yet, but it’s going to be a fascinating road to get there.

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