‘He’s not been himself…’ is Sister Hyde’s caustic comment on the erratic behaviour of her other half, the esteemed Doctor Jekyll. Yes, that’s right, we’re talking Hammer horror with a progressive twist; instead of turning into some kind of masculine hairy ape, in writer Brian Clemens’ superior reboot, he turns into the form of Bond girl Martine Beswick, only to wreak havoc amongst the good doctor’s friends and neighbours.
As a kid avidly scouring the tv schedules in the 1980’s, this film was something of a wild card, and probably prompted me to make an early use of the now-popular phrase ‘Wut?’ for the first time. What’s so scary about a man becoming a woman? Indeed, given that the eternally stodgy British actor Ralph Bates played Dr Jekyll, wasn’t he better off as a woman? Indeed, on his first day as Sister Hyde, the perennially hung-up Jekyll acts much as you’d expect by staying in and fondling his/her own breasts. But soon he’s out using his womanly attributes to seduce his friends and neighbours, and the narrative eventually returns to lockstep with Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story.
But not before Clemens has some fun. Firstly, in the style of Mary Reilly, he replicates the Chinese box narrative of the original book by telling the story from the POV of Jekyll’s neighbours (Susan Broderick, Gerald Sim and Lewis Fiander), freshly moved into his London apartment building. Clements also goes for a full-on Victorian monster mash-up by mixing in Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders (explained away as Jekyll’s search for fresh victims for his experiments) and Burke and Hare, the grave-robbers who provide him with cadavers. This all plays well in Hammer’s parented penchant for cloaks, capes, mist, and period detail, all of which are shown to their best advantage here.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t pass muster as a feminist tract; passing herself off as Jekyll’s sister, Sister Hyde makes dresses out of his curtains, buys expensive garments on mail order, and generally carries-on behind his back in a naughty-nympho manner that horrifies the good Dr. And the early prostitute murders have too many nasty triggers involved to fit with the dry comic tone, notably the revolting intercutting of a street-killing with the gutting of a rabbit.
But Roy Ward Baker’s film is worth exhuming, with clever transformation scenes, and an original idea which actually does raise some questions about Victorian male hypocrisy. And although the trappings are typical Hammer, the subtext is rather radical, exposing the potential misogyny of the story and making Jekyll the deserved victim of his own double-standards.
Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this title.