Monday, January 25, 2010

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (Great Britain, 1971)

(Spoilers.) Before he completely disappeared into the netherworlds of directing second and third rate television programs, midway into his career director Roy Ward Baker occasionally moonlighted from his rent-paying TV gigs to regularly make feature horror films of varying quality which featured few qualms about the occasional spurt of blood. The most disappointing of these films is, most likely, Hammer’s uneven 1970 entry in their never-ending Dracula franchise, The Scars of Dracula (trailer), with its laughable ending of Dracula getting struck by lightning. The most sublimely inane but nonetheless enjoyable is probably 1974’s The Legend of Seven Golden Vampires (trailer), a Kung Fu vampire film complete with Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing out hunting those evil bloodsuckers in 1904 Chunking. Undoubtedly, Baker’s most famous entries to the horror genre are 1973’s uneven but entertaining horror omnibus The Vault of Horror (trailer), a filmic version of selected old EC Comics horror stories taken from the EC comic books of the 1950s (oddly enough, not one story actually came from the comic book the film took its name from, but instead came mostly from EC's sister publication, Tales of the Crypt), the excellent lesbo-vampire flick The Vampire Lovers (1970 / trailer), and this film, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a lightly perverse 1972 Hammer production known primarily for featuring cult starlet Martine Beswick (AKA Beswicke).
Beswick, like another earlier famed beauty of B-movies, Barbara Steele, had a mysterious, sensuous look well suited for the horror films she starred in. Jamaican born, Beswick started her career as the generic female form dancing behind the credits of the first James Bond adventure, Dr. No (1962 / trailer), before moving upwards to speaking rolls of varying screen time in such films as From Russia with Love (1963 / trailer); Thunderball (1965 / trailer); One Million Years B.C. (1966 / trailer), in which she didn’t speak as much as she did grunt; Prehistoric Women (1967 / trailer), the seldom seen excursion into the innately camp prehistoric women/slave girls genre; and, eventually, her first lead role in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Unlike her male costar Ralph Bates, Beswick makes an unforgettable impression in this well made if not slightly flawed close-to-classic Hammer production.
From the opening strains of a truly beautiful waltz written just for the film, the high-class production values found in the best of Hammer’s costume horror excursions are immediately evident, and continue to be so throughout most of the entire film, excluding some questionable blood and gore effects that come across like the results of a ketchup bottle knocked over. Well filmed and marred only by the unsatisfying end, the plot of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde contains a little bit of everything from the century in which it takes place: bits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story (1886), a bit of Jack the Ripper (1888 London), body snatching for illicit experiments (18th & 19th century in general) and Burke and Hare (1820s Edinburgh).
Dr. Jekyll, realizing that he’ll die of old age before he can finish any of his wonder cures, decides to discover the secret of life, and uses the selected inner organs of young dead sweet things from the local morgue to do so. When that source runs out, he procures the services of Burke and Hare, before the former is killed and the latter blinded by mob justice. Dr. Jekyll succeeds at a formula that, while making him ageless, also transforms him into the hot-bodied thang he refers to as his sister, the widowed Mrs. Hyde. To continue and perfect his research, the good doctor has no option left but to procure the needed bits of babes by himself. At first he’s the one who goes out at night, knifing and dissecting the big-boobed hookers of his Whitechappel neighborhood. (It can’t help but be noticed how voluptuous the hookers always are in any similar films also featuring this time period and ladies of the trade). Eventually, it being too dangerous for a man to go hunting, Sister Hyde ventures out in folds of red velvet to slice and dice. Slowly but surely, the two parts of the whole enter a war over who is in control and, in turn, has the true right to exist; a fight in which neither is has any real moral advantage, as both are equally guilty of murder. In the course of events, a best friend and more hookers (to whom no man could say no to) are murdered and Sister Hyde continuously tries but seemingly never succeeds at getting laid (the real source of her anger, actually).
The duel between the two ids reaches a pinnacle of sorts when Hyde attempts to murder the sweet young lady from upstairs who has such an innocent crush on our doctor. Of course, the not so good doctor eventually gets revealed as the murderer of those fine specimens of womanhood and the chase is on. It is this very chase that prevents the film from becoming a classic in horror films: ineffectually filmed and unconvincingly staged, it lacks believability, reeking of a film author who didn’t have the time to think of something more creative and of a director too lazy to film it well. Likewise, while all the special effects featured in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde are of inferior quality, none are so jarringly so as the half-man, half-woman face revealed at the end.
In spite of any shortcomings it has, including its general less than frightening nature, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is still one of the better latter horror genre entries from Hammer Films and is more than fun enough to watch.

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