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Wayside Cinema: Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde

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Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" has stood at the forefront of tales about man's battle against his own inner demons. It's also been adapted, copied, and diluted so many times, any real effectiveness it might have has since become null and void. At first glance, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde feels like a gimmicky attempt to beat this particular dead horse once again. To an extent, it is a somewhat campy and lurid addition to the famous Hammer Horror line, though it's not to be dismissed so fast. From its gender-bending subtexts to its pitch perfect atmosphere, there's much ado about this film that makes it a strange and unexpected treat.

Our story begins just as you'd expect. Dr. Jekyll (Ralph Bates) is a bright young scientist dedicated to coming up with an antivirus to eradicate all known diseases. When he realizes this lofty goal will never be achieved in his lifetime, the good doctor sets his sights on the ultimate objective: creating a life-extending elixir. To do so requires certain glands from the corpses of young women (gotta love movie science), and when his supply runs dry, Dr. Jekyll reluctantly becomes a nighttime slasher in order to get what he needs. But the worst is yet to come, for Jekyll's concoction transforms him into Mrs. Hyde (Martine Beswick), a stunning beauty with an appetite for blood. Now that she's been brought to life, Hyde is willing to resort to murderous lengths to maintain control of Jekyll's body, a fate that the doctor finds increasingly difficult to avoid.

With the train wreck of a comedy that was Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde lingering in the annals of my psyche, I had my fears that Sister Hyde would be a slightly bloodier version of the same botched concept. To my surprise, however, not only was the experience relatively painless, the film itself was actually quite good. Sister Hyde came about at the end of Hammer's legacy of thrills and chills, after the well ran dry following the umpteenth Dracula sequel. It was probably meant to be a last resort, one final grab at some cash before the studio's curtain fell, but instead, its creators stumbled upon something much more intriguing than they ever expected. The film simultaneously embraces the usual mad scientist trappings and injects a healthy dose of gender politics into the proceedings.

The case could be made that Sister Hyde is a rather sexist story, what with Hyde portrayed as the ultimate evil. There's also the matter of Susan Brodrick's virginal character carrying a torch for Dr. Jekyll, even despite his apparent disinterest. While both remain true, you could just as well say that Hyde is the result of Jekyll's meddling in science coming back to haunt him. Jekyll is far from a saintly character, engaging in cold-blooded murder even before he turns into Hyde, with his insistence in doing so in the name of scientific progress rendering him a much more tragic and interesting character. The inter-sexual slant introduces a whole new angle to the story, as Hyde's gradual dominance over Jekyll forces him to struggle with his identity. One scene has Jekyll subconsciously picking up a dress instead of his usual suit, and there's one eyebrow-raising moment involving the doctor and his neighbor (Lewis Fiander).

This sounds like a lot for one simple horror flick to handle, but it's a marvel that director Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember) found a tone that fit the story just fine. Things never get too silly or too serious, equally dividing its time between Hyde's tawdry exploits and Jekyll's grim bloodletting. Sister Hyde is all in grisly good fun, and both the filmmakers and cast members act accordingly. Bates is fine as Jekyll, perhaps a bit too much on the whiny side but doing well in the way of getting viewers to both sympathize with and be repulsed by the man. In any case, his performance is easily overshadowed by that of Beswick's. She only gets so much screen time and speaks little for most of it, but she does a fantastic job of turning Hyde into quite the cunning killer. Simultaneously seductive and sinister, Beswick relishes her part as the predator without once going too over the top.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is one of those movies that doesn't sound as good on paper as it does on film. While the concept is an incredibly iffy one, Baker and company pull it off extremely well here, resulting in a unique horror gem that's definitely worth seeking out.

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About A.J. Hakari