Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde: A transgender tale of terror
By Thomas M. Sipos
Stephen King famously said that horror is a conservative genre, because it's about people struggling against attacks on normalcy and social order. Catholic cultural critic E. Michael Jones narrowed the scope, positing that horror is about the transgression of God's sexual moral code. Both theories find supporting evidence in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971).
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Britain's Hammer Studios specialized in horror period pieces, most notably its many Dracula films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Coming at the tail end of Hammer's heyday, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is, as its title implies, (very loosely) based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel (with Jack the Ripper and Burke & Hare tossed in for good measure).
As in the novel, Hammer's Dr. Jekyll (Ralph Bates) is a noble man of science. But rather than seek a serum to extract all the "evil" from man, his goal is an elixir of life. He wants to live forever so he will have enough time to cure all diseases. And his elixir works (sort of), but it has a side effect. It changes the recipient's sex.
Testing the elixir on himself, Dr. Jekyll becomes Mrs. Hyde (Martine Beswick).
The transformation only lasts a short while. Jekyll doesn't remember being Hyde, but he figures out what must have happened. He names his alter ego Hyde on the spur of the moment, explaining to his upstairs neighbor that "My sister is staying with me." Then he quickly adds "Mrs." to explain why his sister's last name isn't Jekyll. And, as there is no husband in sight, further elaborates, "She's a widow." (Jekyll is not exactly a smooth liar.)
Unfortunately, Jekyll's serum requires organs from young women, so he enlists grave robbers Burke & Hare, who murder women when the morgue's supply runs low After they're caught, Jekyll/Hyde must do their own killing. The press calls this new, unknown killer "The Ripper."
Susan (Susan Brodrick), the upstairs neighbor, begins courting Jekyll. It should be the other way around, but Jekyll is no Casanova. Jekyll likes Susan, but he's also beginning to like transforming into Hyde. It's addictive. Jekyll fondles the dresses he bought for "his sister." And as Hyde, he/she begins to seduce Susan's brother, Howard (Lewis Fiander).
So Jekyll/Hyde is dating a sister and her brother. Essentially, it's a ménage à trois involving two siblings and a genderfluid bisexual. Très kinky, n'est-ce pas?
Surprisingly (or perhaps not?), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde enjoys a cult following among gay audiences. It's so transgressive. Mainstream horror fans like it too. It's original and fun. It's bloody and salacious by the standards of 1971, but its gore and nudity would be considered tame before the end of the decade. Today the film is more admired for its camp than its scares.
The casting is excellent. Apart from being talented and charismatic actors, Bates and Beswick share the same sharp features, pale skin, and dark hair. They look like brother and sister. They also look like one might have transformed into the other. (The above is a publicity photo; as they're playing the same character, Bates and Beswick never actually appear together in the film.)
But does the film have a message?
One poster from the era promised ... Shock After Shock After Shock ... Unnatural Laboratory Experiments Performed Behind Barred Doors! ... Once Again He Will Change Sexes and Kill, Kill, Kill! ... Warning! The Sexual Transformation of a Man Into a Woman Will Actually Take Place Before Your Very Eyes! ... PARENTS: Be sure your children are sufficiently mature to witness the intimate details of this frank and revealing film.
That's not very woke.
Now, it's doubtful that director Roy Ward Baker or screenwriter Brian Clemens intended a serious criticism of transgender politics. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is pure exploitation film, its vintage poster using the lurid language of a carnival barker to lure people into the freak show tent. It's not an outright attack. But neither is it very respectful.
Yet there is a message, that of classic horror, as defined by King and Jones and Mary Shelley. It's the message of Frankenstein. Do not play God. Do not tamper with His creation. You will suffer and fail. Jekyll changed his sex but never became fully female. The transformation was always temporary, and thus incomplete. And in his futile attempts, he created much misery and death for himself and others.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.