UK / Hammer / 1971
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Writer: Brian Clemens
Cast: Ralph Bates, Martine Beswick, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander, Susan Broderick, Dorothy Alison, Ivor Dean, Paul Whitsun Jones
The Avengers creator (and coproducer with Albert Fennell) Brian Clemens rang some highly entertaining changes on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for this stylish Hammer shocker whose heady ingredients include, noted Village Voice, “transvestite overtones, lesbian overtones and bi-sexual overtones” while still remaining (relatively) faithful to the thrust of the original.
Victorian doctor Ralph Bates is seeking the elixir of eternal life and becomes convinced that the answer lies in female hormones. He obtains these for his experiments from the corpses of young women and when he samples the resulting potion he is transformed into a young and beautiful lady – Martine Beswick. His reaction to this extraordinary metamorphosis is a blend of loathing and fascination but he determines to carry on his innovative line of scientific research. To this end he hires the notorious grave-robbers Burke and Hare – Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin – to provide him with a regular supply of fresh corpses. But when they are apprehended, Bates is forced to turn to murdering prostitutes to further his aims. And his situation becomes even more complicated and fraught when he begins an affair with Susan Broderick, who lives above his apartment. Bates becomes increasingly dominated by the murderous Beswick, who kills for him and even conducts an affair with Broderick’s brother Lewis Fiander. Finally the police, with the help of Bates’ friend and colleague Gerald Sim, start to suspect him. While his dual identity at first saves him, Bates finally falls to his death when the police chase him onto a rooftop…
On paper the concept of revising Jekyll and Hyde as a sex-change shocker must have seemed fraught with problems and likely to result in disaster. In the event, however, Clemens’ witty, creative screenplay managed ingeniously to bring Burke and Hare and even Jack the Ripper into the story without straining it at the seams and, happily, played the drama straight and refused opportunities to guy it. Director Roy Ward Baker, although not a Gothic stylist in the tradition of Hammer auteur Terence Fisher, nonetheless made an excellent job and, noted Monthly Film Bulletin, “manages the whole thing superbly… Baker and his cameraman Norman Warwick have done a lot to make the film visually attractive” and, similarly, production designer Robert Jones was equally deserving of praise of the atmospheric Grand Guignol look of the production which, as usual with Hammer, belied its relatively low budget.
“As with Hammer pix, production values and performances are of a high standard”, enthused Variety, “Hammer’s casting chief Jimmy Liggatt has engaged solid first-rate established players like Gerald Sim and Dorothy Alison and talented newcomers who give added credence to the whole. Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick, strong, attractive personalities, bear a strange resemblance to each other making the transitions entirely believable. They are admirable”. Monthly Film Bulletin was in agreement, noting “Bates is infinitely better at being Henry Jekyll than he was at being Baron Frankenstein” (in 1970’s Horror of Frankenstein) “and the transformation sequences are stunning, with Bates appearing momentarily emasculated before being transformed into is seductive alter ego, Martine Beswick” and concluded: “It’s surprising, when one considers the symbolic power of sexual transformation in most mythologies, that it has been taboo in the cinema for so long… the film remains a welcome reminder that Hammer can still be highly enterprising myth-makers.” Variety called it “an above average horror pic… Baker has set a good pace, built tension nicely and played it straight so that all seems credible. He tops chills and gruesome murders with quite a lot of subtle fun.”