Thursday, May 31, 2007



"It is with great surprise that a movie with such an exploitative name... would manage to emerge from the pack as one of the best examples of the kind of thought provoking little horror film Hammer once produced with ease." - DVDVerdict.Com


There's a mysterious killer stalking the back alleys of White Chapel ripping up prostitutes. His name isn't Jack, though, it's Henry, as in Dr. Henry Jekyll. In this extremely loose adaptation of the Stevenson novel, the not-so-good doctor is harvesting organs for his experiments. It seems the female hormones the organs contain are the key to an elixir which will drastically retard the aging process, perhaps indefinitely. But just when he is on the verge of success, Jekyll's supply of fresh female corpses runs out and he's forced to go out and acquire new ones himself. Upon taking the first dose of his concoction, Jekyll does indeed feel different, just not quite in the way he hoped. It seems the high concentration of female hormones has turned Dr. Jekyll into Ms. Hyde. (In less than a minute and with no messy surgery involved.) At first, this impromptu sex change is a boon to Jekyll, as he can remain above suspicion while his "sister" continues collecting specimens. Unfortunately for the doctor, Hyde begins to develop her own distinct personality, and decides she would like to give Jekyll the boot from their shared body. With the police closing in, Dr. Jekyll must race to complete his research before he loses his mind to Hyde or his life to the hangman's noose.


Beginning in the mid 1950s with the excellent Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Studios became synonymous with high quality horror films featuring new interpretations of classic movie monsters. But as the 1970s ushered in a new era of permissive censorship, Hammer found its audience drifting away to grittier fare. So, in an effort to prop up its declining ticket sales, Hammer began to amp up the exploitation elements in its own productions. Take this movie as an example. Legend has it that screenwriter Brian Clemens was having a few lunchtime drinks with the head of Hammer Studios Jimmy Carreras and jokingly suggested to him the title Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. In a move that would make Roger Corman proud, Carreras had a poster and advertising campaign in place two days later, without so much as a single line of the script committed to paper. The trailers which eventually preceded the release of the film promised sleaze aplenty, including the sexual transformation of a man into a woman right before your very eyes!

The problem for the cheap thrill seekers is that the movie never really delivers on any of those promises. There are only a couple of quick shots of gratuitous nudity, less blood than most prime-time television shows, and absolutely NO sexual transformation right before your very eyes. Instead, what you do get with Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde is a pretty enjoyable thriller in the classic Hammer style. The Victorian sets and costuming are authentic and lush looking. Director Roy Ward Baker provides an atmosphere which is appropriately foggy and claustrophobic. And best of all, the acting is solid, particularly from the two leads.

Ralph Bates was a Hammer staple in the early 70s and is in top mad scientist form here as Dr. Jekyll. He's coldly detached, obsessively focused on his work, and evasive of the romantic advances of his neighbor. And in a departure from the source material, Bates' Jekyll is already a killer before he ever takes a sip of his formula. His argument is basically that of the Utilitarianist, that his actions will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. What's a few murdered prostitutes in exchange for longer lives for everyone else? Two-time Bond girl Martine Beswick (whom we just saw as the satanic puppy breeder in Devil Dog: Hound Of Hell) is equally good as Sister Hyde, giving her an unique personality rather than simply playing her as Jekyll in a skirt. Even her reasons for killing are different from the doctor's. Where Jekyll has ostensibly "good" reasons for murder, Hyde is just doing it to survive; better them than her, you know. And since the actors do such a credible job of establishing their individual personalities, the subsequent struggle for dominance comes off as believable.

Of course, regardless of the quality of the other parts of the production, the whole movie revolves around the sex change gimmick. And it starts off just like you think it would. Upon first transforming, but before Hyde's personality develops, Jekyll does what (ashamedly) most men probably would given the circumstance; he takes of his (her) shirt and stares in the mirror for a loooong time. And then he stares some more. Really he just keeps standing there staring until somebody bangs on the door demanding entry. But as Hyde's persona develops, so does the strangeness. Notably weird are the scenes which involve the doctor being caught mid-transformation where we are treated to images of Ms. Hyde with man-hands and Dr. Jekyll trussed up in a corset. But the most bizarre thing has to be the love rectangle which develops over the course of the film. Susan, the nice girl next door, loves Jekyll. Jekyll is equally fond of Susan but is too mired in his work to bother with her. Howard, Susan's brother and Jekyll's best friend, takes a liking (okay, lusting) to Hyde. Hyde, in turn, becomes attracted to Howard. And then Hyde and Howard start kissing and groping one another, at which point you start yelling, "Wait a minute! Ain't that dude making out with his best friend?"

Hey, it's an honest question, and the answer revolves around just who exactly Hyde is supposed to be in this movie. In the original Robert Louis Stevenson novella, and most of the subsequent movie adaptations, Mr. Hyde was Jekyll's repressed darker nature set free. Jekyll and Hyde were separate personalities, but still the same person. It was Stevenson's simple but effective way to explore the struggle between the impulses for good and evil inside each of us. But since this movie starts out with Jekyll as a murderer himself, the notion that Ms. Hyde is somehow his Jungian shadow self is immediately chucked out the window. The next obvious guess as to what Hyde represents is kind of Jungian too, the idea that she somehow represents Jekyll's repressed feminine side (his anima) brought to the surface. But that doesn't really work here either, because if "anima" refers to "the sum total of all those parts of the man's psyche that are considered in some way female and which are therefore repressed", then what exactly does Hyde indicate about what Jekyll believes of women? That they're all murderous sociopaths? No, in that case, he wouldn't have feelings for the innocent Susan and struggle so hard to save her near the end of the film. Some reviewers have tried to see a homosexual allegory, but Jekyll's attraction to Susan probably does away with that idea also.

Really, once you dispense with all the pop-psych theories, the best explanation for Ms. Hyde is that she is in fact a completely separate person from Jekyll, a true sister if you will. And this makes sense from a scientific perspective for the simple reason that men and women are (wait for it) different. Take for instance the 2005 study from The University of Alberta in Canada which showed that men and women use different areas of the brain even while working on the same task. Or the 2006 article in the NeuroImage journal which indicates that the sexes are hardwired to process emotional stress differently. There's tons more out there, but you get the idea. Down to the DNA, men and women are biologically different, and it's all written in stone at the moment a human egg is fertilized with either an X or Y chromosome. From the scientific standpoint, for a man to truly change into a woman would require more than cosmetic surgery, it would actually require the man to become a different person all the way down to his genes.

But even if you accept the inevitability of the physiological differences, couldn't Jekyll and Hyde still be the same person on a spiritual level. Isn't the soul supposed to be androgynous or gender-neutral? Well, from the Catholic viewpoint, no, not really. The Church holds to Aquinas' hylomorphic view of the innate oneness of the body and soul. You can't view one or the other as disposable because a person needs both in order to actually be a person. Why else would we even bother saying every Sunday in the Nicene Creed that "we look for the resurrection of the dead" if our bodies weren't an integral part of our identity? The body and soul were created as a psychosomatic union and, after the resurrection, they'll be a unity again. And since this union is complete and eternal then it stands to reason, as philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it, "no pervasive feature of either body or soul is insulated from the other; every sound in the soul echoes in the body, and every sound in the body echoes in the soul." If the body is a woman, the soul is a woman, and vice versa. In short, souls have genders.

All of which is a long way to go just to find an answer to the simple but bizarre question on whether it was Dr. Jekyll or Sister Hyde who was playing kissy face with poor Howard. And truthfully, as the dying Jekyll transforms back and forth between himself and Hyde, it's hard to imagine that Howard was reflecting on old quotes from Thomas Aquinas. He was probably thinking, "Wait a minute! Dude, was I just making out with my best friend?"


Pope John Paul II wrote that "the body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it". Gender is important because God made it so. Like all of His creation, it's meant help us see certain truths about Him. One of the most poetic notions in Christian cosmology is the image of the universe as a woman which God, like a man, enters into and impregnates with life. In that same sense, all of us are "feminine" in our union with God. He enters, we receive. That's one of the main reasons the Church continues to use feminine terms to describe itself and puts forth Mary as its highest model as she exclaims, "Let it be done to me".

This kind of understanding of gender in the Scriptures is likely why The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger required a proposed inclusive-language English translation of the Catechism to be retranslated and rescinded the approval of the inclusive-language translations of the NRSV and RNAB Bibles which had been in use for two years in the United States. As Peter Kreeft notes, it is likely that "something as deliberate and distinctive and as all-pervasive in Scripture as God's he-ness is no mere accident." It's probably a good idea to try and fully understand why the gender exclusive language is there before we go mucking around with it.


Mr. Doob said...

Again...very well thought out. You are indeed the master of the segue.

From childhood to today, I never perceived the "he-ness" of scripture to be exclusionary to women.I just saw it for what it was...a reflection of the time in which it was created. Never did I read it as Men are better or more deserving. It was never "bless all the dudes, the farm animals, the food, the land and, oh yeah, if you have time, maybe women too." It's that kind of narrow thinking that ignores The Word of the scripture and it's impact entirely. But that's modern thinking for you. It's couched as "let's make this more universal" but it always ends up "well...the changes we made weren't quite let's do more". Before you know it, not only has the intent been changed but possibly the message itself. Protestors tend to ignore that maybe it's THEIR perception that needs work.

It's similar to Luca's revising Star Wars or, better yet, Spielberg altering E.T. Transforming guns to walkee talkees changes the tenor of the film's climax. Abject Fear has been replaced with relative inconvenience. How is that better?
"Do-overs" while good in theory, tend to change the final result and leaves us with less rather than more.

Whoa. Look who's working the segue angle now! It's infectious.

Mr. Doob said...

Oh...I forgot the film. DOH!

I never realized that this was a Hammer production. Maybe it was the 70s exploitation narrative of the trailer. Either way,It was never one of my faves but perhaps I need to see it without the "Creature Feature" editing/censoring. That show is where I saw a lions share of horror genre movies. There are probably hundreds of flicks that I've never seen in their entirety due to the ever vigilent hand of the censors blade. Looks like I have some film watching to do...

EegahInc said...

Master of the segue? Wonder if I can put that on a resume?

You just had to bring up the "Special " Editions, didn't you? You know, from an artistic standpoint, I'm all for revisiting themes, but never on the same canvas. Hmm, I wonder what El Greco's Madonna and Child would look like if everyone were dressed in multi-colored unitards. I know, I'll go up to National Gallery of Art in Washington and paint some on the original! Do I sound bitter? I guess I've never forgiven Spielberg for removing the scene in Close Encounters where the hillbilly tells his Bigfoot encounter story to the air force.