Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
Be sure to check out and subscribe to the Horror Queers podcast! We’re still writing one article a month, but we release one podcast episode each week and discuss one film per episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn, or RSS.
***SPOILERS for Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde to follow.***
Synopsis: Dr. Henry Jekyll (Ralph Bates) experiments on newly-deceased women determined to discover an elixir for immortal life. Success enables his spectacular transformation into the beautiful, but psychotic Sister Hyde (Martine Beswick) who stalks the dark alleys of Whitechapel for young, innocent, female victims, ensuring continuation of the bloodstained research.
Queer Aspect: Dr. Jekyll transitions into a female Hyde and has a (rather understandable) fascination with her new breasts before she goes on a murderous rampage.
Joe, I feel like I’m in an A.A. meeting with the confession I’m about to make, so here it goes: hi, I’m Trace and I have never seen a Hammer Horror film before. Well, at least not one of their classic films from their heyday. I’ve seen their modern releases like Let Me In, The Quiet Ones, The Woman in Black (and its sequel) and the upcoming The Lodge, but nothing that they produced before 2010.
I’ve been told that modern Hammer is nothing like classic Hammer, and if Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is anything to go by, that statement is 100% correct. Cue any horror gatekeepers accusing me of not being a “true” horror fan, but this is a place of honesty and I’m here being honest. So thank you (?), Joe, for introducing me to my first “true” Hammer Horror film: Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.
Before we dive into Roy Ward Baker’s film, let’s get some history out of the way first. After all, I might not be the only person in these here parts who needs to be educated on this particular area in the history of horror.
Hammer Film Productions was founded in 1934, but was at its prime from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1970s. What happened in the mid-1950s? Why, that would be the birth of Hammer Horror! It all began with a 1955 adaptation of the BBC Television science fiction serial, The Quatermass Experiment, but it wasn’t until 1957 that the studio would strike gold with their first gothic horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein. That film not only has the distinction of grossing 70 times (!) its budget in box office receipts, but also for being the very first horror film to show gore in color (the latter fact sparked quite the controversy, though it no doubt played a part in the film’s box office success).
After sorting out some legal issues with Universal International, the rights-holder for the character of Dracula, Hammer Films released Horror of Dracula in 1958, which went on to break box office records. This led Universal International’s decision to sell Hammer Films the remake rights to their entire library of classic films. From there, Hammer Films had their pick of the litter of classic Universal monsters like The Invisible Man and The Phantom of the Opera, and they also dabbled in other famed horror characters like The Abominable Snowman and, yes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
This brings us to Roy Ward Baker’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which was one of nine horror films that Hammer released in 1971. The film adds a gender-bending twist to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by presenting Dr. Henry Jekyll’s turn into a femme fatale that he dubs Edwina Hyde. You can’t say that Hammer shied away from experimenting with classic pieces of literature. You see, Sister Hyde was Hammer’s third adaptation of the novella. First came 1959’s The Ugly Duckling (a comedic version of the tale) and then 1960 saw the release of The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (which turned Mr. Hyde into a suave womanizer).
Fast forward 11 years, and, in an effort to try something new, they brought in Hammer virgin Brian Clemens to write the script for Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde while Baker was hired to direct. By this time, Baker had directed several vampire films for Hammer (Scars of Dracula and The Vampire Lovers being the most notable), as well as 1967’s The Quatermass and the Pit, the third and final entry in the franchise that originally birthed Hammer Horror.
Turning specifically to the film, I’ll confess that I enjoyed Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde much more than I thought I would! I didn’t find it as offensive as I thought I would, either (though perhaps you’ll change my mind on that in your analysis, though). My biggest observation: is the pacing a bit sluggish? I would argue that, yes, it is. The romance between Jekyll and Susan (Susan Brodwick) is necessary to the plot, but it certainly detracts from all things Edwina Hyde (Martine Beswick), who gets surprisingly little screen time in the film. This is a shame, as two-time Bond girl Beswick turns in a wonderful performance.
Joe, I fear that I’ve left the initial analysis up to you. What is your reading of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde? Is it a progressive story about gender identity? Does it view women as monstrous? How about that awkward (yet somehow still humorous) moment where Edwina ogles her own breasts? And without looking it up, what do you think led to the death of Hammer Horror in the late 1970s?
Oh sure, slacker, leave all of the heavy lifting analysis to me!
I jest because it is important that we provide some background context, particularly when we discuss older (or foreign) films. Were this an episode of the podcast, we’d ramble through all of the production history before getting to the film anyways, so really you’re just sticking to our established format.
More specifically, though, the history is key for this particular film because from a contemporary point of view, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde can be read in one of (arguably) three very different ways. One of these is particularly dismissive of the film’s sexual politics, but back in 1970 when the film was shot, it wouldn’t have even been a topic of discussion.
I am, of course, referring to one of the readings that Jekyll and Hyde is a trans narrative since it involves a man transitioning into a woman. Doing research on queer reactions to the film, I came across an archived review of the film on the website Queering The Closet, which comes down hard on Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde because it uses the tired horror cliche of a gender non-conforming person as its monstrous villain. As we discussed waaaay back in our second article on Insidious: Chapter 2 (and more recently in The X-Files: I Want To Believe), when Hollywood horror films feature men who dress in drag or display trans characteristics*, such as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, they are frequently presented as deviants and murderers.
*Obviously drag and trans are not the same thing, but Hollywood – particularly pre-2000 Hollywood – tends to treat them as though they are.
For this reading, the closest comparison for Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde is probably Norman Bates in Psycho. In both films, the male protagonist is presented as bookish and socially withdrawn (bordering on awkward) with mild voyeuristic desires. The transformation that accompanies the female persona – Mrs. Bates and Hyde – introduces murder into the narrative, as though gender transgression can only lead to chaos, madness and death. This becomes even more complicated in the Hammer film because the murders are associated with Jekyll’s work on a magical McGuffin elixir that requires the murder of women literally for female hormones. Queering the Closet reads this as particularly dangerous considering the way that TERFS (trans exclusive radical feminists) paint trans women as “less than” or “inauthentic” women because they use hormones to steal from or impersonate “real” women. Obviously trans identities are far more complicated and nuanced than physical representation or hormone treatments, but there is merit to the argument that the film is putting forward a “trans is monstrous” narrative, particularly given the final shot of the film, which lingers on the body of Jekyll/Hyde in grotesque mid-transition amidst horrified reactions from Victorian onlookers.
Stevenson’s original text is rife with critical examination about the duality of man and the capacity for violence inside everyone, which remains every bit as relevant in 1971 as it is in 2020. If anything, considering the film’s proximity to the 1969 Stonewall riots (in which the transgender community played a significant part) and the rise in Second Wave feminism in the US, it seems likely that the film was conceived as an innovative and politically timely spin on a classic tale.
Even if the transphobic reading is set aside, however, there is a second reading of the film as misogynistic. If Jekyll and Hyde are considered entirely separate entities, the presentation of Hyde as a cunning killer who delights in murdering sex workers clearly evokes the (masculine) fear of a sexually liberated woman. She’ll threaten nice, complacent, rule-abiding women like Susan! She’ll lure libido-driven idiots like Susan’s brother Howard (Lewis Flander) and Gerald Sim’s Professor Robertson into her web! Why, she’ll even spend all of your hard-earned money on sexy red dresses and garters! The horror, Trace!
Mild joking aside, however, Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde does cast a woman in the role of the aggressor, the temptress, the blood-thirsty villain. Even if the argument can be made that Jekyll does, in fact, commit multiple murders in the name of science, rendering him a villainous character in his own right, Ralph Bates doesn’t play Jekyll as evil (compared to Beswick, whose Hyde livens up the film with a performance that is equal parts campy and sexy). Throw in the breast ogling scene (funny, but also exploitative) and the suggestion that Hyde’s lack of physical strength is to blame for Jekyll/Hyde’s fall from the rooftop in the climax, and the accusations of misogyny stick.
But then there is a third reading, which is that the film is actually kind of progressive. Jekyll is routinely depicted as a workaholic who doesn’t embrace life’s opportunities (a relationship with Susan). He is also a narcissist and surrounds himself with other douchey men (Professor Robertson) who feed his ego. Although Hyde is hardly an agent for good, her spirit is adventurous, daring and boundary-pushing; here is a film that is only truly liberated and living deliciously when a woman seizes power from men.
The fact that the villain is a woman can also be seen as exciting. While there’s been debate amongst members of the queer community, in particular, about what “representation” looks like, some argue that it should include flawed, villainous characters just as often as less-tokenistic protagonists or secondary characters. Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde may cast a woman as its antagonist, but she’s also the best character in the film! The film’s biggest issue, as you said, Trace, is that there simply isn’t enough of her!
Truth be told, Trace, I’m conflicted about the film’s gender identity politics. I think there is merit in all of these readings, which actually just makes me appreciate the film all the more. Not only is this a really attractive looking film, complete with some great visual tricks by director Baker, it is a great example of an old film that raises a lot of political/sexual questions for audiences to consider. This isn’t a safe, simple film, which is what I expected when we embarked on this pick and I’m really thankful that I had to dig into my feelings to dissect it.
What do you think of these three readings, Trace? Can we talk about the performances in a bit more detail, particularly Lewis Flander’s droll line delivery (often at Jekyll and Susan’s expense)? And what did you think of how Baker shoots the transformation scenes?
But Joe, how can there possibly be three readings for one film?! Do you even know what Clemens’ intentions were when he wrote the script? Your presumptions about what the film is trying to say display an unparalleled level of hubris! To think that you could assign your own reading to a film without consulting either the writer nor the director is madness!
I jest, of course, but the above paragraph is a hyperbolic version of some of the comments we get from our more antagonistic readers so I thought it’d be funny. Did you laugh……?
Being the optimist that I am, I choose to subscribe to the third reading and believe that the film is progressive. As we’ve said multiple times before in these articles: this doesn’t mean that the other two reasons aren’t valid and it doesn’t mean that I’m flat out rejecting them. I’m just trying to keep things positive.
The negative transgender reading of the film is a persuasive argument, but the aspect that complicates it is the fact that the film posits that female hormones are superior to male hormones. Women statistically have longer lifespans than men, which is why estrogen is required to complete Jekyll’s elixir. That Hyde happens to be murderous is a byproduct of Jekyll’s elixir. It’s only temporary, and thus she must revert back to the closet after spending a few fleeting moments outside of it. She grows increasingly more insane as the film progresses, but it’s not her womanhood that drives her insane; it’s simply her will to live and be free. This film views the female gender as biologically superior to the male gender, don’t you think?
Interestingly enough, Bates expressed interest in playing the part of Hyde in drag when the producers had trouble casting Hyde (many of Hammer’s go-to actresses turned down the part because it required nudity). Can you imagine what that would have been like? We get a brief glimpse of it when Hyde transitions back into Jekyll during Robertson’s murder, but it is but a moment.
I do disagree with the suggestion that Jekyll and Hyde are two completely different entities. I have always taken Hyde to be Jekyll’s id. What Stevenson was trying to say in his novella was that all men have a darkness in them just waiting to be unleashed. Jekyll unintentionally found a way to do that when he “birthed” Hyde. If we look at Hyde through that lens, then it does complicate Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde a bit: Jekyll’s dark side is the woman he’s always wanted to be. She is inherently wrong. This is an extreme and literal case of repressed queerness, but Edwina is the personification of Jekyll’s repression. That she is a murderous vixen puts us in a bit of a sticky wicket, because (as you mentioned) it turns the queer aspect of Jekyll into the “angry queer” trope we have seen so many times over the years.
The big question regarding the film is simply “why?”. Why do a gender-flip with this property? The simple answer is to tell this tale in a new and unique way, but don’t you wonder what fan reaction was like upon the film’s release? It’s not unlike the gender-swapping we’re seeing in major franchises today like Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 8 and (possibly) future 007 films. Had the internet existed in 1971, do you think Sister Hyde would have received the same amount of backlash as those films did? Can you imagine if something like this came out today? I can practically hear the anti-woke cries coming from the incels.
As for the initial transformation scene, it’s great. Baker opts not to use the lap-dissolve that was popular throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s (see Lon Chaney’s transformation in the final ten minutes of The Wolf Man for an example of that effect). Rather, we get one long continuous take that (seemingly) never breaks. To be perfectly honest, I’m unsure how this scene was done because it’s so seamless. The only part of the transformation scene that doesn’t work is the swelling of David Whitaker’s score when Hyde’s face is finally revealed. It’s a bit too over-the-top for my taste. It’s almost as if the reveal is meant to be played for laughs.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say about Howard and Robertson. They’re mostly dull characters, with their only interesting aspect being how stupidly they act upon merely glimpsing Edwina. It’s the standard “men think with their cocks” trope and there isn’t much more to it than that. Though I’ll confess that I got quite a thrill seeing Edwina use Robertson’s lust against him, this isn’t the first (and it certainly wouldn’t be the last) use of this trope (see: 1995’s Species or 2009’s Jennifer’s Body for just a couple of examples).
Joe, we haven’t really dug into how the film connects with real-life events. What are your thoughts on the inclusion of Burke and Hare (whom, admittedly, I had never heard of before watching this film) and Jack the Ripper? Did it add an extra layer to the film for you? Or did you find it distasteful? And I’m surprised that you haven’t mention that Hyde makes her red dress out of the fucking drapes. We’ve got a regular Maria von Trapp on our hands! Finally, what do you make of Jekyll’s death, in which his body is discovered to be a hideous amalgamation of Jekyll and Hyde combined into one?
I am a bit surprised that you didn’t like Howard considering that he’s basically the bitchy commentator on the side. I half expected him to be the secret gay, sipping cocktails and dressing down the people he finds inferior, so it was a tad disappointing when he was lured into Hyde’s trap (and he doesn’t even die! WTF).
As for the real life events, I quite liked them. Jekyll and Hyde has never been my favourite old fashioned tale – I find it too simplistic to be honest – so I was happy for some innovative crossover. I won’t go into the history of Jack the Ripper, which most folks are probably familiar with, but I did enjoy looking up exactly who Burke and Hare were in order to better understand their part of the film. In real life, these men were grave robbers who sold bodies to doctors in Scotland in the mid-19th century for medical research and anatomical studies.
While the fact that Burke and Hare ultimately killed 16 people to feed the demand for corpses is heinous, the circumstances that drove that demand are pretty fascinating: at the time, the law restricted the procuration of bodies exclusively to people who died in prison, suicide or if they were orphans. Obviously the limitations of the law doesn’t excuse these men, who were essentially murdering for profit, but it does highlight how overly stringent restrictions will inevitably prompt enterprising criminals to find a workaround and why folks who can participate in organ and blood donation should, if they feel so inclined. Of course, as queer men you and I aren’t allowed to participate wholly in this activity, but that’s a discrimination discussion for another time.
Thankfully we’ll always have glorious diva icon Edwina Hyde, joining the pantheon of innovative women (not just Maria from Sound of Music, but also Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With The Wind) who turn hung textiles into fashion forward looks. This bitch would have given the girls of RuPaul’s Drag Race a run for their money with her “drag on a budget” look!
Perhaps her fabulousness is why she had to die at the end, Trace? It’s not hard to imagine that a woman this daring and brash would struggle to blend in in Victorian London. As for that final death, it seemed fitting considering the direction of the film. I did love the use of the blue and red stained glass window as the two personas battled each other – it’s exactly the right amount of over the top drama I was looking for. The same can be said for the final result, which lays bare the duality of Jekyll and Hyde for all of the curious onlookers. Fun fact: it’s Beswick under all of that prosthetic mask work, which suggests to me that had they not fallen to their death, Hyde would have persevered as the stronger personality. Women always win, Trace!
Next time on Horror Queers: We’re hitching a ride to the Outback in Richard Franklin’s (Psycho II) Road Games!