Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on various players
Sometimes people come up with a really fun and interesting take on a classic story. Take, for example, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde. It’s clearly a prurient title meant to get people to sit up and pay attention to it. It looks like this is going to be an exploitation movie (and it kind of is), but this is actually a really fun and inventive take on the original Jekyll/Hyde story from Robert Louis Stevenson. In the original story, intelligent and sober Dr. Henry Jekyll invents a serum that releases his more animal nature, turning him into the criminal and vicious Edward Hyde. As the title suggests here, that’s not going to be the case with this film.
The conceit here is that Victorian-Era Dr. Jekyll (Ralph Bates) is initially researching a way to cure diseases. His womanizing friend Robertson (Gerald Sim) tells him that, figuring a couple of years to cure each disease in his sights (diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, and more), he’ll be dead before he manages to cure them all. This is an epiphany for Jekyll, who immediately decides that before he starts tackling diseases, he should first tackle life extension.
No Dr. Jekyll-themed movie would be complete without some ridiculous science, and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde does not disappoint in that respect. What Jekyll decides is that women age differently than men do, and that the secret must be in their hormones. This leads him to a moral conundrum in which Jekyll decides that to create a much greater good—life extension—he’s going to have to do some terrible things. This first takes him to necrophiliac mortuary guy Byker (Philip Madoc), who gets him to famous graverobbers Burke and Hare (Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin). Desperate for the hormone-producing glands of young women, he more or less looks away as Burke and Hare start killing women to provide him with corpses.
And, of course, the serum works, but as with his early experiments on flies, it turns the male into female, and thus we are introduced to Sister Hyde (Martine Beswick), who looks a lot like Jekyll, but also not, which is why she can get away with masquerading as his sister. And, like the original story, Hyde is a terrible entity and wants control over Jekyll and starts more or less demanding more and more murder so that she can take control of the body.
Tossed into all of this is the very odd love connection between Jekyll, Hyde, and the siblings that live above him (them?) in their building. Susan Spencer (Susan Brodrick) is naturally interested in the young, handsome doctor who lives below her and coincidentally is exactly the age and type needed for his experimentation. Her brother Howard (Lewis Flander) finds himself entranced with Mrs. Hyde (who is never given a first name), which leads us to what is kind of an early transgender romance.
Going into a movie like this one, you expect it to be prurient and probably have a great deal of nudity, sex, and the like. There’s a little of that, but honestly a lot less than I expected, most of it coming on the first transformation as Hyde discovers that she has boobs. Beyond that, the film is surprisingly chaste. It’s a lot more concerned with Jekyll’s descent into murder and immorality. When Burke and Hare are discovered as murdering graverobbers, they are summarily killed (Burke) and blinded (Hare) by the locals. This leaves Jekyll in a position of needing to procure his own bodies for his work.
It's here that the film makes what is probably its most interesting choice. Jekyll, as a doctor, is capable of precise, surgical cuts to extract what he needs from his victims. He has this in common with another famous murderer of the time—Jack the Ripper. Essentially, the film posits that Jekyll is either the actual Ripper (despite only taking the same thing from each body), or that he is a sort of copycat killer. It’s a really interesting choice and it works surprisingly well.
I’m not going to lie—I expected this to be silly, the sort of thing that got on the They Shoot Zombies list because of camp sensibilities, but it’s here for a much better reason. This is actually a really good film. It’s smart and it avoids going for the lowest common denominator for its entire runtime. Even the more salacious sections are done with a bit of class.
The biggest problem that Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde has is that the science in places is ridiculous. While the transformation moments are fantastic—great and inventive camerawork as good as any Jekyll/Hyde or werewolf movie—the actual result is kind of silly. Like, why would Sister Hyde’s hair suddenly be eight inches longer than Jekyll’s, and how does it revert to his length when they change back? Why does the transformation last for hour in some cases but evidently mere minutes in others? If female hormones are the secret, how come women don’t live to 200, as posited by his fly experiments?
Eh, I don’t really expect good science in a film like this. I expect fun, and this is, and as an added benefit, it also manages to be exactly as serious as it should be.
Why to watch Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde: It’s a great direction to take this story.
Why not to watch: The science is silly.