October 20, 2014

Queer Review: Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Writers: Brian Clemens. Allegedly based on the novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Luis Stevenson.
Cast: Ralph Bates, Martine Beswick, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander, Susan Brodrick, Dorothy Alison, Ivor Dean, Philip Madoc, Paul Whitsun-Jones, Tony Calvin

A gory retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, the Hammer Horror film Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde inserts numerous transphobic elements into the classic tale and also uses the trope of female transgender villains as thieves of womanhood. The story also blends bits of history, such as references to the Jack the Ripper murders in addition to including the characters Burke and Hare.

Dr. Jekyll (Ralph Bates) has reached a point in his research where he believes that he can find a cure for most of the common disease and ailments that plague mankind. The catch is that he also realizes that it will take him many decades to complete this research. To solve this problem, he begins harvesting female hormones from deceased female corpses and begins utilizing two thugs by the names of Burke and Hare (Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin) do so. Instead of extending Dr. Jekylls' life, the hormones end up turning him into a woman (which leads to the requisite Hammer Horror nudity). He winds up explaining away his new identity as Ms. Hyde, Dr. Jekylls' sister, to his inquisitive neighbors. Ms. Hyde however, winds up completely dominating Dr. Jekyll and soon takes up stalking and murdering female prostitutes in the same manner as Jack the Ripper, just in order to maintain a fresh supply of female hormones.

The Queering
No one would mistake Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde for a historical bio pic revealing the "true" story behind the infamous Jack the Ripper murder cases. However, in that it clearly draws inspiration from historical events, can be seen writing queer identity onto a historical villain where no hard evidence of one previously existed. As I have previously noted, the only time history is guaranteed to remember someone as being a member of the LGBTQ community is when they kill someone. If you are queer and do something heroic, good luck with history remembering your true identity. However, being heinously evil is a great method for coming out of the closet, even for those who are 100% straight.

This is of course on top of all the more overtly transphobic elements. In this case, the filmmakers appear to be promoting the idea that transgender or transsexual woman can only become "true" woman by stealing something from other woman. In this case, female hormones. TERFs (trans exclusive radical feminists) will love it.

It is possible of course, to get lost in a debate as to whether or not the character of Dr. Jekyll is supposed to represent an actual transgender or transsexual individual. After all, he (the character) continues to maintain his masculine identity after starting the female hormones, rather than being written as an individual whose gender identity does not align with the one they were assigned to at birth. That is, the story is not about a "true" transgender or transsexual individual. However, I think this would ignore the obvious intent of stories involving gender non-conforming characters. That is, not only are they intended to associate gender non-conforming behavior with general evilness, but they also get to promote the idea that there is no "true" transgender or transsexual identity (along with other misguided mistruths about transgender and transsexual identity). To put it another way, the filmmakers get two shots off at transgender and transsexual identities for the price of one.

In a more philosophical vain, I found myself wondering about about the ethics of what Dr. Jekyll was attempting to do with his research. He believes he can find cures for most of the most common diseases and thus end a great deal of suffering for humanity. While this itself is a little arrogant, his solution for expanding his lifespan to complete his research is a little out there. Most researchers in the real world would do as much as they could in their natural life, then hope succeeding generations of scientists and doctors would be able to complete it. This being a Hammer Horror film, Dr. Jekyll naturally chooses the most horrific (not to mention unethical) option available to him. Although I suppose pointing out the absurdity of his motivations in this case makes about as much sense as using female hormones to extend ones lifespan because women live longer than men.

It would probably have been a lot more fun to have been operated on by Jack Ripper than to see the transphobic mess that is Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

The Rating
2 stars out of 4.


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