Hammer Film Productions would not survive the ’70s. After more than a decade of success built on the horror films that defined the company, it struggled to stay afloat. Gone were the days when audiences found novelty in the classic monster stories like Dracula (1958) and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) told in technicolor and punctuated by vibrantly rendered blood. The gore that once made Hammer movies edgy pales in comparison to other horror features produced by scrappier filmmakers working with cheaper budgets. Indeed, Hammer’s budgets began increasing, and they lacked the American investments that once kept them striving. Horror films could be acquired cheaper elsewhere, and with more shocking elements than ever before, now that production codes were changing and being challenged on both sides of the pond.
Changes to the production codes brought about one of the more interesting aspects to Hammer horror’s legacy: more prominent female characters. Even today, when fans think of Hammer, they most likely remember two male stars who shaped the company’s success, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. While these actors and the other males leads frequently took on the meatier parts, the women were relegated to less substantial, passive roles. The liberalization of film production changed that. More sexual content snuck into movies and distributors used the promise of sex and nudity to lure patrons into theaters.
Hammer took to these new trends with movies like Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (1970). The Vampire Lovers allowed Hammer to substitute the familiar male-driven Dracula for a female vampire, Carmilla, based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel, Carmilla. Played by Ingrid Pitt, Carmilla preys on women primarily, with the sexual nature of the vampires now more pronounced and with unmistakable homoerotic overtones. (Pitt would later expand into similar territory with Peter Sasdy’s 1971 film,Countess Dracula, where she plays Elizabeth Bathory.) Other actresses would receive similar opportunities to play major roles that capitalized on their sexuality, including a young Nastassja Kinski in Hammer’s final horror film To the Devil a Daughter (Peter Sykes, 1976). Admittedly, these were not the most progressive acting roles. After all, Hammer’s arguably most famous lead lady out of all their genre films was Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., a dialogue-free part more famous for what she wore, her form-fitting fur bikini, then anything she got to do on film.
Even as looks and sex became the dominant factor contributing to these new female roles, Hammer’s ’70s films took on an exciting life, now that they could be more than a boy’s club for aging stars. Of Hammer’s output in this era, no film captures that shift quite in the way that Roy Ward Baker’s Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde does. This gender-bending take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a surprisingly clever interpretation that also serves as a symbol for Hammer’s attempt to build a new identity while still having one foot in the traditions of its past films.
Ralph Bates stars as Dr. Henry Jekyll, a Victorian-era doctor who spends day and night toiling over cures for the diseases plaguing the world. He’s so caught up in his work that he sleeps for days at a time once exhaustion sets in. Jekyll hardly notices Susan (Susan Spencer), the young woman who moved in with her family to the flat above Jekyll’s. She certainly notices him, vying for his affection at every turn, but Jekyll is too wrapped up in his work. He employees the famous grave robbers/murderers Burke and Hare (Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin, respectively) to procure him bodies for research. That research soon changes when Henry’s colleague Robertson (Gerald Sim) jokes that Jekyll will need to live longer just to cure all the diseases he wants to eradicate, leading Jekyll to pursue a solution for immortality.
How does the good doctor propose to create eternal life? Female hormones. As Jekyll surmises, women live longer than men, so if he can synthesize their hormones into a powerful serum, he will gain eternal life. His first experiment on a housefly is a success, but the male fly he uses soon lays eggs, having changed its sex to female as a result of the serum. Ignoring this fact, Jekyll tests the solution on himself. He quickly becomes a woman, a female alter ego named Edwina Hyde (Martine Beswick) who pretends to be Jekyll’s sister.
Mrs. Hyde makes one hell of an impression on those who encounter her. “I may not have time for Dr. Jekyll, but his sister is absolutely marvelous!” says Susan’s tweedy brother Howard (Lewis Fiander) when he spies the beautiful Mrs. Hyde admiring her naked body in a mirror. Howard could be speaking for the audience of the ’70s who needed something fresh out of the familiar. These Victorian stories did not speak to the growing youth market that sought more culturally relevant entertainment. Even if the story was old hat, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde‘s gender-bending take offered a compelling twist to a familiar formula by addressing the cultural shifts happening at Hammer and in society at large, thanks to the expanding roles for women. Howard is right to call Mrs. Hyde marvelous as she infuses the dour Jekyll with a vibrancy that the man cannot capture as he is, and as a woman is only limited by the need to keep producing the serum.
Hammer attempted to stay relevant in other ways in the ’70s, but other directions the horror film company took lacked Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde‘s progressivism. A year prior to the release of Sister Hyde, Ralph Bates portrayed another doctor, Frankenstein, in Jimmy Sangster’s The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). This Frankenstein portrayed the doctor as a raging misogynist and manipulative killer who faces no consequences for his actions. The overt sexism, even when filtered ironically through a character the audience would know to be an antagonist, did not catch on, nor did the choice to update some of the old stories, like when Hammer planted Dracula in swinging London for Dracula A.D. 1972.
Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde serves as a fascinating representation of the struggle between Hammer’s commitment to tradition and its need to change. Like Hammer, Jekyll cannot carry on as he wants without transforming. Jekyll goes as far as to murder local prostitutes in the style of Jack the Ripper to keep himself in the supply of female hormones. The escalated violence in these scenes, as well as the resulting beauty of Hyde, are the ends that justify the means to get there.
Hyde battles to become the dominant personality because she is stronger than the older, physically inferior Jekyll. Even Hyde’s plans to kill Susan come off like a way to snuff out the tradition of Hammer’s past films and how they represented women. Susan is demure and defenseless, a classic Hammer heroine subservient to the male character she loves. Hyde, meanwhile, is a force to be reckoned with, fighting for survival and doing anything she can to survive another day. Ultimately neither Jekyll and Hyde can win their battle for dominance, leading both personalities to their deaths. It seems the same would be true for Hammer, which would end production on all films within a few years of Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde’s release.