Friday, July 1, 2011

DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (Roy Ward Baker, 1971)

A tale of suppressed sexuality leads to an ejaculation of bloodshed and orgy of carnage. Roy Ward Baker's quixotic direction makes this film much better than it ought to be, utilizing nice transitions, cross-cutting, and eerie compositions that makes the film visually arresting even when it stutters narratively.

The opening credit score stinks of a sickening romanticism which fails to match the film's dark riptide, a visual contradiction to the violent first act. The very first scene depicts a dark shadow stalking a prostitute in Whitechapel, an obvious Jack The Ripper plot device, and a brutal murder cross-cut with a local butcher slaughtering a rabbit: what an excellent setup! As the butcher slices into the animals stomach, a red gash of blood splatter upon a poster warning of the Whitechapel killer. This is soon revealed to be a flash-forward and the story regresses to explain the skewed morality of the good doctor that has brought him to this fearful fate. Jekyll’s good intentions lead him to commit horrible acts, believing that the murder of a few women may be a corruptible means, but the end is all that matters: to live long enough to cure all human disease. His serum, made from the hormones of freshly slaughtered women, has an unusual side effect in that it turns him into a woman, and soon a battle of the sexes ensues.

The subtext can be read as propagating Victorian era sexual regression. Like Stoker’s DRACULA, the story’s eroticism is a weapon for the monster (both Jekyll and Hyde) and only the pure of heart and body remain unharmed. The doctor’s upstairs love interests (brother and sister!) are only endangered when they give in to physical pleasure, seduced into bestial behavior. The victims of the bisexual protagonist are of course female prostitutes, well-endowed and beautiful avatars of 19th century fantasy. Jekyll himself is subrogated by his love for Susan, consumed by this petty human desire cast in the vile mode of archaic misogyny. Everyone who lusts for sex is victim or victimized.

Baker’s direction is wonderful. In the shot of the first transformation, he uses a seamless 180 degree POV technique that follows Jekyll as he crashes and thumps about the room to fall exhausted in a chair. The camera pans up (still without edit) to see his reflection now transformed into her! He films Jekyll through red glass or fractured mirrors, distorting his/her identity.

The denouement makes very little sense as Jekyll commits one final murder (for no apparent reason) and flees the police, still fighting a war of sexual dominance. His fall from grace is malformed and unsatisfying.


Final Grade: (B)

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