Dr Henry Jekyll (Paul Massie) lives an almost reclusive lifestyle, only seeing other people when he needs to as he tends to his experiments. One person he does see is Dr Ernst Littauer (David Kossoff), the one man he feels he can confide in, even if they are not seeing eye to eye on his field of endeavour. Jekyll allows the mute children from the nearby school to play in his garden, partly out of generosity, but partly so he can examine human nature, as he believes he can tell a lot from the way they interact free from the niceties of adulthood. But what if there were some way of doing the same for him?
Crack open the bottle of serum, it was split personality time again for this umpteenth version of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which let's not forget the big twist at the climax turned out to be that the title characters were one and the same. Naturally, every movie and television adaptation that followed were not able to use this as a major surprise for their versions, mainly because the ending became so famous that everyone who had ever heard of it knew very well what its central conceit was: that Jekyll managed to separate the two sides of his personality into the virtuous and the wicked.
And how he suffered for it, except in this variation he's suffering even before he starts injecting himself with the fruits of his labour. By 1960, Hammer were enthusiastically remaking every classic horror tale they could get their hands on, and this was no exception, only they decided to go for a novel approach, the main selling point being that Jekyll was old and ugly, while his alter ego was young and handsome. Massie was the man filling both roles, and though he starts the film rather stiff and bland no matter which character he was portraying, he did grow into the role, appropriately enough for a film that becomes more interesting and lively as it progresses.
Terence Fisher was the man at the helm here, Hammer's star director, and continuing his meditations on the nature of evil as exhibited in the duality of mankind, something that the Jekyll and Hyde story sounds perfect for. And he does divine some worth from a tale that had already grown pretty old hat, although in those early stages it's up to Christopher Lee, playing the raffish gambler who is having an affair with Jekyll's wife Kitty (Dawn Addams) and helping himself to her bank account, to provide the interest as he is the most entertaining performer in this, with Addams lumbered with a role that is wholly in service of the plot. Once the Hyde incarnation is unleashed, Lee's Paul Allen finds himself with a new best friend.
In other hands this would be the ideal material for farce - you can imagine Ray Cooney crafting this into a trouserless comedy romp as Jekyll and Hyde try to conceal their subterfuge from the woman only one of them is supposed to be married to. Indeed, the other main female role is taken by Norma Marla as exotic dancer Maria, who curiously only appeared in one other film and that too was a refashioned Jekyll and Hyde plot, The Ugly Duckling, starring Bernard Bresslaw doing much what Massie gets to do in this. But here the laughs are more likely to be thinner on the ground, unless you begin to ponder that the serum would make a terrific exfoliant considering how the doctor's facial furniture vanishes (plucks his eyebrows, too) when he turns Hyde. If it doesn't have much new to say about the two sides of people, it does it with stronger stuff than audiences of the day would be used to, with drug taking, suicide and rape among its shock scenes, though it was yet another film of the era that suggested decadence by having a dance troupe leap onto the stage for a can-can. Music by David Heneker and Monty Norman.