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DVD SAVANT

The Hound of the Baskervilles


The Hound of the Baskervilles
MGM Home Entertainment
1959 / Color / 1:66 flat letterbox / 87 min.
Starring Peter Cushing, André Morell, Christopher Lee, Marla Landi, David Oxley, Francis De Wolff, Miles Malleson, Ewen Solon
Cinematography Jack Asher
Production Designer Bernard Robinson
Film Editor Alfred Cox
Original Music James Bernard
Written by Peter Bryan from the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle
Produced by Michael Carreras & Anthony Hinds
Directed by Terence Fisher


Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the very best Hammer films isn't strictly a horror film but this horror-inflected mystery set on the moors of rural England. With sensitive direction and a sumptuous look that defies its modest budget, this is perhaps the best version of Hound of the Baskervilles on film, with the fastidious Peter Cushing making a consummate Sherlock Holmes, and Christopher Lee in one of his few appearances as a leading man.

Synopsis:

Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) responds to threats on his life by hiring consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) to find out the secret behind the generations of Baskervilles who have died mysteriously on the moors. Holmes' associate and best friend Doctor Watson (André Morell) journeys to the Baskerville estate alone to lay out the groundwork, and finds a mysterious mansion with a missing portrait and bitter neighbors who begrudge the Baskervilles their good fortune. To add to the tension, an escaped convict is said to be on the loose. The 'Curse of the Baskervilles' involves a demon-hound from Hell, a myth that Watson has to take seriously when he hears its howl across the treacherous, boggy landscape.

Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous story is structured around a family curse stemming from an ancestor's torture and murder of an innocent woman (Judy Moyens). In other words, it's just the kind of gothic situation that classic horror films dote on. In a crisply-paced prologue, Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) wagers off a captive girl for rape by his dissolute friends; when she escapes, he sends the hounds after 'the Bitch!', which leads to a bloody end.  1

Naturally, Sherlock Holmes doesn't get involved until a few generations later, when the present Baskerville heir returns from South Africa after the mysterious death of his father. A supernatural hound is supposed to be doling out retribution for the family's earlier crimes, but Sherlock's having none of that - the more diabolical the clues, the more convinced he is that some logically-traceable rational motivation is behind the mystery. Out on the moors, among sucking quicksand and crumbling mineshafts, the pursuit of the truth is Sherlock's only concern.

Basil Rathbone is a pale poseur next to Peter Cushing's cool, calculating crimesolver. Slightly smug, thoroughly confident, this Holmes operates as a total intellectual independent, sometimes not even letting the faithful Doctor Watson in on his plans. He's also not above using callous snobbery to further his investigation. He insults Sir Henry's neighbors so as to manipulate the emotional nobleman, heedless of what people may think. As a character, Holmes is a man who understands completely the way Victorian England operates, and many of the stories seem a criticism of the era's rigid, classed social system. He places himself as an outsider, respected yet friendless, save for Watson.

Peter Cushing combines this socially aloof stance with a flair for feverish action. Always in motion, he's forever rushing across some lonely ruin. Since the locations are the same cramped sets used in Horror of Dracula (which we will hopefully see from Warners this Halloween!), most of Cushing's actions are limited to lurching and vaulting a couple of yards at a time. But with his wonderful, stage-honed sense of physical drama, Cushing's exertions are thrilling to watch. And his tense, precise delivery of great dialogue is terrific: suddenly spinning and stabbing an ancient dagger into a tabletop just an inch from Doctor Mortimer's hand, he shouts, "Perhaps THIS will refresh your memory!!"

André Morell's Watson is for once a serious foil instead of comedy relief. A bit stodgy and unimaginative, Watson is really the hero of the story - he soldiers through the incident-laden center section in good faith, trying his best to carry on in Holmes' absence.

Savant understands that this Peter Bryan script deviates widely from the original book, and can't help but wonder if Doyle gave the class-warfare angle the same emphasis seen here. A lot of Hammer films around this time had overt political themes. Colonial issues inform The Mummy, and The Stranglers of Bombay re-interprets a real historical murder-for-profit cult as anti-colonial terrorism. (spoiler, sort of) As it turns out, the 'Curse' is a myth; and the murders are committed as a way for one family to redress the past injustices of another. Sex is a key angle: As in Stranglers, a vengeful vixen is at the center of the terror. Cecile (Marla Landi) kisses a duped Sir Henry as deceptively as does the vampire maiden in Horror of Dracula, reveling in the way her attractiveness crosses a class barrier to bring down her victim. After a ferocious spate of premature gloating, her plan fails to level the Karma of the Baskervilles, but the curse is perpetuated anyway - poor, stiff Sir Henry may never sire an heir. Too bad - if she wanted to achieve her family's revenge, all Cecile had to do was marry Sir Henry and then give him grief. As it turns out, Terence Fisher's Sherlock Holmes movie ends in a properly Victorian manner: the uppity have-nots are soundly hammered back into their proper place.


MGM's DVD of Hound of the Baskervilles is a mixed bag. Despite the fact that all 1:66 movies after 1955 or so were shown in the US at wider aspect ratios, MGM's official simplification of film history is that everything before 1960 or so was 1:33 or 1:66. Hound looks rather loose at the full-frame 1:66. The proof that it would have been entirely appropriate to transfer it at the 1:78 16:9 standard can be seen in the opening titles, which are all composed for a much wider rectangular area. Blowing up the image on a widescreen television and cropping off the top and bottom results in a much more satisfying composition, but of course the resolution starts to fall apart when this is done.

The transfer is a good one, but somewhere in between the tape master and DVD encoding, a standard bit rate has resulted in the clarity jumping radically between scenes. A closeup of Cushing will bring out every detail in his checkered woolen coat - and then the next shot, a wide view of three people in a room, resolves faces as shapeless blobs. Overall, the colors are fine, especially the saturated greens in the alcove where Watson and Holmes await the demon-hound, but the overall visual impact is somewhat of a letdown. The sound is also a tad thin, which accentuates the high end in James Bernard's nervous, violent score (a few cues of which are lifted directly from Horror of Dracula).

For extras, there's an illustrated interview with Christopher Lee. Avoiding the sometimes awkward tangents that mar other less professional interviews, Lee treats the session seriously and gets quite affectionate in his discussion of his friend and frequent costar Cushing. He also gives a dramatic reading of two passages from the Doyle book, a coup for Carson which will make a lot of Chris Lee fans happy. Lee's at a twilight career apogee right now, with featured roles in two really big franchise moneymaking hit series, ah, um, can't think of the titles right now. Web weenies are grousing about his posturing and hauteur, now that he's big-time again ... and Savant says, "Aw, give him a break." Lee was always the kind of actor happily in love with himself. He worked hard, always gave good performances within his broad range, and has obviously lucked out to garner this kind of adulation at an age when most of his contemporaries are gone or long retired.

There's also an exciting trailer, which MGM only seems to have in B&W. I remember a theater-ful of kids cheering Cushing and Lee, and then boo-ing Marla Landi in the bog ... what fun.

MGM has recently abandoned branded-line categories for most of its library releases. Apparently 'World Films' and 'Midnite Movies' will be retained, but 'Vintage Classics' is going away. This makes for less-clunky graphics on the packaging, and Hound of the Baskervilles' cover art looks nicer for the lack of clutter. Don't look for too many more special editions until 2003, because this Fall the MGM marketers are going to be concentrating on a big repromote of their James Bond films to coincide with the release of Die Another Day.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hound of the Baskervilles rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Interview with Christopher Lee, Readings by Lee; trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 13, 2002


Footnote:

1. I believe that in the American version, the word 'bitch' is blooped by another noise, perhaps a dog's bark. It's pretty strong for 1959, England or America.
Return

Other DVD Savant Hammer Films Reviews:
Quatermass 2, X the Unknown, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Mummy, Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera, Night Creatures, Nightmare, Paranoiac, The Kiss of the Vampire, The Evil of Frankenstein, The Plague of the Zombies, Die! Die! My Darling!, Quatermass and the Pit, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Demons of the Mind, Straight on Till Morning




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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