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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 The Hound of the Baskervilles on film. The fastidious Peter Cushing makes a dashing, keen-witted Sherlock Holmes, and Christopher Lee makes one of his few appearances as a leading man. Just as Lord of the Rings will entice young people to check out Ian McKellen's upcoming Sherlock Holmes movie, I've found that the same young folk are willing to try out Cushing's consulting detective because of Star Wars. They like him just much as they do the current TV fellow Cumberbatch.
This version of Doyle's most famous Holmes thriller puts our hero on the trail of a diabolical curse. Doctor Richard Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) responds to threats on the life of Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) by hiring consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) to find out the secret behind several unlucky Baskervilles that have died mysteriously on the moors. Holmes' associate and best friend Doctor Watson (André Morell) alone journeys to the Dartmoor Baskerville estate 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 is compelled 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. Not even Gainsborough's pulpy costume pictures were this gruesome. 1
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. As a character, Holmes is a man with a complete understanding of how Victorian England operates, and some 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, Sherlock is forever rushing across some lonely ruin. Since the locations are the same cramped sets used in Horror of Dracula, most of Cushing's actions are limited to lurching and vaulting a couple of yards at a time. But with his stage-honed sense of physical drama, these 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 Baskerville Curse is a myth exploited 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. Like other Hammer films, the class injustice is noted but little sympathy is offered. Terence Fisher's Sherlock Holmes movie ends in a properly Victorian manner: the uppity have-nots are soundly hammered back into their proper place.
Arrow Video's Region B Blu-ray of The Hound of the Baskervilles finally gives us a good version of this great show. Hound was filmed by Jack Asher, a painstaking lighting director who believed in taking the time necessary to do things right; one of the reasons the first three years of Hammer stand out were the rich saturated colors in original Technicolor prints. A close-up of Cushing will bring out every detail in his checkered woolen coat, while wide shots of rooms practically bathe us in lush décor. The only radical color effect are the saturated greens in the alcove where Watson and Holmes await the arrival of the demon hound. Chris Lee's confrontation with a tarantula (so carefully copied for Dr. No) even gives the spider a handsome, multi-colored close-up. Nobody is going to forget the legacy of Christopher Lee -- fans of the two biggest franchises of the last twenty years need to see more of his earlier career. 2
Arrow has gathered its experts for the expected wealth of extras. A new making of docu features insights from folk like Kim Newman, who says that this is one of the few Sherlock Holmes movies to be placed in a period setting. Margaret Robinson talks about how the mask for the Hound was made as well. A pleasing bio piece on André Morell has the kind of detail fans want. An older, very long TV docu on Sherlock Holmes is present, along with MGM Home Video's old (2002) interview piece with Christopher Lee, and his recitation of passages from the orginal Conan Doyle book. A very thorough image gallery seems to have every still image shot for the picture, including a lot of rare ones I've never seen before. The original trailer is here.
The commentary with Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby is packed with information, comparing the script to the story and compiling the little changes in dialogue and props made by the meticulous Peter Cushing. The commentators confirm that music cues for Horror of Dracula were re-used; when I hear all those high strings I think of the Quatermass films as well. They're both impressed that the film didn't receive an "X" rating for its opening sequence, where David Oxley (of the Powell-Pressburger Ill Met by Moonlight) proposes that his jolly friend rape the girl he's imprisoned upstairs. The adaptation successfully steers the story into a more gothic horror vein, emphasizing the 'curse' for all it's worth. It does sound as if the film wasn't considered a success, which is a shame because we loved it as kids. As the commentators say, it would have been great if Hammer put out more Holmes adventures with this cast -- a few other Holmes stories are appropriate for the 'horror' treatment, too.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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.
2. I had originally written here, "We hope Christopher Lee will be with us for many seasons yet," but two days ago we learned of the beloved actor's passing. What a great life for an actor -- instead of fading in the slightest, in his old age he was more popular than ever.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.