The Hound of Baskervilles(1959)
Directed by:Terence Fisher
Written by:Arthur Conan Doyle,Peter Bryan
With:Andre Morell,Christoph Lee,Marla Landi,Peter Cushing
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 87 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr. Lenera, official HCF critic
The notorious and cruel aristocrat Sir Hugo Baskerville is killed by a giant dog after stabbing the daughter of a tortured servant. From then on, the creature is known as the "Hound of the Baskervilles" and any night a Baskerville is alone on the moor it will supposedly kill him. A few centuries later, Sir Charles Baskerville's death is witnessed by his best friend Dr. Richard Mortimer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who then meet the new owner of Baskerville Hall, Sir Henry. Having to be away on another case, Holmes puts Watson in charge of monitoring Sir Henry, as the appearance of a tarantula only reassures him that Sir Henry is in danger. On the way to Baskerville Hall, the bus driver warns that a serial killer named Selden, who was found insane, escaped from nearby Dartmoor Prison two days ago...
You can't beat the 1939 Basil Rathbone lead for atmosphere, while the 1988 TV adaptation starring Jeremy Brett is probably the closest to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book, but while I've certainly not seen anywhere near all 24 [yes, 24 ] Film and TV versions, Hammer's version is possibly the most entertaining, which makes it such a shame that this was the only Sherlock Holmes film they made. Quite a few of Doyle's stories could be classified as borderline horror and set in 1959The Hound of Baskervilles, the hammer horror style suits them really well, the flourishes, done so that the film fits in with director Terence Fisher's other horror films both stylistically and thematically, work really well in general. In fact, I personally find it a bit disappointing that Hammer decided to give this film an 'A' certificate, which even if it had gone more into the horror elements it would still have worked well as an adaptation of its source material, but never mind, it doesn't really weaken the film, which serves as a good introduction for newcomers to the more traditional Holmes, and for kids who aren't old enough to see itDraculabut who need to be prepared for Hammer [Hammer horror, although often viewed illegally, was, and still should be, a major source of my film education growing up]. The film is among the best looking of Hammer's films, set designer Bernard Robinson and cinematographer Jack Asher really go to town while also providing what is probably the most accurate and entertaining portrayal of everything from Holmes to Brett.
Kenneth Hyman, son of Columbia executive Eliot Hyman, secured the rights to a planned series of Holmes films. The screenplay was written by cinematographer Peter Bryant, although it feels like Jimmy Sangster's work as it shares many similarities with some of his work. Bryant kept the novel's plot but added details like a tarantula and Holmes trapped in a collapsed mine, and most importantly transformed the character of Stapleton's wife into his less-likeable daughter, reinforcing the class conflict aspect that Hammer liked to tinker with and to. Cushing, the first choice to play Holmes, insisted on accuracy, such as Holmes' mantel having his correspondence fastened to it with a jackknife. Filming took place at Chobham Common and Frensham Ponds in Surrey, with some shots of Dartmoor and of course Bray being included. Hammer never really solved the Hound's problem, even when they decided to limit his appearance to the climax. They shot part of the scene with a little boy in Christopher Lee's costume to enhance the dog's size, but it looked bad, so they settled on the largest dog available, a Great Dane named Colonel, who wore a mask. Unable to get him to jump onto Lee, they began pushing him, after which he lunged at Lee, biting right through one of his arms. The BBFC insisted on three short cuts [attendant held against the fire, Sir Hugo saying "impudent cow" while smelling girls' clothes, and the dog at Stapleton's throat], while in the US the MPAA arranged for the word "slut" to be dubbed . Despite what some say, the film was popular at the box office, but obviously not enough for Hammer to make another Holmes. Cushing later played Holmes in a late '60s TV series that featured a different version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles!
The lengthy opening flashback really sets the story in Hammer's gothic world with the off-screen torture of a servant and the pursuit of a girl across the moor until she is stabbed with some sort of ceremonial dagger. While a keen eye can tell when location shots switch to a set, for me the sheer panache and excitement of the sequence is only undermined by much of it being accompanied by James Bernard's climactic musical cueDracula, which is noticeable as a sore thumb if you are familiar with the music, although I think many would not notice, as the orchestration is practically the same as the rest of the score. Bernard only learned at the film's premiere that part of his score had been replaced for some reason. After that we meet Holmes and what a great introduction he has to this particular film, looking half asleep at first but probably deeply focused while listening to the story being told before jumping up and screaming 'ah'. , not because the story is over, but because he has decided what his next move in his chess game will be. We get a little thrill with a tarantula [obviously on someone's arm, rather than crawling up like in a piece of glassDr. No] before Watson, Holmes escorts Henry Baskerville back to Baskerville Hall, and we enter the world of spooky bogs and sinister houses, both with secrets, and the eerie details begin to pile up.
The strange light on the heath. The lighted room in the house. The occasional howl of a dog. The escaped killer who may be in the house. The slightly sinister Stapleton and his daughter Cecille, who live in a cabin nearby, Cecille, who keeps Watson from sinking in the quicksand but is acting rather odd. All of this hardly needs improvement, although Hammer, probably thinking again of the 'A' certificate, doesn't do it all as scary as they might have, with a slight sense of reluctance [though in fairness many disagree and considering this of their best films]. The nighttime scenes in the house in particular [largely a recreation of Dracula's castle] are a little edgy, but not as much as they could have been. Because Holmes is absent from the story for so long, most versions of Hound drag on for a while, but Hammer's version doesn't because the middle section of the book has been severely abridged and so things still progress at a steady pace. We even get a weird relief fromDracula's Miles Matheson again, here playing a sherry-loving, bumbling bishop, while the addition of a collapsing mine gives Cushings Holmes a great moment as he emerges seemingly unscathed after a shot of the mine collapses on him and another of his companions, leaving him wondering , where he is. The climax doesn't quite work, despite some frantic cuts, although the dog's mask is really scary and most versions find this scene difficult to portray convincingly anyway.
The additions to Doyle's story, which include a missing painting, are logically integrated into the story, although, as usual, some details remain a little vague. That's never really a problem - it's easy to figure things out for yourself, while this version, in keeping with the intent of many of the original stories that attacked the rigid, suffocating Victorian social system, really emphasizes the class aspects, especially when Holmes shows he's not above using fake but very callous snobbery to further his investigation. Cushing's Holmes in this film is very manic, impulsive, arrogant and even slightly grumpy, probably because he is intellectually superior to everyone around him. He finds it frustrating having to laboriously explain everything in detail because they are so dull and slow compared to him! He really seems to me to be exactly the character from the Holmes books. Funny that he's twice mistaken for others, the second time as a man supposedly repairing a telescope. The only off-note for me is that he seems to have a slight belief in the supernatural, which really isn't Holmes at all, but Robinson's main moor set makes no attempt to be realistic with its roving mist and impressionistic color schemes - a dash of red in the distance to the right and lots of greenery behind some railings to the left - and looking almost as distinctive and resplendent as in an early Mario Bava film and certainly comparable to Roger Corman's Gothic endeavors. Robinson, Asher and Fisher were really experimenting with looks and style here and would go further in their next two endeavors.
Andre Morell's Watson must have come as a shock to those used to an older, clumsier Watson, but what really gets the impression here is that he's the only confidant that Holmes trusts "gets it" or at least endures and endures him. Indeed, you can understand why Holmes developed such an enduring friendship and partnership with Watson, and even draw inspiration from him on occasion. Lee has a smaller role than usual in it, but his Henry Baskerville shows him to be a fairly adept romantic lead. His character attempts to bridge the class divide to pursue Maria, but in the end the division between aristocrat and peasant is too great. Marla Landi, the obligatory banging glamor supplement, does a surprisingly good job as the duplicitous but clearly a bit wacky [in this version] Cecille. Bernard's simple score is typically moody, with a few pulsing thrill cues here and there, although it's not among his finest. Hammer's version ofThe Hound of Baskervillescould have been a bit better in some places, and I personally would have preferred it if it had gone a little more into the horror, but overall it's very classy, made with great attention to detail and very entertaining.
Read Bat's review ofThe Hound of Baskervilles, recently released on a great Blu-ray by Arrow Films, here:
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