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Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1988)
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by Jay Seaver

"The pick of the litter."
5 stars

When I first proposed this "100 Years of Sherlock Holmes On Screen" project, one of the components I figured on including was a feature titled "A Pack of Hounds", where we would directly compare as many of the various iterations of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and see which stood out (indeed, the idea of multiple versions of the same story was the original inspiration). This wound up falling by the wayside - watching three versions of "Hound" in relatively short order is quite enough; no need to add at least two more and also write about them! Besides, given how well-regarded the Granada series of the late 1980s/early 1990s is, was there really any doubt that their version of the story would be the top dog?

Sir Charles Baskerville recently died of a heart attack brought on by sheer terror; his friend and physician Dr. Mortimer (Alastair Duncan), aware of the legend of a giant hound that has haunted the Baskervilles for over a century, worries that there is something more sinister afoot, and consults Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett). It turns out that there is cause for concern; heir Sir Henry Baskerville (Kristoffer Tabori), newly arrived from America, has received a cryptic letter and had items stolen. Occupied in town, Holmes sends Watson (Edward Hardwicke) to guard the young Baskerville as he takes up residence in the family manor, and send daily reports. Henry soon takes a shine to Beryl Stapleton (Fiona Gillies), the sister of a local entomologist (James Faulkner). Not all is so benign, though - the Barrymores (Ronald Pickup and Rosemary McHale) seem terribly anxious to leave the family's employ, despite generations of service; an escaped murderer prowls the moor; and someone is intercepting Watson's letters to Baker Street.

Adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles means striking the right balance between horror and mystery, as well as working around the fact that Holmes is absent for a fair amount of time in the middle of the story. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen and director Brian Mills handle that adroitly, finding ways to cut away to Holmes during Watson's time at Baskerville Hall without undercutting the pleasure of his reappearance or giving away all of what he's been up to. And while it may initially seem that the filmmakers' hearts are not really into the horror elements of the story - there is no flashback to the origins of the myth, Watson's admonishment when a supernatural explanation is suggested ("We are men of science, Holmes") - they have some great scares up their sleeves, both with the Hound and escaped convict Selden (William Ilkley).

The grotesque reminders of Selden's time in a 19th-century asylum are shocking, but most of the creepiness comes from carefully constructed atmosphere. Music can be a potent tool for heightening tension, but silence is often even more powerful, and we spend long stretches of time in relative quiet, straining to hear something approaching and waiting for the danger that the characters know is out there to manifest itself. Slow pans across the landscape increase our sense of wariness. That landscape also seems to transform; I suspect Mills and cinematographer Michael B. Popley switched lenses and film stocks between day and night scenes, as the sharp pastoral images we see during the day become dark and grainy when the thick fog rolls in at night. It's a visual reflection of how Hound combines genres - a Victorian story of manners and romance by day becomes a Hammer film by night.

There's no stodginess to it, either. Kristoffer Tabori and Alastair Duncan infuse Baskerville and Mortimer with youthful energy and charm. There is an instant and believable attraction between Henry and Fiona Gillies's Beryl; impressive in most cases, but doubly so in the mystery/thriller genre, where we are naturally on guard for such things to be a precursor to seduction and betrayal. Faulkner, Pickup, McHale and others all give fine performances; any could be ally or enemy until Holmes untangles the puzzle.

Brett and Hardwicke are their usual fine selves here. As in The Sign of Four, the opening interview at Baker Street gives a hint at how their characters will be explored here: Holmes comments that Watson has a talent for bringing forth genius in others, and this is a story that focuses on them as partners. Most obviously, there's Watson remaining on the lookout while Holmes chases his theories down, but it's also clear that Holmes would have trouble functioning without Watson. Hardwicke does a fine job of making Watson a character where most of us feel we could step into his place, but also being unusually kind and firm. Brett captures how Holmes often wields great genius with the tact and care of a precocious child; together, the pair banter like the original buddy picture characters while Watson holds back Holmes's worst.

(Anyone who wants to make jokes about the nature of their partnership... Well, go ahead. There's definitely a lot of scenes that you could read something into, although "Holmes is eccentric and Watson is patient" is the easier explanation.)

Bowen's teleplay, in addition to giving Mills the material he needs to make a fine horror mystery, is packed tight, sometimes a little too much so - it retains subplots and details that many other adaptations jettison for time and flow, and sometimes skims past elements that may seem important. Still, it does the job well - Brett and Hardwicke never say anything that doesn't sound like it might come out of their characters' moths, and even if we're not given enough information to solve the mystery independently, we see enough of the process that we don't feel cheated.

There may someday be a better version of "Hound of the Baskervilles" made - or there may be one already in existence. After all, scant few have likely seen all of the over a dozen times it has been filmed. So I can't be quite sure that this is the best version of the most famous Sherlock story of all - but I bet it will at least be near the top for a long time to come.

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originally posted: 12/17/09 10:49:03
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User Comments

9/20/15 Danielsan Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books will love this adaption.Jeremy Brett is fantastic. 5 stars
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