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Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The
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by Jay Seaver

"Holmes gets Hammered."
4 stars

It is, in retrospect, a little bit surprising that Sherlock Holmes was one and done with Hammer Films; though Holmes's foes were never supernatural (at least, in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories), he was no stranger to the macabre, and on a practical level, they could reuse many of the period costumes and sets constructed for their popular Dracula series. Audiences didn't go for this first Hammer Holmes, though, so no more were made. That's a shame, for although this was neither the greatest Sherlock Holmes adaptation or the best Hammer Horror movie, it was a fine combination of the two.

Legend has it that there is a curse on Baskerville Hall, stemming from 1740, when Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) ran down a woman who would not give herself to him with his hunting hounds, only to fall down dead himself. A hundred fifty years later, his descendant Sir Charles Baskerville has died on the very same moors, and family friend Dr. Richard Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) has asked Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) to prevail up on young heir Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) not to return to Baskerville Hall or step out onto the moors at night. There seem to be more concrete concerns, though - one of Henry's boots has been stolen, and a tarantula found in the other. Holmes prevails upon his friend Watson (Andre Morell) to accompany Sir Henry back to his ancestral home while he sees to some obligations in London, and upon arriving, Watson finds that not only is nearly everyone in the area a bit odd - there's the tippling bishop (Miles Malleson), the family's butler (John Le Mesurier), the local farmer with a deformed hand (Ewen Solon), and his beautiful Spanish daughter Cecile (Marla Landi). On top of that, an escaped prisoner is said to be hiding in the moor.

Hound of the Baskervilles is the most frequently adapted Sherlock Holmes story, and it's not hard to see why. Though its initial popularity was due in large part to the time when it was published (after "The Final Problem" but before "The Empty House", when it was no certain thing that Doyle would ever write another story featuring the great detective), Hound is one of the few that works equally well as a mystery and as a horror story. It's got subplots and red herrings enough to fill out a feature-length movie, but does not leave any loose ends or stray too far from the main story. And even though Sherlock Holmes is absent for a notable period in the middle of the story, it gives us both a chance to appreciate him all the more upon his return and to gain some respect for Dr. Watson, who all too often can be taken for granted.

It's a great story for a Hammer film, and director Terence Fisher does a fine job of adapting the story while staying within the house style. This is the first Sherlock Holmes film shot in color, and it's a warm palette - rooms are often filled with velvety reds, going from day to night transforms the moors from inviting greens to sinister darkness, and the costumes are solid and striking. There's a pleasant theatricality to the performances, with sets that are expansive and filled with enjoyable detail (fans will enjoy the "V"-shaped set of bullet holes in the wall of 221B Baker Street, for instance). Fisher and screenwriter Peter Bryan keep things moving along, filling the film with action and clues to the mystery without much in the way of dead spots, with splashes of blood and banter to make sure that the film doesn't get dour without making it silly.

The cast is regulars from Hammer and other Brit B-films, and even if they're not the definitive versions of the characters, they work very well as a unit. Peter Cushing would be cast as Holmes again later (a 1968 television series), but for this film, it's surprising that Christopher Lee did not get the part in this version (as he did in a 1962 Italian production and some early 1990 TV-movies), as he seems more the physical type and towers over the fair-haired Cushing. Cushing does a nice job of giving Holmes both nervous energy and cool, big-picture intellect; he's clearly both a thinker and a man of action. Lee gets a rare opportunity to be a romantic lead; he makes Sir Henry charmingly aristocratic but not overly snobbish (although there is apparently there is no acting involved when Sir Henry panics at a spider crawling on his arm!). Andre Morrell actually proves one of the actors with the best handle on Watson as a character; he's aided by Bryan and Fisher opting to excise moments that make Watson look foolish, but capturing Watson as a man of intelligence and action is his achievement, as is a good chemistry with Cushing. Marla Landi makes a nice wild child; there is at times something almost feral about Cecile.

This version of "Hound of the Baskervilles" sometimes feels a little rough around the edges. Folks who have seen and enjoyed other Hammer films will find themselves in familiar territory, though. It manages to find a sweet spot where it's both a good Sherlock Holmes film and a good Hammer horror film, rather than being neither one.

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originally posted: 12/10/09 16:00:00
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User Comments

3/06/10 Ron Newbold Cushing and Lee - A great adaptation and a must see 5 stars
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  04-May-1959 (PG)

  N/A (PG)

Directed by
  Terence Fisher

Written by
  Peter Bryan

  Peter Cushing
  André Morel
  Christopher Lee
  Marla Landi
  David Oxley

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