Terence Fisher, 1959
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Andre Morell, Marla Landi, David Oxley
The cruel Sir Hugo Baskerville hosts an extravagant party at his family estate and sadistically kills a young girl when she rebuffs his advances. In return, he is killed by an enormous dog, allegedly a hound of Hell, and it becomes a local legend that this hound kills male members of the Baskerville line when they wander out on the moors alone. Hugo's distant descendant, the young Sir Henry, contacts Holmes after his father's sudden death, because he fears that he will be the next victim of the curse. Holmes entrusts Sir Henry to Watson's care for a few days, warning them to avoid the moors at all costs. One night Watson and Henry see a light shining on the moors and go to investigate, but they hear menacing howls. Will Holmes arrive in time to save Sir Henry from the spectral beast?
If memory serves me correctly, this is the first Sherlock Holmes film adaptation I had the fortune to see. As a young Sherlockian and rabid horror fan, it seemed perfectly natural that my beloved Hammer Horror would round up the usual suspects — director Terence Fisher and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee — to adapt one of Conan Doyle's more horror-influenced tales. And though it remains the most adapted Conan Doyle story, this version is of historical interest because it was the first of any Holmes adaptation to be shot in color. Hammer’s trademark sense of Gothic style goes a long way towards bringing Conan Doyle’s suspenseful, and often richly detailed, world to life.
Unsurprisingly, The Hound of the Baskervilles has the same flavor as most of the Hammer Dracula films and is more representative of traditional Gothic horror than contemporary genre films replete with gore and brutality. This will not appeal to everyone, as it’s definitely a period piece, and though there are many scenes of suspense, nothing actually frightening occurs. The film is rich with a wonderful sense of atmosphere and is worth watching just for the typically beautiful Hammer setting with foggy moors, ancestral mansions, and the lovely if melancholic English countryside.
Though the villain is clearly not a homicidal ghost dog, I'm going to avoid spoilers, because the film's ending deviates in an interesting way from the novel. Most of the plot changes occur to spice up action and pace, giving it a more typical Hammer feel. Sir Henry is attacked by a tarantula — though this is normally one of my biggest pet peeves, the script offers a somewhat plausible explanation, as tarantulas don’t possess enough venom to do any damage to humans — and Holmes is nearly trapped in a cave-in while investigating, plus the ending is more violent than Conan Doyle’s somewhat wistful romantic conclusion.
Cushing and Lee are two of my favorite actors to see together and they are absolutely delightful here. Despite Hammer’s reliance on creating film series — as exemplified by Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, the Karnstein trilogy, and so on — I’ve always been disappointed that there were no more followup films. I’m not quite sure what the explanation is, but it’s one of my biggest Hammer-related laments. Cushing's Holmes is similar to his Professor Van Helsing. He excels at playing asexual, aloof characters more interested in scientific procedure than human relationships. This was his first appearance as Holmes — he was apparently such a Holmes fanatic that his knowledge helped out on set — and he would later go on to star as the great detective in a long running TV series for the BBC.
André Morell's Watson is calm and unaffected, generally more likable and less comic than other portrayals of Watson from the period. Though he’s warm and likable, he’s not quite able to keep up with the energy Cushing. And you might be surprised to see a young, but no less serious Christopher Lee as Sir Henry, the proud but persecuted victim. Unlike Cushing, Lee had less of an involvement with Conan Doyle’s famous character, but his turn as Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s excellent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not to be missed.
There is a basic DVD available from MGM, which includes some nice, Lee-heavy special features. He gives a lengthy interview about his relationship with Peter Cushing and also reads excerpts from “The Hound of the Baskervilles" in his wonderful voice. Coming highly recommended, of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles is definitely an underrated effort, both as a Holmes adaptation and as a Hammer mystery/suspense/horror film.