Recently, the old Hammer Horror film studio brand has been resurrected for a new generation, and their extensive catalogue of medium-to-high quality horror and thriller films has begun making its way onto DVD and BluRay for very reasonable prices. A while ago, I chanced to find a copy at JB Hifi of their 1959 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes stories. Being a fan of Holmes and of B-grade British film, I couldn’t walk past this, so I purchased it and then finally watched it over the past weekend.
Starring legendary character actor Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, and André Morell as his offsider Dr Watson, Hound tells the story of an ancient British family cursed by the presence of a hellish hound (one might almost say, a hellhound) ever since the violent improprieties of the “wild, profane, and Godless” Sir Hugo Baskerville. After a prologue explaining this story, we find our heroes in the company of Dr Richard Mortimer (Francis de Wolff), who is relating to them the story of the violent and seemingly supernatural death of Sir Hugo’s descendant, Sir Charles Baskerville. Inheriting the title after the death of Sir Charles is Henry Baskerville (everyone’s favourite dark and mysterious tall baritone actor, Christopher Lee), who is aware of the curse but sceptical of its reality. Holmes, usually rational about even the seemingly supernatural, keeps his guard up about the situation. And, as mysterious happenings begin to unfold at Baskerville Hall after the new Sir Henry’s return, Holmes and Watson have to work quickly to break the curse of the Hound of the Baskervilles!
I was pleasantly surprised to find this was actually a very competently produced Gothic Horror film, with a cast that very effectively conveyed the fear, menace and unease that is ubiquitous in the genre. In terms of standard tropes, massive props have to go to Doyle for himself writing an excellent Gothic horror story. Gothic horror films stem from the traditions of Gothic horror novels, and so tropes found in The Hound of the Baskervilles such as an ancient and poorly-lit manor house, a lonely and misty moor, and an abandoned abbey are all well established staples. Hell, this particular film adaptation of Doyle’s story even has a stone tablet on which murders take place. The atmospheric lighting and the fact that the characters seldom venture out onto the moor except in the middle of the night aid to the air of unease so effectively conveyed by this film.
Often, films from the earlyish days of colour in British cinema still tended not to bother with establishing shots of filming locations, wasting the visual advantage of these expensive location shoots. Not so this time, where sweeping shots of Dartmoor (actually Chobham Common in Surrey, but who’s counting?) and wide shots during foot chases give a sense of the scale and really make this rather more than just a standard B-grade Britflick. Any film with extensive views of rolling British countryside is going to look good, and this one is no exception.
Every actor here puts in a solid performance. Peter Cushing is most enjoyable as Holmes, playing up his imperiousness and his odd little quirks. André Morell is a much more competent Watson than the stereotype of the character leads us to expect. Christopher Lee stalks about on the edges of the piece, with his scepticism of the danger he could be in helping us know that he actually is in danger (because sceptics seldom come off well in a horror film). Everyone else plays up the slightly dodgy aspects of their characters. For example, Francis de Wolff constantly has Dr Mortimer playing his cards very close to his chest, and Miles Malleson as Bishop Frankland (a very whisky priest indeed) could just be a little too incompetent, as though he is hiding something. The Stapleton family, freaky managers of the home farm of the Baskerville estate, are way weird. The plot, naturally, contains red herring after red herring, but in many cases you only become conscious of the clues because the actors behind them are so good.
Apparently, there are a number of changes from the novel, though having read a list of them (I haven’t read the novel), I don’t see that they would detract from the story at all. The Hound only appears on screen once, preceded by a shot in the prologue when the camera becomes the Hound in a surprisingly post-modern use of the camera for a film of this era, and later only through howls until it finally physically appears in the last scene. It was not an offensive special effect at all – indeed, it was very effective, thanks to it not being on the screen for too long.
By and large, The Hound of the Baskervilles was a thoroughly enjoyable romp, and certainly worthy of the acclamation it receives. It’s easily one of the great Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and possibly the best film produced by Hammer during their original incarnation. I can’t recommend it enough.