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The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959)

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Andre Morell, Marla Landy, David Oxley, Francis de Wolff

Written By: Peter Bryan, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (novel) Directed By: Terence Fisher

The Short Version

Hammer does for Sherlock Holmes what it did for Gothic horror.

Not only is Christopher Lee not a villain, but technically, he’s the romantic lead.

Is Peter Cushing good as Sherlock Holmes?  Elementary.

Get it on disc and check the extras; they’re worth your time.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the better Sherlock Holmes movies you’ll find out there.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

RED LEICESTER.

Yummy English cheese.  Elementary.


Pairs Well With...

SHERRY.

The Bishop local to Baskerville Hall will be happy to share it with you.

“This, I think, is a two pipe problem.”


In 1957, Hammer studios brought color to Gothic horror.  Two years later, the production company would do the same thing for Sherlock Holmes, and it would bring its two greatest stars and its best director along for the ride.  Surprisingly, despite the fact that Peter Cushing is the best Holmes you’re ever likely to see, The Hound of the Baskervilles wasn’t received all that well at the time. 

I would like to conclude a case of collective temporary insanity, but no; it was simpler than that.  After just two years, Hammer and its stars had become so firmly entrenched in the collective minds of the movie going public as a horror studio that audiences already weren’t willing to either accept or believe anything else from them.  For horror fans, The Hound of the Baskervilles was too much mystery and not enough horror.  Meanwhile, for Holmes fans, The Hound of the Baskervilles overplayed the horror to the detriment of the mystery.

To be fair, one of these camps has a valid point; however, the validity of that point does nothing to harm the overall enjoyability of the film.  If either group had set aside their preconceptions, grabbed the popcorn, and relaxed, perhaps they might have noticed that The Hound of the Baskervilles is actually one of the better Holmes treatments ever to hit the screen, as it still is more than fifty years later.

As our story begins, we learn the centuries-old story of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley, Curse of the Dead), a perfect scoundrel of a nobleman who thinks nothing of taking a poor girl from the village for his own lascivious amusement and burning her father to death in his fireplace for daring to protest.  When the girl escapes into the adjoining moor, Sir Hugo sets after her with a pack of hunting dogs, daring the hounds of Hell to take him if he cannot hunt the girl down.  Though he does indeed find the girl and kill her, he himself is also found dead the next morning, mauled as though by a hound of Hell.

And ever after, this legend’s narrator, Dr. Mortimer (Francis de Wolff, Corridors of Blood), informs his audience, the Baskerville family has been cursed, and the hound of Hell awaits any of its heirs who dare to roam the moors at night.  This, he further relates, appears to have been the fate of Sir Charles Baskerville, recently found dead on the moor.  Mortimer’s audience, Mr. Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing, The Uncanny), scoffs at the idea of such a curse, but wonders at why Mortimer should like to retain his services if he’s already so sure that this “hound” is the killer.  Mortimer says that rather than solve the death of Sir Charles, he wants Holmes to prevent the death of the Baskerville family’s sole heir, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee, Dracula: Prince of Darkness), who is coming through London on his way North to claim his family’s lands.  Holmes agrees, but not to discourage Sir Henry, as Mortimer had hoped, but rather to set watch on him through his trusted ally Dr. Watson (Andre Morell, The Mummy’s Shroud) while he discovers the truth behind the curse of the Baskervilles…

All right, folks, first things first: if Peter Cushing wasn’t born to play Sherlock Holmes, I don’t know who was.

Physically, I’d challenge anybody to find someone better suited to the character than the wiry Cushing.  I will submit to you that it simply cannot be done.  However, even more importantly, Peter Cushing nails the incessantly churning intellect of Holmes precisely.  Always in motion, never content to be still even when he is, the turning of the gears in his mind visible through the expressions of his face and the quick clip of his voice; that is the Sherlock Holmes of Peter Cushing… and of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  There are simply not enough superlatives available to capture how utterly perfect Cushing is for this role.  It is a true pity that sufficient numbers didn’t turn up to see The Hound of the Baskervilles first time ‘round; had they done so, this would have been this first in a series, and the more times we could have seen Cushing play Holmes before a backdrop of Hammer style, the better it would have been.

Not to be forgotten, of course, is Christopher Lee in the role of Sir Henry Baskerville, providing yet another confoundment to Hammer audiences by the simple fact that he’s not playing the villain.  Indeed, he could very well be called the romantic lead, and even if there had been nothing else going for this movie, that alone should be enough to make The Hound of the Baskervilles required viewing for any Christopher Lee fan.  After all, such an occurrence is almost the definition of novelty.  It should go without saying that he does an outstanding job in his white hat role.

Also doing quite well is Andre Morell in the part of Dr. Watson, here given more of a partner’s standing with Holmes than is normally assigned to the character on film.  His affable performance provides an excellent counterbalance to the intensity of Cushing’s Holmes, while still giving Watson enough “oomph” so that he doesn’t feel like a lead weight or a fifth wheel, as so commonly happens in so many other Holmes adaptations.

And indeed, there have been many.  Even prior to 1959, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories had been brought to the screen over a hundred times, and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was a particular favorite selection.  Hammer, though, was the first studio to do so in color, and while the colors are nowhere near as vivid here as they are in the studio’s horror pieces, it is nevertheless a welcome transition, and the comparatively muted palette serves the setting very well.  Indeed, the look and feel of The Hound of the Baskervilles is first rate, featuring wonderful cinematography even in close quarters under the watchful eye of Hammer’s most accomplished director, Terence Fisher.  Fisher does his usual bang-up job here, particularly with maintaining a wonderful pace.  However, somewhere between himself and the screenplay and a limited cast of characters, there is one detail which he never had to account for in his horror films that does slip under the radar.

This detail is the simple fact that in a mystery, some details are best left covered up and untelegraphed.

Unlike most Hammer adaptations, The Hound of the Baskervilles keep pretty decent faith with its source material, making only a few small embellishments along the way.  That source material also happens to be one of the most popular stories ever written in the English language, so perhaps Fisher and company reasoned that the audience already knew what would happen, just as the audience was expected to know ahead of time that Count Dracula was a vampire in those films.  Whatever the reason, if you can’t name one of the bad guys within five minutes of his first appearance, you’re just not paying attention.  The secondary reveal also occurs too soon, and could easily have been avoided by one minor camera adjustment and two slight tweaks of dialogue.  However, even with this in mind, given the limited cast of characters, keeping the identities of the nefarious parties secret until the very end was going to be all but impossible anyway, and the motive does remain tucked away until the climax, which is frankly more than can be said for most whodunits out there.  So, in terms of keeping a lid on everything, is this a perfect mystery?  No, it is not.  However, that doesn’t make it a bad one, either.  As noted, some secrets are maintained even while others are telegraphed, and the atmosphere never falters.  Regardless of what you know or when you know at, as an adventure – which any good mystery should also be – The Hound of the Baskervilles takes off running and never stops.

Indeed, when all is said and done, this really turns out to be the best treatment of The Hound of the Baskervilles that’s been made, and perhaps even the best treatment of any classic Holmes story, period.  It certainly features the best man to play the role of Sherlock Holmes (with kind regards to Mr. Rathbone, who must play second fiddle).

Bottom line, if you have any interest in the character of Sherlock Holmes at all, you owe it to yourself to pick up Hammer’s take on The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Peter Cushing alone would be worth the price and then some, but the added treat of Christopher Lee outside of a villain’s role puts an extra bow on the present, and that’s even before considering how much more there is to cheer about.  No, it’s not flawless, but at the end of the day, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better take on Doyle’s classic than this The Hound of the Baskervilles.

One more thing before I go: if you’re lucky, you’ll find The Hound of the Baskervilles on a disc with extras.  They won’t look like much – I was ready to dismiss them out of hand – but if you see any, check them out, because they’ll be worth your time.  One is an interview with Christopher Lee discussing the making of the movie, along with a reminisce about his great friend, the late Peter Cushing.  The other features Christopher Lee reading two lengthy excerpts from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s text of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”  Even if you’re not normally into audio books, trust me: his reading is spellbinding.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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