The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1959.
Directed by Terence Fisher.
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, André Morell, John Le Mesurier, Helen Goss, David Oxley, Marla Landi, Francis de Wolff and Miles Malleson.
Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson are called upon to investigate the Baskerville family curse as the aire to the estate moves into the family home.
A quick glance at the cast and crew credits for Hammer’s 1959 version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles shows that all the right people are present and correct; there’s the now-established double act of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee heading up a cast that features a few faces that would be familiar to UK audiences, director Terence Fisher – who had helmed Hammer’s previous horror successes The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein and also their version of The Mummy that would appear later that year – and producers Anthony Hinds and Anthony Nelson Keys, who were behind the majority of Hammer’s output during their classic period. So far, so good but in Hammer’s formative years as producers of (at the time) graphic monster movies, The Hound of the Baskervilles is quite notable for being a little bit different from the studio’s other projects, mainly because it’s not a remake of a Universal creature feature and also because it’s not actually very gruesome and rather tame in comparison. However, on nearly every other level it is classic Hammer at their best.
After a prologue that sets up the legend of the Baskerville family and how they are cursed by a wolf-like beast that roams the moors around their ancestral home, we are introduced to detective Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and his assistant Dr. Watson (André Morell), who have been listening to the tale of the Baskervilles from Dr. Mortimer (Francis de Wolff) in an attempt to persuade Holmes to investigate the curse after Sir Charles Baskerville (David Oxley) was murdered on the moor. Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) is the next in line to inherit the family fortune and Dr. Mortimer wants Holmes and Watson to look into the legend of the hound and to keep Sir Henry safe as he is the last of the Baskerville family line.
As with most of Hammer’s literary adaptations, The Hound of the Baskervilles deviates quite a bit from Conan Doyle’s original novel but it had to really as in most of the Sherlock Holmes stories the detective doesn’t really feature all that much. By 1959 Peter Cushing had become a big international name thanks to Hammer’s success so when they cast him as the lead here they would have wanted to get their money’s worth and have him on-screen more than he would be if it were a faithful adaptation, which is what happens although he does disappear for most of the first act. However, when he is on the screen Cushing delivers the sort of commanding performance that his reputation was built on, his ever-so-English demeanour providing a brilliant foundation on which to base his take on the character and his relationship with André Morell as Watson is very believable, especially as Morell’s take on Watson is a lot more intelligent and credible than what the character is usually given. Christopher Lee is also on fine form as Sir Henry Baskerville, the actor no doubt happy not to be playing a villain but also proving he can do warmth and vulnerability despite his intimidating size and booming, upper class delivery.
But despite having a cast firing on all cylinders, a snappy, energetic script and an effective, gloomy atmosphere (probably thanks to the sets that Hammer had recycled from Dracula) there is a problem with The Hound of the Baskervilles and that is the hound itself, which turns out to be very anti-climactic once it appears at the very end of the film. Terence Fisher’s use of camera angles and some quick editing help what could have been a total disaster after such a strong build up but ultimately it is very unsatisfactory, although it is the only real low point of the film.
It’s a shame that the distribution rights to a lot of Hammer’s back catalogue are all over the place as Arrow Films have given this release a great deal of care and attention when it comes to the special features, packing the disc with a whole host of goodies for Hammer and Holmes fans to delve into. As well as some excellent archive footage – including a 1986 documentary presented by Christopher Lee that examines the different incarnations of Sherlock Holmes and an interview with Lee about the making of the film and his relationship with Peter Cushing – there is also an audio commentary by Hammer experts Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby and Release the Hound!, a featurette containing interviews with hound mask creator Margaret Robinson and assistant director Hugh Harlow, plus contributions from Mark Gatiss and Kim Newman. As is usual with Arrow’s releases there is also a reversible sleeve and a collector’s booklet that features new writings on the film by Hammer authority Robert J.E. Simpson, so with such quality and attention to detail just imagine a whole series of Hammer releases given the Arrow treatment (Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula if you’re asking). Overall, this is an excellent package featuring some delicious extras and a film that often gets overlooked in favour of the Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy movies that surrounded it – a feeling that audiences at the time reflected by not going to see it because it wasn’t a traditional monster movie in the same vein as the Universal remakes – but except for the lack of gore and busty wenches there really isn’t a lot to separate it from its Hammer stablemates, even down to the swirling gothic mists that sweep across the moors (or Frensham Ponds in Farnham, doubling as the moors). Hopefully it will be the start of another collection of similarly themed titles from Arrow but if not it is worth getting anyway as it is the definitive edition of what is probably the definitive version of this classic story.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★