Continuing our Halloween-month exploration of Hammer Horror with the company’s sole Sherlock Holmes adaptation.
Hammer Films and Sherlock Holmes seem such a perfect match that it’s both a surprise and a pity that they didn’t make an ongoing series of films about the master detective. Holmes is, by default, a part of the Universal gothic series that Hammer would plunder in the 1950s, and the stories seem like an integral part of that whole vintage horror world – even if they were not actually horror stories. The whole idea seems perfect for Hammer as they started their gothic horror series, and Peter Cushing was an ideal Holmes – a fact confirmed by his subsequent appearances in the role for the BBC and, in later life, Hammer copycats Tyburn Films) – and so it is no surprise that they would choose to film a Holmes story at the very start of their foray into the horror film world – this movie was shot in 1958, the same year that the company’s first Dracula film was shot. but as a company with a ruthless eye on profits, Hammer was unwilling to run with unsuccessful ideas – and the Holmes movie did not do the box office of the Dracula and Frankenstein films.
Of course, if Hammer was only going to film one of the novels, then The Hound of the Baskervilles is the obvious one to choose – not only is it the best known Holmes story, but it’s also the one that comes closest to the gothic horrors that Hammer was grinding out at the time. It might not actually be a supernatural tale, but it’s certainly full-blooded horror, and director Terence Fisher – the man behind the first wave of `hammer Horror and their go-to director of the time – sets out his stall from the opening scene, a flashback featuring arrogant, morally bankrupt nobleman Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley on fine scenery-chewing form), who is thwarted in his efforts to rape a serving girl, and so pursues her across the moors and stabs her to death before falling prey to a giant, unseen hound of Hell.
This story is relayed by the pompous Doctor Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) to a seemingly disinterested Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and more patient Doctor Watson (Andre Morrell), and he goes on to explain that Sir Charles Baskerville has recently died in similar, unexplained circumstances and that the Baskerville heir, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) is due to arrive in London to claim the estate. Believing Sir Henry’s life to be in danger, Mortimer convinces Holmes to take on the case, leading the detective to travel to Dartmoor and Baskerville Hall, where assorted red herrings are thrown up as the detective unravels the mystery and uncovers the truth behind the Hell Hound.
I’m going to assume that anyone reading this will be fairly familiar with the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles – even if you haven’t read Conan Doyle’s novel, you must have seen at least one film adaptation. Hammer’s film is interesting in that although it initially follows the novel’s plot quite closely – in many ways, it is a much more faithful literary adaptation than other Hammer films of the era – it also makes several significant changes to the plot. These are often included in order to ‘horror’ up the story and add more incident – Sir Henry has a close encounter with a tarantula, for instance, and the escaped convict Seldon, who falls victim to the hound in the original story, is here found mutilated in a ritualistic way. But the film also rather audaciously tweaks the identity of the main villain of the piece, ensuring that even those viewers intimately familiar with the story would be kept on their toes. This is, by any standards, rather cheeky – the identity of the antagonist in any story is surely a sacred part of the story, but it does at least throw us off the scent somewhat. In any case, it’s hard to complain about Hammer’s liberties with the story in a world where people fawn over the increasingly dreadful TV series Sherlock where nothing beyond the basic theme of the story (not even the main character) survives without being changed so radically that it is unrecognisable.
To Hammer’s chagrin, the film failed to receive the coveted ‘X’ rating from the British censors despite all the lurid additions – it may have been that the ‘A’ certificate may have been due to the literary providence of the Holmes stories, but it seemingly contributed towards the film’s disappointing box office performance – British audiences not only associated Hammer with adults only horror even at this point in the company’s horror cycle but have long associated horror with the ‘X’/18 rating. There are numerous stories of film distributors begging the BBFC to reconsider or searching desperately for more outrageous scenes to include when the censors came back with a lower certificate for their horror release. We might wonder just why the BBFC felt that this story, with its rape scene, monster dog and ongoing scenes of gothic menace was suitable for the whole family while the other films were not – but it would hardly be the last time that horror films would be seen as more dangerous and problematic than other genres. The Holmes stories have long been seen as oddly wholesome, of course, and not just by censors – the assorted TV versions are generally considered to be fine for family viewing, rather like many a murder mystery show that piles up the corpses but maintains a cosy demeanour. I am not one to complain about the BBFC being overly lenient – because clearly, that has never been the case – but in this case, a more sensible certificate would seem to have robbed us of further Holmes adventures from the company.
This is a great pity because, despite the liberties taken, The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the very best Holmes films. This is full-blooded, fast-paced drama at its finest, with some remarkable visual flourishes – the lighting is astonishing, as vivid, gothic and exaggerated as in any Euro-horror film on the 1960s or 70s, and the combination of location filming and sound stage sets (often recognisable as recycled sets from Dracula, admittedly) gives the film a sense of hyper-reality. Certainly, the changes and additions help the film, for the most part, making it faster paced and more dramatic than most adaptations, and James Bernard’s score – which also lifts a segment of the Dracula soundtrack – is one of his better efforts.
But beyond the production values and Peter Bryan’s lively screenplay, this film especially benefits from excellent performances all around. Cushing is the consummate Holmes – spiky, rude, driven and impatient, he’s not the most likeable of characters, but Cushing humanises him and gives him a real edge. Morrell does a fine job of rehabilitating Watson from the bumbling character that Nigel Bruce had developed (much as I love the Rathbone/Bruce films, you do tend to wonder why on Earth Holmes would put up with such a buffoon) and Lee is better than you might expect in a fairly thankless role – Sir Henry is neither hero nor monster, and Lee would – not for the last time in a Fifties Hammer film – seem to be wasted in the part, but he does an excellent job with the little he is given – and even gets to be a romantic lead for once. Lee too, of course, would get to play Holmes on a few occasions – though his portrayal is never quite as convincing as Cushing’s and the movies are all rather second-division affairs. Maria Landi as fiery Spanish femme fatale Cecile (one of the film’s new inventions and certainly included as much to provide some continental glamour as for any narrative reason) is suitably seductive and spicy, and a supporting cast that includes John Le Mesurier, Ewan Solan and a scene-stealing Miles Malleson is always going to impress. This might well be the most solid cast ever assembled in a Hammer film, and it benefits immensely from their presence.
It remains a shame that Hammer failed to come back to the Holmes stories, even at a later point – the Cushing-led BBC series might have inspired another attempt in the 1970s, you would think, especially when you think about how many times they made Mummy films for no good reason. But, never mind – at least we have this one shot at the character and that’s better than nothing.
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