“Know then the legend of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES…” opens the direful narration, which continues, “[And] know then that the great Hall of Baskerville was once ruled by Sir Hugo…a wild, profane, Godless man…an evil man in truth…” And, while we’re at it, you should also know that it’s – “Ten Times More Terrifying in TECHNICOLOR,” as the ads proudly (and honestly) claimed. Finally, know then that we’re talking about the superb 1959 version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes classic, brilliantly filmed by Hammer, directed by Terence Fisher, starring Peter Cushing and now available in a fantastic limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.
I suppose I could wax rhapsodic about all the splendors of this much-beloved production, but I’d just be retreading ground done far more thoroughly in tomes about Cushing, [co-star] Christopher Lee, Fisher, Doyle/Holmes and the famed studio itself (I recommend checking them all out, particularly Hammer Films: The Bray Studio Years by Wayne Kinsey, In All Sincerity, Peter Cushing by Christopher Gullo, The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher by Wheeler Dixon and Peter Cushing: An Autobiography and Past Forgetting and Tall, Dark and Gruesome by Christopher Lee).
That said, I can’t praise this version highly enough; it’s my favorite Sherlock Holmes movie with, I believe, the best portrayal of the consulting detective ever captured on film (my apologies to Basil Rathbone, John Neville, Christopher Plummer, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch – all admittedly excellent).
The Hammer/Fisher rendition really upped the bar for the title, arguably most horrific adventure that Holmes and Watson ever tackled (and one of the most filmed). It’s Hammer at its peak, and the first time a Holmes picture was ever lensed in color – and what color!
Firstly, though, leave us discuss the performances. In my eyes, Peter Cushing can do no wrong, and he plays Holmes with perfection. Lee, too, as the victim-to-be, heir to the family’s curse, Henry Baskerville, is exceptional, (in a part that’s usually a thankless human MacGuffin). The supporting players are all hand-picked gems, specifically Francis De Wolff, Ewan Solon, Marla Landi, David Oxley, John Le Mesurier, Sam Kydd, and last but not least, the comical presence of Miles Malleson.
It is, however, Andre Morell as Watson who deserves a lion’s share of accolades, bringing us the screen’s most believable Dr. J. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m vastly entertained by the shenanigans of Nigel Bruce, perhaps the world’s most celebrated Holmes associate. But, fair’s fair – the dude’s a bumbling buffoon. Logically, I could never understand the relationship between Bruce/Watson and Rathbone/Holmes, unless it was some kind of superiority master/slave kind of kinky thing (here comes the deluge of how-dare-you emails). Morell, on the other hand, embellishes his Watson with cold intelligence, wry sarcasm and genuine instinctive reflexes that nicely parallel Cushing’s Sherlock. The two actors display a camaraderie that transcends movie chemistry; their professionalism and respect is extraordinary. If one needs any further proof of their formidable acting abilities, check out the greatly underrated 1961 Hammer psychological thriller Cash on Demand, where one preys upon the other with wings-off-the-fly mind-fuck sadism.
Fisher’s direction is spot-on, from the tense flashback opening (that gives us the lowdown on the curse’s origins) to the thrilling conclusion on the sinister, but hauntingly beautiful moors (via Surrey location work and interior/exterior design excellence). The script, by Peter Bryan, is quite literate, fat-free and engrossing. That said, Malleson (as the local bishop/amateur entomologist) nevertheless delivers my favorite, likely one the writer/character actor contributed on his own (“I knew a Watson once, a white slaver…” Morell’s response is suitably droll).
Lee’s courting of his neighbor, Spanish-born crazy-legs Cecile Stapleton, is doomed from the start. As enacted by the sensuous Marla Landi, Cecile is a like a Victorian mean girl, snarkily putting down her neighbors, displaying her shapely gams and nearly causing Watson’s demise on the moor’s lethal bogs. She’s one bad-ass Hammer babe, which also means that she’s one of our favorites. Her seething male-taunting of “You thought eet would be eezie, deent you?” is a guilty pleasure of mine and many of my pals – primarily because if we were characters in the movie, we’d all be caked under Grimpen Mire by now, thank you, Cecile. Her maniacal grin is chilling, yet erotic. What can I say? If they’d find my corpse, it would have a smile on my face.
HOUND was chosen by Hammer’s to be their initial foray into the Holmes library. Yet, while it performed decently, it didn’t fill the coffers like its predecessors Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, so, sadly, the proposed series never went beyond this outing (Cushing did get to play Holmes again in a 16-episode TV series, broadcast in 1964-65 and 1968). Ironically, it was the only major Hammer goth to be released by UA, the company that helped put the company on the map in the U.S. with The Creeping Unknown (aka, The Quatermass X-periment).
Parts of my youth are connected to this movie in ways that transcend Marla Landi. I vividly recall the frightening TV spots that aired in 1959 (dominated by blood-curdling howls over a graphic of a demonic, salivating canine with glowing eyes). At five, I was already a fan of scary movies, and I couldn’t wait to see this pic at the Loew’s 175th. Alas, it wasn’t to be. My close buddy, another monster-movie fan, also had seen those TV spots and begged her mother to take her to see it ASAP. My dad was going to take me that Saturday, she got her mom to do it Friday. The next morning, her mater frantically called my mom with the shocking warning, “Don’t let Mel see that horrible movie. Michelle had awful dreams all last night. She woke up crying, she’s so scared.” Of course, this is the LAST thing you want to tell a precocious urchin who delights in all things creepy-crawly. Didn’t matter, my mom forbade my dad from taking me to see HOUND in its initial release.
Years later, I was at a private screening of HOUND, a beautiful 16MM IB print, when something memorable occurred. At the point where wily Cushing calmly tells the excitable Dr. Mortimer, “Strange things are to be found on the moors,” then becomes manic, shouts, “LIKE THIS, FOR INSTANCE!” and flings a crimson-stained dagger, barely missing the surgeon’s hands as it becomes embedded in a piece of furniture. Some dude sitting a couple of spaces away from me, dead-panned, “Typical coke-head” (and, trust me, he would know). At first, I was amused, but then, upon thinking it over, pondered if this was indeed an intentional bit by Cushing/Fisher (since we all know Holmes was a snowbird), they’re even greater geniuses than I give them credit for!
I have never seen a bad copy of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLLES, and I have never seen a better transfer than the magnificent 1080p Blu-Ray transfer that Twilight Time has bestowed upon us Hammer buffs. The studio’s trademark meticulous detail (realized through Molly Arbuthnot’s costumes and spectacular production design by Bernard Robinson) has never been more evident than on this must-have platter. It doesn’t hurt that the visuals were shot by my favorite Hammer d.p. Jack Asher, bathing the widescreen frame in ghoulish greens and reds. And, natch, there’s the iconic score by Hammer composer James Bernard (with occasional riffs from Horror of Dracula). The music is accessible as an IST; the mono sound is uniformly fine, save a bit of infrequent sibilance (extremely minor). And there are extras worth noting, including Christopher Lee’s Actor’s Notebook, two audio commentaries (one with David Del Valle and Steven Peros, and another with Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer and Hank Reineke), hound mask creator Margaret Robinson discussing her work, and Lee reading excerpts from the Conan Doyle novel.
Know then the curse of Twilight Time. This is a limited edition of 3000. When they’re gone, that’s it. And one doesn’t need to be a Sherlock Holmes to realize that strange things are to be found on eBay – LIKE TEN TIMES THE PRICE OF AN OUT-OF-PRINT BLU-RAY!
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # 11956-02123. SRP: $29.95.