Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958)

Holmes and Watson meet Hammer in the only movie version of Conan-Doyle’s famous detective to be made by the studio, now released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films.
It’s hard to believe anyone doesn’t know the plot of this one, but in case you’re not familiar with the Hammer version, here we go: Peter Cushing (Sherlock) and Andre Morrell (Dr Watson) get asked by Dr Mortimer (Francis de Wolff) to come down to gloomy old Baskerville hall in the depths of the West country to make sure the estate’s latest inheritor Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) doesn’t go the way of his recently deceased relative, i.e. scared to death because of the rare heart condition he has no doubt acquired from all that posh inbreeding. The family curse involves Sir Henry’s villainous ancestor Sir Hugo, a village girl chased across the moors, and an enormous dog that did Sir Hugo in. Has the hound returned? Is it a ghost? Might there possibly be no supernatural explanation at all? If you’ve not seen it I’ll leave you to find out.

Conan-Doyle’s novel has been filmed so many times it’s close to being the most screen-adapted book ever, and Hammer’s HOUND is still one of the best. I suspect Holmes purists will cry foul, however, due to a few changes to ramp up the sex and horror elements, and a general sense that we are indeed watching the next in a series of classic horror remakes from a studio that had already demonstrated a revolutionary approach to the gothic.

It’s this approach that makes Hammer’s HOUND a classic, though. Up until 1958 Holmes and Watson were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, initially at Fox and then moving to Universal for the shorter contemporary programmers. Cushing and Morrell do more than just fill their shoes, or offer an imitation of what has gone before. The interpretations are entirely fresh, and in particular Morrell elevates the character of Dr Watson out of the bumbling rut he’d fallen into. The two actors would appear together again in Hammer’s CASH ON DEMAND (1961), a film that makes one wonder how fascinating it might have been to see Morrell as Holmes and Cushing as Watson. 

Only a couple of years into their golden age, Hammer were also already displaying a keen awareness of their audience demographic. The upper classes are portrayed as cruel and sadistic (Sir Hugo) or easily taken in and unable to fulfil the hero role because of a weak heart (Sir Henry). James Bernard’s music crashes away as if Frankenstein and Dracula are probably living just down the road (which in a way they were) and the whole endeavour remains a valuable addition to the canon of work interpreting Conan-Doyle’s detective adventures.

Arrow’s Blu-ray transfer is a fine job, even if it doesn’t look quite as sharp, clear or clean as other Blu-ray releases of Hammer films of the period. I’m guessing there wasn’t as much money available to restore this one compared to DRACULA or THE MUMMY. We do get a wealth of excellent extras, however, including a splendid commentary from the always listenable Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, a new documentary - Release the Hound!, a featurette on Andre Morrell’s career, excerpts from the source novel read by Christopher Lee, and a 1986 documentary hosted by Lee looking at the various Holmes screen incarnations. Add in a trailer, booklet, and a reversible sleeve, and this is all quite lovely.

Arrow Films released Hammer's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES on Region B Blu-ray on 1st June 2015 

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