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Posts Tagged ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’

If you’re going to adapt one of those timeless old literary classics that’s already had nearly a dozen versions of it done already, a difficult balancing act awaits you: how to make your interpretation distinctive and memorable without departing too far from the original text? And yes, on reflection I would say that inserting airship battles into a piece of classic literature probably does count as going too far.

Not so easy to adjudicate upon is Terence Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which appears to be the first colour Sherlock Holmes movie and the first to feature Peter Cushing as the great detective. Andre Morell plays Doctor Watson while third-billed as Sir Henry Baskerville is none other than Christopher Lee.

Peter Cushing? Christopher Lee? Terence Fisher? Well, yes, this is a Hammer Films production. Given the generally high production values and strong performances routinely found in Hammer projects you would expect this to be a good fit for the studio, and this turns out to be the case, more or less.

The plot is pretty much what you would expect – family curse, blah blah, gigantic hound, blah blah, don’t go onto the moor, blah blah – but with a few notable tweaks and changes made to it. Rather than opening with Sherlock Holmes’ teapot, as is traditional, it launches straight into quite a long prologue sequence involving all sorts of historical naughtiness at Baskerville Hall and the origins of the curse. This establishes a morbid and slightly overwrought tone which continues through the rest of the movie.

Also added to Conan Doyle’s original story are a killer tarantula, collapsing mineshafts, congenital deformity, blood sacrifices and even an element of class warfare. The last of these is potentially the most interesting but unfortunately it seems to have been something of an afterthought and isn’t really dwelt upon.

I’m probably making this sound like a deeply unfaithful and disrespectful take on a much-loved tale, but all-in-all it does stay relatively faithful to the novel. Steps are taken to fix what’s arguably the main problem with The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Sherlock Holmes story – i.e, the fact that Holmes doesn’t appear for a long section in the middle of the book – but this is subtly done and surely understandable. And, ultimately, the movie turns out to be much more faithful to the book than it at one point appears likely to – the script works hard (maybe a bit too hard) to mislead the audience as to the identity of the killer, and the first time I saw it I did actually wonder if the movie was going to wrong-foot the audience by actually making somebody different responsible for the murders.

But no. All is roughly as Conan Doyle conceived it, with the notable exception of the love interest in the book turning out to be an insane accomplice with a peculiar Spanish accent in the movie. To be honest Fisher’s movie is full of these cheerfully over-the-top flourishes. Peter Cushing does his usual stalwart work but is an extremely theatrical Holmes, a hyperactive thinking machine (perhaps a little too genteel in places). As Watson, Andre Morell is firmly in the usual tradition of how these characters are presented – which is to say, a couple of decades older than the people Conan Doyle was writing about – although rather more the reliable man of action than the buffoonish foil one commonly encounters.

The casting of Christopher Lee as Sir Henry means that the script has to find something for him to do – he’s a fairly colourless and passive figure in the novel. The option they go for is to build him up as the romantic lead, which would make perfect sense but for two things – firstly, the decision (previously mentioned) to make the female lead a bad ‘un results in this plotline going off at an unexpected tangent, and secondly – well, it’s Christopher Lee, isn’t it?

Make no mistake, I yield to no-one in my respect for Christopher Lee and the marvellous work he has done throughout his career. But I still would never have cast him as the juvenile lead as they do here. Magisterial authority is something he does better than anyone, but romantic vulnerability? This is not really Lee’s department and he does seem a bit miscast.

I would also have said that his presence builds up this movie’s Hammer credentials to the point where expectations are likely to become unrealistic. But then again, the movie does itself few favours in this department – quite apart from all the other personnel involved, the opening titles are extremely Hammerish, and Baskerville Hall, to the initiated, is very obviously the set of Castle Dracula after some redressing. James Bernard’s score even brazenly recycles some of the most memorable music cues from the climax of the previous year’s Dracula adaptation. 

Is this, then, an attempt to do The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Hammer horror? I’m not sure this is a fair question, as back in 1959 no-one would have talked about ‘Hammer horror’ in quite such a casual way – the studio had had a few big hits with various Gothic adaptations and remakes, but had yet to specialise either in exploitation movies generally or horror films in particular. This is certainly an attempt at another adaptation in the same style as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, with the same director and stars, but it’s somehow a less vivid and engaging one.

Perhaps this is actually because it’s relatively faithful to the original book, which you could hardly say of either of the earlier movies just mentioned. Thus constrained, Fisher’s movie struggles make story and atmosphere mesh in a wholly satisfying way – perhaps this story just wasn’t made for Hammer after all. Conan Doyle’s stories, though not straitlaced by any means, were wholesome, freewheeling entertainment without the fervid charge of the works of Stoker and Shelley. As a result, trying to make that charge explicit – which is, surely, what the best Hammer movies do – seems strangely futile and the result is a film which is at best an entertaining curiosity and at worst actually slightly silly.

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