Navigation

**Some plot spoilers if you don’t know Doyle’s story**


The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

The great consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and his friend and sidekick Dr Watson (Andre Morell) are hired by the gruff Dr Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) to keep safe the last line of the Baskerville family, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee), who the Dr. fears is in danger after the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville at Baskerville Hall on Dartmoor.

Mortimer tells Holmes of a supposed ‘curse’ that haunts the family. A curse that says the Baskervilles will meet their doom at the fangs of a gigantic hound of Hell that was unleashed after (and upon) the cruel Sir Hugo Baskerville, Sir Henry’s ancestor, murdered a local peasant girl.

Holmes states he is too busy at the moment to leave London but sends Watson to guard Sir Henry as he makes his trip to his ancestral home, and sure enough strange things start to happen at night and the howl of a great dog is heard upon the sinister moor….

 

As was obvious to anyone who loved the book and wasn't stuck in some 'but it's old Hammer and so it is automatically superb' robotic trance, 'Hammer' made a pig's ear of adapting Bram Stoker's "Dracula" for their 1957 movie.
Offering up an almost mute Dracula and missing out every single great set-piece from the novel and adding in some farcical rubbish of their own, which blew huge holes in the plot (the worst being the change from unknowing Harker to vampire hunter Harker), 'Hammer' in fact gave us one of the least faithful (and generally effective in my view) adaptations of the novel ever seen.
The previous year‘s “Curse of Frankenstein” was the same, but in this case it was done much better and the original, rather tedious, psychologically deep and thrill-free, Shelley novel was ripe for exciting re-invention anyway…unlike Stoker’s far superior, still effective “Dracula”.

It is a surprise then to see that when they came to adapt the most famous of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes' stories 'Hammer' actually stayed far closer to the source (with help in the little details by big Holmes fan Peter Cushing) than they had up till now.
But the problems still persisted when they came to add their own elements.
It was obvious why they did this time (as the story, a mystery story of course, is so well known that no mystery remains) but that does not mean 'Hammer' were paying enough attention to what they added or the plot problems it causes.



They certainly open the film well though, adding a very 'Hammer' feel to the opening 'flashback' account of the evil Sir Hugo's activities and his fate at the tooth and claw of that infamous Hound.
This opening carries with it the same kind of sleazy decadence and sophisticated cruelty we would later see in the (ridculously long) lead-up to another curse 'Hammer' would tackle, "The Curse of the Werewolf". And David Oxley makes a wonderful Sir Hugo.

The much missed Peter Cushing is good as Holmes but, despite his love of the character, can't seem to shake that Van Helsing persona off.
This may be more to do with the script though than Cushing, as it gives his Holmes far too many flights of supernatural fancy that are a million miles away from Doyle’s character.
And which do indeed owe more to the aforementioned Van Helsing than Sherlock Holmes, as this dreadful line to the local clergyman (a lovely comic performance by Miles Malleson) shows;
“I am fighting evil…Fighting it as surely as you”.
These horrible, out of character, dialogue additions are made even more frustrating because Cushing is (by his own insistence supposedly) given a couple of genuine Doyle Holmes lines to say that will please fans as much as the non-Doyle lines will annoy them.
The film also commits that most deadly of sins and has Holmes utter the famous "Elementary my dear Watson" line, which of course was never uttered in the Doyle stories.

Andre Morell offered up one of the first serious and more faithful Dr Watson's to grace the cinema screen since the infamous (though likable) buffoonery of Nigel Bruce in the famous Basil Rathbone movies completely re-wrote the character, and he does a solid job in essaying a Watson that we could seriously believe that unforgiving man of extremes Sherlock Holmes would indeed admire and more importantly be able to put up with!

Christopher Lee is a serious and moody Sir Henry (as you would expect from Lee) and perhaps gives the character a bit too much strength and force of will, as you get the feeling he could actually take care of himself.
Despite the success of his Dracula portrayal Lee would still basically play support to Cushing’s lead for a couple of films yet, but you can certainly see the star actor to come flexing his muscles here.
The rest of the cast is good and interesting and no one lets the side down.

The outdoor shots of the moor (not actually Dartmoor) are well used and although the indoor sets for the main, close-up, work are indeed obviously sets they are still extremely good and the use of ground hugging fog and silhouetted ruins against the sky all make for one of the most atmospheric recreations in any of the (many) versions of the story.
The brief violence (it is ‘Hammer’ after all) adds bite (ha ha) to the proceedings but the garish blood smacks more of a school play than the grim reality and starkness that it’s moor setting manages to convey.
The set of Baskerville Hall itself is also a wonderful creation and shows the richness in detail (as indeed does the faithful reconstruction of Holmes’ 221b Baker Street rooms) that early ‘Hammer’ movies were famous for.

So far so good then really (some dialogue aside), but the faults are still here and as such the film as a whole becomes a rather plodding and less than gripping affair.
But this is not all down to ‘Hammer’ (or even the now rather cosy and overly theatrical ‘Hammer’ of this period, an historical and vital era for sure, but for me not a patch on the next two decades to follow) and is in fact down to the actual source itself.

It’s strange that the most popular and well known Sherlock Holmes story is one that utterly dispenses with that most fascinating character for a huge portion of the narrative (a portion where most of the really mysterious events occur no less) as Holmes supposedly stays behind and lets Watson do the business.
All versions of the story that have gone before of course suffer due to this loss of it’s central character, and this version is no different. But that is a problem with the original Doyle story as well.
Holmes is brought back as soon as possible by ’Hammer’ (and in a visually effective way) but we do miss his insights and eccentricities while he’s away.

But the Hammer changes as well tend to only half work at their best and utterly fail at their worst.
The crucial matter of a missing Baskerville portrait from the Hall seems to have no bearing at all in this version unless you keep your ears well open. As only an extremely confusing line of dialogue hints at why it was removed.
This is due to ‘Hammer’ (screenplay by Peter Bryan) making a big change (indeed an addition) to the villain of the piece.
The one-line motive, briefly shouted out, seems to contradict itself and leaves us to fill in the gaps to make any sense of it.
We have the element of the unknown Baskerville relative, as in Doyle’s story (which explains the painting), but also an additional rant about the oppression by the Baskervilles on those around them (supposedly during the time of Sir Hugo, which seems then a bit unfair to Sir Henry who was nor even born then) that seems to contradict said person (somehow,) being one of the supposedly hated Baskerville’s themselves and/or being one of the oppressed at the same time!

We are also thrown into needless confusion (again for no good reason other than ’Hammer’ had to, in a half-arsed fashion, interfere) during the investigation of an old mine.
Why does Holmes not wonder what the hell was going on when he is nearly killed by a runaway mine truck supposedly being held safely by two other men, who then vanish.
Holmes makes no mention of it and makes no accusations (and indeed one of the men is not a villain, so why did he let the cart go and why vanish and supposedly leave Holmes to his fate!?) and what exactly happned is never explained!



And in a completely 'makes no sense in anyway at all to the plot' addition 'Hammer' also have some kind of sacrificial rite element added, via a remark of Holmes, when the mutilated remains of a body are found. Perhaps this bit of crowbarred in 'horror' dialogue was written purely to sound good in the trailer as it has absolutely no baring on the narrative and is never brought up again.

Perhaps the most bizarre bit of ‘Hammer’ vandalism though is not an addition, but a removal!
Mortimer tells Holmes about the curse of The historical Hound and then tells him of the recent death of Sir Charles.
And yet the most famous, and delightfully dramatic, line that actually ties the two things together (surely the whole damn point!) is never uttered.
In Doyle’s story Mortimer mentions, to tie the Hound of legend into the events of now, that in the ground next to Sir Charles’s body were found chilling marks…”Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound”!
Yet this line is never said! Losing not only a great bit of drama but any link at all to Sir Charles’s death and the damned Hound of the Baskervilles!

Another negative is The Hound itself. When it finally appears it looks like an extremely weedy creature with a deformed head far too large for its body and makes little impact even when supposedly savaging someone.
The Hound caused Director Terence Fisher and co. a lot of trouble (the Great Dane used was supposedly rather sweet and good natured but hard to control, and supposedly even a child in a fur costume was going to be used, and then discarded, for some scenes of The Hound attacking!) and the haphazard, lets get it over with as quickly as possible, feel to the finale is testament to this.

Overall then we have an adaptation of a sometimes classic, sometimes weak, Sherlock Holmes story that suffers due to faults in the source (some you can‘t change but other adaptations have coped with them better), but also due to faults created by the weak meddling in the story by ‘Hammer’ themselves.
Which is a shame, because the film looks great, has a fine cast and manages to deliver one of the most atmospheric re-tellings of Doyle’s most extensively filmed tale.

But, despite the rather buffoonish Watson of course and a clumsy handling of the villain’s fate, the most successful adaptation (though not the most faithful, but it still does it better) of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” still remains the Basil Rathbone film. Though some good versions could well be found in the huge pile of German adaptations, if you can find any of them.

So it’s not the best “Hound”, but it’s not the worst “Hound”.
It’s not the best ‘Hammer’, but it’s not the worst ‘Hammer’.
And therein lies the ultimate fate of this film. It’s a sadly average, middle of the road, almost invisible movie that had elements in it that should have made it so much more. It's one real claim to fame is that it was the first Holmes movie in colour.