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Non-Review Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Back in its heyday, Hammer Horror had a reputation as an assembly-line studio, churning out cheesy exploitation horror after cheesy exploitation horror with an efficiency that would make battery farmers jealous. I won’t pretend that the reputation is entirely undeserved, although I do have a certain fondness for the delightful schlock the studio would produce. Still, I think that this reputation tends to overshadow the occasional gem that the studio would produce, something that managed to transcend the cost-effective scenery and cookie-cutter approach to film-making. While it probably isn’t the definitive adaptation of the tale, Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is still an absolute delight for gothic horror aficionados.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it…

Note: This review contains spoilers. I consider a classic novel and fifty-year-old film to be fair game.

You could certainly make a case for The Hound of the Baskervilles as the definitive Sherlock Holmes mystery. I reckon it’s certainly the story that has made the largest impression on the popular imagination, and it is one story in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes-ian canon that most people would be roughly familiar with. I think something in the story just resonated with popular culture. I suspect it was the rather curious blending of the supernatural with the perfectly rational, crafting a pseudo-ghost-story that was firmly grounded. After all, Doyle was influenced by all manner of Devon folktales in crafting the story, from the story of Squire Richard Cabell to the mysterious Yeth Hound.

So, curiously enough, The Hound of the Baskervilles seems almost perfectly suited to the Hammer Horror tradition, albeit changed around slightly and with an emphasis placed on the areas of the story of especial interest to the studio. This is very much a Sherlock Holmes story as a gothic adventure, and it works surprisingly well – showing just how flexible The Hound of the Baskervilles is as a story. From the opening scene it’s apparent that Hammer will be putting their own slant on the story, not deviating too far, but tweaking it to suit their approach.

A bit of Lee-way…

Indeed, the movie opens very much like a conventional Hammer Horror, with a creepy scene of human brutality, with Sir Hugo Baskerville tempting fate in the pursuit of a lady across the moors, and invoking a supernatural curse upon his family name. “May the hounds of hell take me if I can’t hunt her down!” he vows. No points for guessing how the turns out. As Doctor Mortimer narrates, “And so, the curse of Sir Hugo came upon the Baskervilles in the shape of a hound from Hell, forever to bring misfortune to the Baskerville family.”

Even beyond that lovingly-rendered opening scene, there’s a decidedly Hammer emphasis to the tale. Even in the elements they don’t explicitly change, but what they choose to dwell on, or how they choose to frame it. Hiding on the moors, Holmes and Watson seek shelter in a small hovel with an eerie supernatural green light. Consciously playing up the horror of the surroundings, and its uncertain and ever-changing nature, Stapleton warns Watson, “Don’t step off the track or you’ll find yourself in Grimpen Mire. Once in there, you’ll never get out.”

A Cushing number…

To spice things up, the film does deviate from Doyle’s source novel significantly, although that’s hardly something new to Hammer Horror films. Many of these are somewhat extraneous, like adding an assassination-via-tarantula scene or the discovery of “some revolting sacrificial rite” on the moors or an adventure in a mine shaft. All of these play into traditional Hammer themes more clearly than they play into the story at hand, but I think there’s something to be said for how distinctly at home these elements happen to feel. As I remarked above, if there is one Sherlock Holmes story perfectly suited to the Hammer Horror treatment, it’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Perhaps the most significant change here is the decision to alter the character of Cecile Stapleton. In most versions of the story, the character is portrayed as relatively innocent. She has even, on occasion, been paired off with Sir Henry at the end of the story. Here, however, Cecile is portrayed very much as a villain. Interestingly enough, she’s portrayed as a female character who seems to be seeking to right the wrongs committed against her by men. “Swine!” she yells, rejecting Sir Henry’s advances. “You thought it was going to be easy, didn’t you? Didn’t you? You won’t be the first of your family who thought that, and you won’t be the first to die because of it.”

Moors, moors, moors…

Director Terence Fisher tends to get lumped in a bit with the studio he worked for so often. Fisher was, of course, responsible for some less-than-impressive Hammer films like Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but he was also an interesting a challenging director in his own right. For the time that he was working, Fisher had great skill for dealing with implicitly sexual subtext in his horror films. None of it is exceptionally explicit, but Fisher tended to deal with fairly strong sexual over- and under-tones. As such, this portrayal of Cecile seems to fit quite well, reimagining her as less of a victim of oppression from a strong man in her life and more of a woman struggling against such attitudes.

“I, too, am a Baskerville,” she explains to Sir Henry during her motive rant, “descended from Sir Hugo, descended from those who died in poverty while you scum ruled the moor.”Of course, because Sir Hugo never married the mother of the child in question, society insisted that he had no responsibility to the children he bore. It was all left to the woman to take care of the illegitimate offspring. Cecile seems to be rebelling against these social conventions – the idea that men of a certain class can exploit women of lower social standings for their own pleasure. It’s hardly a revolutionary character motivation, but it is interesting in the context of Hammer Horror films that often had interesting things to say about sex and sexuality.

Smoking…

For Fisher’s part,  the movie is beautifully shot – especially the location work. It is, at its best, delightfully atmospheric – our heroes traveling through the half-destroyed ruins scatter across the moors. There are some problems – some of the sets just a little bit too stage-y. The problem isn’t that they look like the inside of a studio, just that the shots don’t always smoothly gel with the location work. There’s the occasional moment of cheese – the aforementioned green lighting, for example – or James Bernard’s overblown musical score. Aside from all that, though, it is very dignified for a Hammer Horror film of the time.

The casting of Peter Cushing as the iconic sleuth probably helps. Apparently Cushing was a fan of the original books and inserted various Holmes-ian tics into his portrayal to more closely mirror the books. There’s a very sincere argument to be made that Cushing’s portrayal of Holmes is actually way ahead of his time, playing into aspects of the character that have really only been embraced today. To put it simply, Cushing’s Holmes is just a bit rude, feeling like a spiritual predecessor to both Hugh Laurie’s House (famously modeled on Holmes) and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.

Things are heating up…

One nice moment sees Holmes being delightfully prissy with Watson, about the right-hand top drawer – Holmes insists what he is looking for must be there, while Watson tells him it isn’t. Holmes doesn’t seem to believe he could be mistaken. A moment later, when Watson calls him out on being a dick to Sir Henry, Holmes responds, “Do stop talking nonsense. You know my methods. Couldn’t you see I was being purposely rude?” That seems a bit harsh, especially when he begins by telling Watson to “stop talking nonsense.” Even after he survives an accident in the mine shaft, and everyone is celebrating, Holmes seems a little… delicate. “That’s gratifying. When the applause has died down, I wonder if we could get back to the hall. I’ve hurt my leg, I’m cold, and I’m hungry.”

Cushing’s Holmes has a capacity to ignore the emotional state of the people around him, cutting straight to the point no matter how awkward it might be. Asking a question of Doctor Mortimer, the suspect responds, “Come, Mister Holmes, is this entirely necessary?” Holmes answers, “I would not have asked otherwise.”Cushing’s version of the character has this delightful habit of fidgeting, and seems like a very delicate detective. I quite like it, to be honest.

Making himself at Holmes…

And yet there are hints that Holmes might not be an entirely unsympathetic soul, at least as far as those outside his focus are concerned. “My professional charges are upon a fixed scale,” he tells Sir Mortimer. “I do not vary them, except when I remit them all together.” When Holmes has obtained all the information he needs from a family who provided shelter and clothes to an escaped criminal, Watson asks, “Couldn’t they be charged with helping an escaped convict?”  Holmes replies, “They could, but they won’t. I’ve satisfied the local police.” The logic seems clear – Holmes won’t act vindictively towards those who have satisfied his quest for knowledge. He might not be an especially emotional character, but he’s not a coldly vindictive one either.

The rest of the cast is also quite impressive. I’ll admit to quite like André Morell’s Watson, a decidedly competent iteration of the iconic supporting character. It’s also fun to see Christopher Lee seem to play against type as a generally agreeable young an who is the victim of some evil misdeed rather than simply the cause of it. It’s very interesting to see Lee cast in a role that isn’t sinister or ominous, and rather feels a bit more casual and comfortable.

Oh, deer me…

While it’s hard to argue that it is the best adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Hammer Horror adaptation is a fine piece of late fifties gothic.

2 Responses

  1. My goodness, I’ve been re-watching this movie two weeks ago (okay, seven times over the space of two weeks), and yep, it’s definitely one of the better ones. There are a lot of reasons for this story to be such a favorite for adaptations: it offers a romantic hero in Henry Baskerville, the setting on the moor and old family curses lend themselves to a creepy mood which can range from “pleasantly stark landscape with undertones of danger” to “torn limb from limb or slowly drowning in cold, muddy water while bleeding and alone”.

    That Holmes is absent for a good while doesn’t hurt, either – in the worse adaptations, because Holmes is usually the first character to go cardboard cut-out, in the better ones (like this) because it gives Watson time to do more than fawn to the tune of “amazing, how did you do it!”. It gives the directors time to flesh out Watson as well as the other characters so they become more than a canvas background to Holmes being brilliant.

    You’re very right on Holmes in this version: he is such an interesting mix of rudeness and compassion – after all, he didn’t just refrain from causing troubles for the Barrymores, he actively protected them from the legal effects of aiding and abetting a convicted murderer – , fearlessness when setting after a hound from hell on the midnight moors and snapping over misplaced tobacco. I really liked his understated complaint about hunger and cold after he had just been buried in an abandoned mine, got hurt in the process and then dragged himself out of the mine and to the cart under his own steam. I like the hint of drama-queen vanity in that: sit as straight and proper as you can and wait for your astonished friends to find you instead of calling for their help. I my mind, the thing about “I would never have gone down there if I hadn’t known about the other exits” was tripe – he was hot on the trail of a possible solution and as unable to stop himself as Henry Baskerville going after the pretty, lonely, prickly Damsel in Distress (TM) or the hound going after his prey.

    Cudo’s to Peter Cushing for playing those mecurial mood changes in Holmes. (Even if that actor seems to have a stipulation in his contract that he gets to say “I am fighting evil” at least once per movie. I’m looking at you, “Brides of Dracula”.)

    Christopher Lee looking sheepish and caught on the wrong boot foot was a lot of fun, too. Same for seeing the great villain and mastermind being lured by that spanish/english damsel. “Why did you run away from me?” – well, because for a pretty woman, that’s the easiest possible way to get a man to the place she wants him to be. Quicker and less of an obligation than a “would you mind following me”; just jump and run.

    What you said about Cecile was very interesting. I never quite liked her, too rude, with little conversation than (admittedly justified) complaining about her situation and of course that fake accent jars a lot. And I’m not sure where the movie intents her to be on the scale from “main villian” to “daddy’s tool”. But you are right about her being out for revenge, and I am glad that the social background of women/men/illegitimacy is underplayed; if a character like that is stylized into an avenger of all women wronged, it’s too preachy and disrupts the story. This way, I just like seeing how her rage and near-madness seem to get damn close to getting Christopher Lee Saruman Sir Baskerville to wet himself.

    Minus 100 karma-points for overly lengthy comment, but this movie is such fun to yack about!

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