I could have probably written this entry under Project: Monster, but this seemed more appropriate.
Let me try to present a snapshot for you from my youth. It’s summer, 1981. I’m seven years old. My fertile imagination has been fired by two movies that arrived the same day: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans, which I saw in rapid succession. I had become fixated on adventure and monsters, which my parents (mistakenly) saw as the first sign that maybe I was shaking loose of the hold Star Wars had on me (hello… adventure and monsters!). My weekend afternoons were about to change forever, and I would be given the best possible education in the classics a kid could ask in the age when VHS wasn’t yet cheap enough to be in every house.
A local independent station began airing what they called “Double Shock Theater.” The idea was that from noon to 4 pm every Saturday and Sunday, the station would air back-to-back two sci-fi or horror films from yesteryear. This was how I saw many of the Universal films for the first time, seeing images that, up to that point, I’d only seen in books. The first time I sat down to watch, I was introduced in one fell swoop to three new ideas: Hammer Horror, Sherlock Holmes, and Christopher Lee, all with this one movie. I don’t remember at all what the movie that followed it was. All I know is that four lifelong obsessions started that day.
The fourth was the career of Peter Cushing. I had already been introduced to Cushing via Star Wars (it all comes back to that), so this movie messed with my young mind for a bit in much the same way that Han Solo and Indiana Jones bore a striking resemblance. Suffice it to say, this movie is a big formative milestone in my development. Until Jeremy Brett came along, Cushing was the face of Holmes for me. Even then, he’s still a very close contender in my mind. That one stuck. Lee, not so much. I saw him in short order as Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, and so on, and it wasn’t until this movie came back around again that I realized it was the same guy. He’s not exactly menacing here. Sometimes these things take time to put together in the age before the internet, and I wasn’t always the brightest crayon in the box. I would later learn that Cushing was quite the Holmes aficionado, bringing his knowledge to bear. There are little touches on screen that were straight out of the old stories at Cushing’s suggestion, such as the jackknifed pile of correspondence on the mantle piece.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is a bit different from most of Hammer’s films of that era despite having their two classic actors and director Terence Fisher aboard. The hallmarks of Hammer are there, but it’s most certainly not a traditional monster movie in any sense of the word. Even so, it’s considered one of Hammer’s finest moments, it was the first Sherlock Holmes movie filmed in color, and it’s often hailed as the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made. I can’t say it’s the most accurate to the original as Jeremy Brett’s entire run pretty much puts all others to shame in that regard, but this one ensured that I couldn’t really appreciate the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce films as much as some think I should. They’re fun for what they are, but… yeah. Having said that, Andre Morell makes an almost page-perfect Watson and holds his own with Cushing and Lee on screen.
For those coming in late, this is the story that allowed Holmes to emerge from the dead, his first appearance since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off some eight years previous in “The Final Problem.” It wasn’t his resurrection story, just a tale told in flashback, designed to see if the public really did want Holmes back as much as they claimed. The novel sold first in serialized form in The Strand magazine, and it sold like wildfire, ultimately dictating the return of the Great Detective. To this day the story has become the most popular of the Holmes canon with both diehard Sherlockians and casual fans, as well as the story most translated to film.
The story deals with a family curse, a dead heir, and a family friend asking the Great Detective to investigate so as to protect the last surviving heir to the Baskerville legacy. The case is said to involve a demonic hellhound, a local legend that everyone in the region knows, but of course Holmes scoffs at immediately, always looking for the scientific and rational explanation.
I revisited this last night for the first time in a number of years, and of course as I’ve grown older and more familiar with both the movie and the original tale, I can readily see the differences between the two. For example, the hound in the book is a dog coated with phosphorescent paint to make him glow, while the one in the movie is a dog wearing a mask to make him look weird. Even so, it doesn’t bother me quite so much because the elements that make Holmes who he is are readily on display here. It’s an adaptation. That it’s a Hammer Horror adaptation should mean that there’s almost nothing in common with the source material, but that’s not really the case here at all. Holmes and Watson are portrayed about as perfectly as they can be. They’re equals here, a true team. It’s enough to make a fanboy weep, it’s so good. Maybe some of that is nostalgia. But not all of it, not by far.
Cushing’s portrayal got mixed reviews at the time. Some called him “eager and forceful,” while others said he was “impish.” I’d argue both are right, and for the right reasons. Cushing was playing the character as he imagined it straight from the source material, and it’s like he steps right out of the popular consciousness. He would reprise his role some nine years later as part of a sixteen-episode Sherlock Holmes series for BBC, two of which were another version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Again, until Brett came along, Cushing was the face of Holmes for me. If you’ve not seen him in action, I can’t recommend this enough. And if you love the old Hammer films, this one’s just that much better on account.