The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

3 out of 4 stars. Highly recommended for Holmesians and Hammer aficionados.

For some reason this is the film I always start my October with. It isn’t very true to the original story, it isn’t the greatest Holmes adaptation or a true horror film, it has dated somewhat and it was a box office failure.

However this is one of the only films that actually gets some of the adventurous spirit of Conan Doyle on celluloid. It simply blends in elements of horror and reason in order to create a Hammer-ized version of the tale.

For this Hammer production you have the three names that were behind the initial classics that began their horror cycle,(Horror of Dracula (1958), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) ) the stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and the taut direction of Terrence Fisher. Hound has often been maligned as an inferior product more designed for the B-slot of a double bill than an “A” feature. What these critics fail to realize is that this was not originally a scheduled production.  The sets are culled from the previous Horror of Dracula. They were simply lying around unused and someone finally hit upon a possible story to use for a new film. This Hound does not dwell on the typical Holmesian touchstones primarily because there is not the time (the film only runs 86 minutes) nor the budget to do so. This develops a rapid pace that actually allows the film to get past many of the downfalls that befall the other Hounds. Chiefly among them the fact that the majority of the story only features the always less interesting Watson investigating the affairs at Baskerville Hall and almost no mention of Holmes at all.

At this point I must add my own personal observation. To me, Peter Cushing is the cinematic Sherlock Holmes. His physical stature may not be the literary character’s but only Cushing has the right balance of devious calculation, analytical coldness, societal prejudices, irritability and the energy of a live wire. Unlike both Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett (who are both superb Holmes in their own right) Cushing injects a passionate energy into the character that overcomes the Hammer film’s shortcomings and makes the viewer take notice when ordering Sir Henry not to under any circumstances go “alone on the moor at night.”

The ever-charming and strong presence of Lee is for once actually the romantic leading man. He even gets a small love scene! Sadly, his only real purpose is simply to act as the simple Henry Baskerville and thus really has little to do.

Fisher’s stable camerawork at some points is reminiscent of Sidney Paget’s original illustrations for the Holmes stories in the Strand magazine. Other than this, you would be hard pressed to find anything truly notable…save for the painfully lackluster looking Hound…

This is a little gem of a film. It is still most notable for the fantastic performance of Cushing as Holmes and regrettable only in that there could not be better circumstances surrounding the performance. Still, as with most Hammer productions the quality of the production team more than makes up for the low budget. This is one of those films perfect for starting your Halloween viewing early…

MGM’s DVD is acceptable, presented in the correct 1.66:1 theatrical ratio with clear mono. An original trailer is included. There is a nice extra with Christopher Lee recalling some anecdotes about the film and his good friend Cushing in addition to reading some excerpts from the original novel. The only problem I have with this disc, is that the color is not fully represented. The early Hammer horror films are famed for their use of vivid Technicolor and none of this really comes across on the DVD versions. (especially the bare bones Warner Dracula and Frankenstein Hammer releases.) This is a film that could really benefit from a new transfer so that it might finally get away from a video look and more closely resemble the theatrical presentation.

This exact disc was later reissued in a collection with two other Holmes films. Oddly enough, these three films together are my own personal favorite Holmes films: Without a Clue, Hound and the butchered masterpiece that is Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Clue has unfortunately been presented in full frame on DVD (this may be open matte, but I’m not absolutely sure.) but the other titles are in their proper widescreen ratios. Currently this set retails for $1.20 less than the standalone film and is a bargain for a nice comedy pared with the two finest Sherlock Holmes films.

http://www.amazon.com/Sherlock-Holmes-Collection-Robert-Stephens/dp/B002OMIKV8/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1318802738&sr=1-2

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Filed under 3 stars, Hammer Films

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