Sunday, 31 May 2015

the hound of the baskervilles (1959)

the 1959 hammer production of the hound of the baskervilles is notable for being the first sherlock holmes adaptation since the basil rathbone/nigel bruce series, and the first to be filmed in colour. it stars hammer regulars peter cushing, andre morell and christopher lee playing against type as a romantic lead. it also takes a few liberties with the story to give it more of a gothic horror vibe, and as a result stands out as a really unique adaptation of one of the more famous holmes mysteries.
so the story follows a nobleman, sir henry baskerville, who returns home when his father dies. sherlock holmes is alerted to the case by a friend of sir henry who tasks him with unravelling the mystery of the baskerville curse and protecting the last surviving member of the family.

i'll be honest, i'm not the biggest holmes fan in the world, although i do have a soft spot for the basil rathbone movies. i also prefer jonny lee miller to benedict cumberbatch and i've never made it to the end of one of the jeremy brett episodes. that said, i am a huge hammer fan and ultimately that's why i loved this adaptation.

putting holmes aside, from the blood-thirsty opening scene in which an insidious aristocrat chases down and kills an innocent woman only to be killed himself, it's clear that this is hammer at the top of their game. the setting is appropriately gothic, three of hammer's biggest stars are playing off each other on screen and director terence fisher makes sure every scene drips with gothic atmosphere. the story moves along at a good pace and it gives each of the three main players a good chunk of that story to themselves so it never feels like you're just waiting for holmes to figure it all out. there's also an amazing set-piece at the end of the film and a great twist. 

peter cushing does an amazing job playing holmes. cushing was apparently a huge fan of the character himself and threw in a few improvised lines and details that really make the character work. there's a great moment where he arranges a meeting with another character and as the scene continues cushing takes a pen and notes the time of the meeting down on his shirt cuff. it's a tiny detail, but cushing does something like this a number of times in every scene and it gives the impression of someone whose mind is always racing in search of the next solution.

andre morell, star of my personal favourite hammer title, plague of the zombies, is also on fine form here as dr. watson. morell is on record as saying that his portrayal of watson was intended as a direct response to the bumbling comic-relief interpretation created by nigel bruce in the rathbone movies. morell's watson is quite clearly an ex-military man (like morell himself) with a sharp mind and a determined curiosity that almost rivals that of his companion. that said, when the two of them are together it's clear they make a great team. my favourite moment of the two of them is in a scene where holmes is bedridden and is asks watson to check whether the drawers in his room have been tampered with. cushing and morell play this like a bickering married couple and it speaks volumes about the relationship between the two characters.

added to this is christopher lee as sir henry baskerville, who in this film is given a romantic subplot that seems to have been created specifically for this adaptation. it's remarkable to see lee playing so much against type, but at the same time you can never quite shake the idea that there's something darker going on behind his eyes and that actually works really well for the character.

as well as the film looking great, the blu-ray also comes with a number of fantastic extras, including a new 30-minute documentary featuring mark gatiss and kim newman as well as members of the original crew. there's also an interesting documentary about andre morell presented by his son and a 1986 documentary about the different portrayals of holmes over the years.

the hound of the baskervilles is a true classic of british cinema and if you haven't seen it then the blu-ray release is the perfect opportunity to check it out. if you're a hammer fan then this is an essential part of your collection.

the hound of the baskervilles will be released on blu-ray on 1st june by arrow films

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