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The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

No literary characters have appeared on screen more often than Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula. So in one of life's happy little synchronicities, one of the best screen Holmes teamed up with one of the best screen Draculas in 1959, and did so in an adaptation of the most-filmed Holmes story produced by the studio that revivified Dracula for the movies. Britain's Hammer Films had already made a name for itself as a maker of lurid yet appealing adaptations of horror and suspense classics, so its colorful The Hound of the Baskervilles was a welcome inevitability. This is the seventh cinematic version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel and the 121st Holmes film. (In 1945 a copy of a German version of Hound was found in Hitler's private film library at Berchtesgaden.) This was also the first Holmes movie shot in color. Director Terence Fisher had already teamed stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in two films that jolted Hammer to the domination of the British horror film scene: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958). Cushing was evangelical in his quest to do right by Doyle, and his Holmes is one of the greats even if it's not quite up there with the inestimable Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett for screen portrayals. Doyle's original story concluded its serialization in The Strand Magazine in 1902, and that same year saw the complete novel published for the first time. So, whether by accident or design, this 2002 MGM DVD release of The Hound of the Baskervilles comes as something of a centenary celebration.

Doyle's story has been predictably Hammerfied, but most of his plot's floorboards and furnishings are intact. Back in the 1600s, an abandoned abbey on the property of Baskerville Hall near the misty Devonshire moors was the site where evil Sir Hugo Baskerville murdered a girl who refused his favors, and in turn he immediately perished between the fangs of a gigantic spectral hound. Ever since, so the legend goes, the Baskerville family has been cursed with the monstrous beast. Holmes (Cushing) and Watson (André Morell) are brought up to date on the tale by Dr. Mortimer (Francis DeWolff), the friend and physician of Sir Charles Baskerville. Sir Charles was the most recent resident of the hall, until he was found dead of fright at the remains of the abbey — and a horrific howling has been heard in the surrounding moors.

Newly arrived from South Africa to take his place in the ancestral estate is Sir Henry Baskerville (Lee). Holmes, of course, is not convinced by ghost stories, but he senses evil afoot. Immediately after he warns Sir Henry against venturing to Baskerville Hall alone, his lordship is almost bitten by a tarantula deliberately placed to attack the new head of the manor. Holmes sends Watson to Devonshire with Sir Henry. From there Watson, Sir Henry, and later Holmes encounter an escaped convict, the scatterbrained local bishop (Miles Malleson) whose tarantula is missing, and Baskerville's neighbors: Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his alluring daughter, Cecile (Marla Landi). Will Holmes solve the mystery and discover who or what is behind the murders? Well, of course, but not before someone else perishes at the hound's jaws, the blood-stained dagger used by Sir Hugo is back in action, and Sir Henry discovers that a local girl beneath his station has plenty to offer his lordship.

This version of the classic tale works better as a "Hammer film" than as a Baskervilles adaptation. Holmes purists and pedants may gnash their teeth over add-ons that augment the Hammer house style — the menacing tarantula, an unexplained sacrificial rite, Sir Henry's sudden love interest (although we must say that the movie is distinguished by letting Christopher Lee, of all people, kiss the girl), among other divergences and alterations. Baskervilles has always been a little over-populated with red herring characters, and this version makes no effort to be an exception. The pacing could use a boost at times and — let's shoot straight here — the "hound of hell" itself is something of a letdown.

Nonetheless, Peter Cushing nails the energy, arrogance, and mannerisms of the literary Holmes, and bears a pleasing likeness to the original Strand illustrations even without possessing the elevated physicality of Doyle's character. Cushing's incarnation achieves distinction even as he plays up the stereotyped image of Holmes that had crystallized in the zeitgeist long before '59. With a Meershaum pipe in his teeth, he sports the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape that are as associated with their owner as Superman's red cape and "S" logo. Twice the film all but winks at the audience when Cushing exclaims "Elementary, my dear Watson," a line never uttered in Doyle's stories yet which has barnacled itself onto the popular image of the Great Detective. No matter. Cushing delivers a sterling performance, and a Holmes film made strictly for Holmes purists certainly wouldn't be a Hammer production.

André Morell's no-guff, dependable Dr. Watson isn't given enough to do, yet he's miles more authentic than the wuffling comic sidekick Nigel Bruce's version imprinted on the popular imagination. He steadfastly strides forth alone into the moonlit moors, risking death by quicksand or convict or canine terror, to ably assist his companion.

Being a Hammer production, the cinematography is stylish and just gaudy enough, with that distinctive Hammer gothic plumage — plenty of antique tones, dark wood sets, and shadow-strewn exteriors — on ample display, and the set designer obviously did fastidious research into the canonical details of 221B Baker Street. Alterations aside, the Hammer Hound rates well on lists of favorite Doyle adaptations, though it's usually ranked below the 1939 version, which initiated the long-running Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series, and the BBC's 1968 version that again featured Cushing as the Master. (In 1984 Cushing played Holmes yet again, in the telefilm The Masks of Death, and wrote about Holmes for a number of books. Lee also had his turn playing Holmes in '62.)

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MGM's DVD release of The Hound of the Baskervilles offers a fine transfer of a good print in its original 1.66:1 widescreen image. It looks fine with strong color, definition, and contrast. Some print wear is evident, though nothing to grumble about. The DD 2.0 monaural audio is clear but thin, so the musical score by Hammer's court composer, James Bernard, suffers a bit without more bottom end.

A pair of new supplements are almost worth the sticker price by themselves. The first is a new 13-minute interview with Christopher Lee that shows him at his most gracious and warm-hearted, especially when it becomes a loving eulogy to the late Peter Cushing. Lee reveals that he and Cushing would often punctuate their friendship by making cartoon voices to one another, with Lee specializing in Yosemite Sam and Sylvester the cat. Pity he doesn't indulge in a demonstration after dropping that image-defying anvil.

The other extra is a two-part reading by Lee from Doyle's novel. For roughly 20 minutes, Lee's gorgeous resonant baritone delivers portions of the first and last chapters, accompanied by the original Sidney Paget illustrations.

Subtitle options are English, Spanish, and French. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne



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