The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958/1959) -***
By now we’ve dealt quite thoroughly with the point that Hammer Film Productions’ main line of business in the late 1950’s was producing remakes or semi-remakes of famous Hollywood horror flicks from the 30’s and 40’s, especially the ones made by Universal Studios. Hammer made Frankenstein movies, Dracula movies, mummy movies, a werewolf movie— just about the only Universal horror premise Hammer didn’t try its hand at was an update of Captive Wild Woman. And like Universal, Hammer cranked out sequel after sequel (or at least semi-sequel after semi-sequel— the mummy movies don’t form anything like a continuous story arc) to its most popular offerings, even exceeding Universal itself when it came to producing Dracula flicks. So it’s rather odd that Hammer’s late-50’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles didn’t spawn a spinoff franchise the way Universal’s first Holmes film had back in the war years. Granted, this is an extremely silly movie, which plays as much like a parody of the Universal Sherlock Holmes series as it does like a straight remake, but my understanding is that it fared reasonably well at the box office, and Peter Cushing certainly looks like he had a wonderful time out-Basil Rathboning Basil Rathbone.
Sir Hugo Baskerville of Dartmoor (House of the Living Dead’s David Oxley) is a right fucking bastard. When we meet him, he and his pals are having a party in Baskerville Hall at which the main attraction is slapping around one of the peasants who works Sir Hugo’s land. This man ran afoul of his lord by having the gall to speak up on the subject of the way Sir Hugo was treating his latest paramour, who not coincidentally was also the farmer’s teenage daughter (who, by the way, is locked in one of the bedrooms upstairs while all this is going on). After tossing the farmer through a window and into the castle moat, Sir Hugo has two of his guests fish the poor man out and bring him back inside so that Hugo can set his hair alight in the fireplace. Meanwhile, up in her room, the man’s daughter hears her father’s screams, and realizes that she’s going to have to fend for herself if she wants to get away from Baskerville Hall in one piece. By the time Sir Hugo finishes with Dad and comes to collect the girl for the next round of the night’s amusements, she has already let herself out the window and climbed at great risk down the outer wall of the castle. Sir Hugo, in a fit of rage, orders one of his servants to bring him his horse and his hounds— he’s going on a little impromptu hunt! There’s little hope for the girl now, of course, and Sir Hugo and his pets do eventually catch up with her by the ruins of a medieval abbey out on the moors. But no sooner has Sir Hugo stuck his dagger in his prey’s heart than he is pounced upon by a gigantic dog. His body is found the next day with its throat torn out, and from that day forward, legend has it that the Baskerville family lives under the devil hound’s curse.
We hear this story from the lips of Dr. Mortimer (Francis De Wolff, from Devil Doll and Corridors of Blood), also of Dartmoor, who has come to see legendary freelance detective Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) in the aftermath of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, who was a longtime friend of the doctor’s. Though Sir Charles died of a fright-induced heart attack (all male members of the Baskerville line suffer from weak hearts), the physical circumstances of his death are suggestively similar to those described in the legend of Sir Hugo and the devil dog. Like his notorious ancestor, Sir Charles was found in the ruins of the abbey after venturing alone onto the moors by night, and there are those— the Baskerville servants among them— who claim to have heard an eerie canine howl coming from the abbey that evening. And though he doesn’t necessarily believe literally in the curse of the Baskervilles, Dr. Mortimer does suspect that somebody might be using it as a framework and a cover story for their own program of murder. What brings Mortimer to Holmes is the fact that Baskerville Hall has now come into the hands of Sir Charles’s nephew, Henry (Christopher Lee), who is even now in London making a rest-stop on his journey north to take possession of the place; Mortimer hopes that Holmes can figure out just what sort of dirty dealing is afoot before Sir Henry falls victim to it too.
Holmes agrees to take the case, and with that in mind, he and his trusty sidekick, Dr. Watson (Andre Morell, from The Plague of the Zombies and The Giant Behemoth), head over to the hotel where Sir Henry is staying the night. When they get there, the newest Lord Baskerville is complaining most fervently about how somebody appears to have stolen one— just one, mind you— of his riding boots. To begin with, the baronet finds it incredibly frustrating that, for all the money he’s paying, the hotel management can’t keep thieves out of his room, but beyond that, he’s simply baffled by the notion that somebody might want to steal only one of his shoes. Sir Henry happens to be holding the mate of the missing boot at the time, and when Holmes’s gaze falls upon the footwear in question, he quite dramatically orders Henry not to move— if he values his life! The moment Holmes finishes this rather startling utterance, a huge-ass tarantula crawls out of the boot and begins climbing up Sir Henry’s arm; after a few moments of laughably overwrought tension, Holmes knocks the arachnid to the floor and begins walloping it in a similarly excessive fashion with his cane. The spider incident having proved for him his point that Sir Henry’s life is in constant and immediate danger, Holmes sends Watson along with him to Baskerville Hall. The detective himself will follow in a couple of days.
And now it’s time to play Meet the Suspects. In addition to Dr. Mortimer (who inherited a great deal of Sir Charles’s money, and could perhaps have only had his appetite whetted for more), we’ve got Barrymore the butler (John Le Mesurier, from Blood of the Vampire and War-Gods of the Deep), who also benefited in a small way from Sir Charles’s will. There’s also a suspiciously grumpy farmer in the neighborhood by the name of Stapleton (Ewen Solon, of Jack the Ripper and The Curse of the Werewolf), who has a suspiciously flighty young daughter called Cecile (First Man Into Space’s Marla Landi) with a suspiciously foreign accent. Then we have the seemingly harmless, but hopelessly besotted Bishop of Grippen (Miles Malleson, from The Brides of Dracula and The Brain), who becomes a suspect by virtue of the fact that he’s also an amateur entomologist— remember that spider in the boot, now! Finally, there’s the small matter of the serial killer who recently escaped from Dartmoor Prison, out on the loneliest stretch of the moor.
And speaking of lonely stretches of moor, Baskerville and Watson notice, on their first night in the castle, that somebody out by the old abbey seems to be sending signals by means of a lantern to someone else in or around Baskerville Hall. When the two men go out to investigate, taking great care not to wander into the treacherous Grippen Mire (I’m sorry, did I forget to mention that there was a treacherous mire?), someone or something foils the attempt by lunging out of the shadows at Sir Henry, triggering a heart arrhythmia, and forcing Watson to take him back home. Leaving Baskerville in the care of Dr. Mortimer, Watson goes back out to the abbey a bit later, where he runs into, of all people, Sherlock Holmes! Evidently Holmes snuck out to Dartmoor on the very next train after Watson’s, so that he would be able to do some snooping while everybody’s guard was down, and he’s had a few interesting chats with our escaped killer as a consequence. While the two of them are on their way back to the hall, Watson notices that all the lights are off— Mortimer has gone and left Sir Henry alone! And worse yet, the still night air is soon shattered by a piercing scream from the vicinity of the abbey behind them. Running back to rescue the screamer, Holmes and Watson find only a dead body dressed in Sir Henry’s clothes. But as they discover upon their return to Baskerville Hall, the dead man is not Sir Henry, but rather the fugitive murderer. It turns out that he was the brother of Barrymore’s wife (Helen Goss, from The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll), and that the whole business with the signal lantern was merely the means by which Mrs. Barrymore contrived to get food, water, and clothing into her brother’s possession.
Well, that would seem to eliminate one of our suspects, while Holmes’s visit to the Bishop to discuss the matter of Sir Henry’s shoe-loving tarantula eliminates one more— the spider had indeed been part of his collection, but it had gone missing some time ago, on the very day that the bishop was last visited by both Mortimer and Stapleton. So Holmes follows up another lead, the reports of some of the locals that the howling of the spectral hound can be heard coming from beneath the ground. Sure enough, there proves to be an abandoned tin mine out on the moor, and given Dr. Mortimer’s extreme unwillingness to take Holmes there to have a look around, it seems awfully likely that something incriminating might turn up in its tunnels. Holmes badgers the doctor until he agrees to make the trip, and brings Stapleton along, too, to provide some extra muscle. Interesting, then, that there should be a cave-in trapping Holmes— but not Mortimer or Stapleton— underground immediately after the detective comes across something that sparks his interest. Holmes escapes, of course (in a manner seemingly calculated to be really annoying to his friends and even more so to his enemies), and gets back on the case having assured himself that there really is a hound; the clue he found down in the mine was a beef bone of recent provenance, indicating that somebody’s been feeding a large animal down there. And with Sir Henry out of the house having dinner with the Stapletons, Holmes figures he’s got the perfect opportunity to fit the last couple of pieces into the puzzle...
The thing about Sherlock Holmes, as Arthur Conan Doyle wrote him and as Basil Rathbone played him in the 30’s and 40’s, is that he’s an intensely irritating human being. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how Dr. Watson gets through even ten minutes in his company without smacking him. What Cushing seems to be doing here is amplifying that quality to near-satirical levels, though it isn’t at all obvious whether or not we’re supposed to take his performance as a joke. Honestly, Cushing’s performance is this movie’s biggest surprise. Usually, he’s all restraint and good breeding; here, he’s farther out of control than Michael Gough ever was. And considering the way that Doyle always struck me as an author who wasn’t in on his own jokes, such a shamelessly goofball interpretation of his most famous character seems like just what the subject matter calls for. I mean, think about it: Sherlock Holmes is patently ridiculous, to every bit as great a degree as any spandex-sporting superhero. Particularly when presented with a script such as this one (the escape from the tin mine, the completely unresolved issue of the druidic sacrifice that I didn’t mention because I couldn’t think of a way to make it fit, Holmes’s last-scene announcement that he first suspected the hound was real when Sir Henry’s boot went missing), there is little to be gained from trying to give the character a degree of dignity his creator never bothered with in the first place. So maybe that’s why I enjoyed this version of The Hound of the Baskervilles so much more than any of the other Sherlock Holmes flicks I’ve watched part of and then turned off over the years.