ON BLU-RAY, DVD, download and on-demand: 25TH APRIL, from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME: 100 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In his gazebo, Sir Charles Baskerville is killed by a large hound. His nephew Henry Baskerville arrives from Canada to take over the Baskerville estate out in the English countryside. Sir Henry’s associate Dr. Mortimer believes that there was something unnatural about Henry’s uncle’s death, something involving a Baskerville family legend about a demonic hound that roams the moors at night. Holmes agrees to take the case, not because of the supernatural, but the very real death threats and attempts on Sir Henry’s life. Out in the moors, there are suspects everywhere, including the Baskerville family’s longtime butler, a neighbouring family, a gruff farmer living nearby, and a wandering band of gypsies in the area. Also, there are more and more sightings of a monstrous, glowing hound at night….
Despite having Sherlock Holmes absent for a considerable amount of time, The Hound Of The Baskervilles is probably the most famous of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories and certainly has almost everything – a spooky setting, some mild scares, an intriguing mystery, mysterious murders, a family curse, class conflict, several suspects, revenge, even a monster – which may go some way [though it’s still incredible] why it’s been filmed [if one includes short TV episodes as well as feature length productions], a whopping 27 times. I’ve seen seven of them, but this 1983 version, while not as deliriously atmospheric as the 1939 version, as fun as the 1958 or as close to the book as the 1989, may be one of the best in terms of an all-round piece of entertainment. I found The Sign Of Four to be entertaining but fatally flawed by the way they decided to restructure the story so there was almost no mystery. I had no complaints of that nature with The Hound Of The Baskervilles, which is easily the best of the two productions. They manage to make a fairly slow paced tale into quite a fast paced effort without losing the feel that is necessary to any version worth its salt, and most of the additions and alterations work very well from a dramatic standpoint. If you’ve never seen a Holmes film at all, this is a pretty good place to start.
The Hound Of The Baskervilles was made immediately after The Sign Of Four, though with a different director, Douglas Hickox replacing Desmond Davis. It also had a new Watson, because David Healey was unavailable. Nigel Stock, who had played the character in 1964, was offered the role but turned it down before Donald Churchill came on board. Charles Edward Pogue’s screenplay thankfully retained the structure of the source novel though again increased the horror aspect, added an extra murder and a whole new character to increase the list of suspects, and brought Inspector Lestrade into the story while also borrowing just a little bit from the Universal and Hammer version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles. The film was shot partly in Dartmoor, though Grimpen Mire was created at Shepperton Studios due to bad weather. Baskerville Hall was Knightshayes Court, neat Tiverton, Devon, where the crew were surprised but extremely pleased to discover that the crest of the house was hounds, which were all over the main hall. Hickox had to be stopped from adding more and more horror to the story, including blood to be seen coming out of the mouths of the house’s gargoyles. Sadly, as with The Sign Of Four, legal wrangling resulted the film going straight to video in most territories and cable TV in the US.
We have a similar title sequence to The Sign Of Four, though this time the images, though still taken from scenes in the film proper, don’t reveal so much, while the music theme, this time from Michael Small, is a moodier, more sedate piece. A superbly chosen first shot of Charles Baskerville standing outside the front of Baskerville Hall, staring out onto the moor, leads in to his death which is largely shown from the POV of the Hound and is more frightening than normal because this Hound can get into the house [though this idea, full of terrifying potential, is sadly never employed again]. Then we meet Holmes and Watson, and Holmes gets another terrific introductory scene along with Watson. Somebody has left a walking stick as a calling card, and Watson attempts to guess the details of the owner but is proved to be wrong by Holmes in almost every way. I really like the fact that Ian Richardson’s Holmes doesn’t seem to do this kind of thing with the somewhat mean relish of most other Sherlocks. He just can’t help but do it because of his superior intellect. We soon get the relating of background events to Holmes and Watson and here it’s quite a grim affair, at least for a 1983 TV production, with Hugo Baskerville anally raping a poor servant girl while the camera keeps cutting to her horse sinking into the fog-strewn quagmire of Grimpen Mire. When the Hound turns up to attack him, it provides quite an impressive jump scare as the beast seems to literally leap out from the depths of Hell.
This version gives us an extra thrill scene – Holmes and Watson rushing to save Henry Baskerville from a man who tries to shoot him – again very well handled by Hickox. This director is, of course, best known for the camp horror classic Theatre Of Blood, and occasionally he and Pogue do mildly sensationalise Doyle’s story, such as having Henry’s dog being killed by the Hound, but mostly in a way so the results seem like natural extensions rather than simply lurid add-ons. When Watson arrives at Baskerville Hall, we’re given a new character who ends up committing a particular murder in what is quite a logical development, though you may initially sigh a first as it initially seems like yet another excuse for Brian Blessed, who only ever seems to give one performance, to chew the scenery yet again. The additions do mean that parts of the first half of the story are rather rushed, most notably when we’re told about the woman sobbing during the night the morning after but don’t actually get to hear it, while the decision to increase Holmes’s role doesn’t entirely come off because it’s pretty obvious that a certain character is the great man in disguise. Still, the makers generally succeeded in their attempts to make a version of this novel that really moves – characters don’t often walk into a room, they’re already there – and it proceeds nicely to its exciting climax, for which it saves a reveal that some versions feel the need to inform us of earlier.
Inspector Lestrade, though he’s not supposed to, turns up in this story, written and played nicely straight by Ronald Lacey [another Raiders Of The Lost Ark alumni, Denholm Elliott, also has a major role]. In fact there’s very little humour at all in this one, the few traces of it coming from Donald Churchill’s Watson, the actor making more of an impression than David Healey, though some Holmes fans may find the portrayal annoying as it’s quite close to the blustery, even buffoonish, version played by Nigel Bruce in the 1940’s Basil Rathbone Holmes films which is often criticised for cheapening the character though I rather like it myself [it’s nice to have interpretations which differ and take liberties, otherwise things would be pretty boring]. One thing I was most pleased to see that I haven’t seen in all the other versions I’ve viewed was the Hound being lit up by phosphorus just like in the book. While a few close-ups do reveal a rather docile animal if you look closely, overall the scenes with the Hound are well achieved. The production looks great throughout with cinematographer Ronnie Taylor giving us some gorgeous yet still ominous, shots of the moors and the exterior of Baskerville Hall, while Grimpen Mire is a simple but still great little Universal Horror-type set with heaps of swirling fog.
Richardson, who at one point gets to recreate a scene from The Speckled Band story where the person confronting him bends a poker in half and Holmes nonchalantly bends it back in a brilliant depiction of superiority and strength without any physical confrontation, is even better than before. This Holmes really seems to enjoy what he does, rather than finding it a necessity because he’ll go insane with boredom otherwise, and it may not be accurate but is a joy to watch. He sometimes comes across to me as a melding of Rathbone’s and Cushing’s Holmes but with the dark shadings from the latter’s portrayal ironed out, though saying that is really to do a disservice to the additions that Richardson provides. For some reason, a large part of Martin Shaw’s Canadian accent was dubbed by another actor in post-production, and it’s painfully obvious, especially during the [otherwise very well handled] romantic subplot featuring him and Beryl Stapleton. Generally though, the fine cast adds an extra fine flavour to this Hound Of The Baskervilles, a retelling which really comes off very well indeed and might be my preferred version of choice now. And, while I wouldn’t swap Jeremy Brett for the world [though this version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles easily beats his], wouldn’t it have been great if we’d had the continuation of this maybe less faithful but just as worthy series too?
Bonus feature: Audio commentary by renowned ‘Holmes’ expert David Stuart Davies