HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still can not forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word. So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore….our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection. For our fourth and final Holmes adventure, we take a look at a blockbuster that wasn’t, a really fun adventure from the days when kid’s movies could be nice and dark!
HCF REWIND NO.36. YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE PYRAMID OF FEAR
AVAILABLE ON DVD
DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson
WRITTEN BY: Chris Columbus
STARRING: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward, Anthony Higgins
RUNNING TIME: 106 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A hooded figure shoots a man with a blowpipe, causing the victim to hallucinate wildly and leap to his death out of a window. Meanwhile young John Watson arrives at London’s prestigious Brompton Academy and meets Sherlock Holmes, who is competing with fellow student Dudley for the affections of Elizabeth, the niece of Holmes’ inventor mentor Rupert T. Waxflatter, though she clearly prefers Holmes. When two more people die due to the blowpipes, the second being Waxflatter himself, Holmes suspects foul play but is rebuffed by Scotland policeman Lestrade when he suggests a connection between the deaths. Holmes is unjustly expelled from the Academy due to Dudley’s machinations, but, using Waxflatter’s tower as a base, sets out to solve the case, aided by Watson and Elizabeth…..
The idea of Sherlock Holmes as a teenager, gradually turning into the man we know and love, is a genius one, full of possibilities, and it has always surprised me that, while there have certainly been books, only one film has explored this idea, unless you count the shoddy 2002 Sherlock Holmes: Case Of Evil, where Holmes is a very young man. Young Sherlock Holmes and The Pyramid Of Fear, which was just called Young Sherlock Holmes in the US, is one of those films that should have been a major hit, and I reckon that if it came out now it would be a smash. Sadly though, due in part to minimal publicity, it was something of a flop, which it didn’t deserve to be. It’s a highly enjoyable movie that often goes outside the parameters of a Holmes story but has considerable charm; Steven Spielberg [who executive produced] meets Conan Doyle, if you like, a marriage that jars in places but overall results in solid screen entertainment.
It is also amazingly scary for a ‘PG’ rated film seemingly aimed at children. The first scene shows a man hallucinating that his roast chicken is attacking him, then hallucinating that a chair is growing legs and trying to choke him to death. The whole sequence would not have been out of place in a Freddy Krueger pic. Later on, we are treated to a knight on a stained glass window jumping off and attacking [in an effect that was the first fully CG special effect ever done and was created by a certain John Lasseter before he formed Pixar], little monster statues flying inside a man’s clothes, and a whole series of dark hallucinations in a graveyard, including burial alive, Holmes encountering his father amid hints of a less than ‘nice’ childhood, and a both freaky and funny bit where Watson, who loves cakes, sees lots and lots of cakes and pastries grow legs and force their way into his mouth. The mid-80s was the Golden Age of dark and scary ‘PG’ films that would all be rated ‘12’ now, and of course Spielberg has always been a master at somehow getting his movies a lower rating than they should. Raiders Of The Lost Ark’s melting, exploding Nazis. Jaws graphically biting off a man’s leg. The entire second half of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. The list goes on.
With an often dark tone, Young Sherlock Holmes is typical of the scripts Chris Columbus wrote at the time [Gremlins, The Goonies], and has less of the humour of those two movies, but there are lighter sections, especially in the early scenes where Watson meets Holmes. Holmes is already able to use extraordinary deductive powers but also thinks he can master the violin in three days. There’s an inventor, like Belle’s father in Beauty and The Beast, who keeps trying to fly, and of course you just know [no spoilers warnings really necessary] that the machine will prove useful during the climax. For quite a while, in the manner of a proper Holmes story, things progress fairly leisurely, but build up a considerable element of intrigue and mystery, though doesn’t it all bear a little resemblance to the early adventures of a certain Harry Potter, the first two movies of which were directed by a certain Chris Columbus? The highlight of the first half is a cracking scene where Holmes is challenged to find a trophy that has been hidden in one minute, clever and excited, though soon after this matters become very reminiscent of the previous year’s Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, with a human sacrifice scene staged and shot in almost the same way, and even more reminiscent of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories, with all ths scheming ‘foreign’ villainy taking place beneath London with secret chambers, evil potions, and the like.
That in a way is the main problem with this movie; it ends up ignoring Conan Doyle almost altogether, though you could link this movie to the Guy Ritchie films, with their greater reliance on action, and you cannot deny that Holmes’ final fight with the main villain is terrific stuff, a really lengthy and inventive brawl that goes all over the place and ends up on cracking ice. What does work really well, and gives the film a considerable emotional edge, is its depiction of Holmes’ transformation from idealistic, lovesick teenager to the cold, sardonic detective we are all familiar with, whose ability to hold his feelings in check perhaps is invaluable in making him such a good crime solver but leaves him emotionally stunted. What the film hypothesises gives matters a certain depth and leads to a really sad scene which I have no shame in saying always makes me shed a tear or two and almost approaches the melancholy feeling of The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, which may very well be the greatest Holmes movie of them all. Terrible events can sometimes help turn us into someone who can do great things, but at what cost?
Young Sherlock Holmes was directed by Barry Levinson, not a director you would automatically think of for this sort of thing, but he handles it very well. Sadly Nicholas Rowe, though he certainly looks the part, is just not a very good actor; many lines are delivered feebly and he just doesn’t have the required presence even the young Sherlock ought to have. Small wonder he didn’t make it big, though I can’t say the same about Sophie Ward, a really touching, sweet heroine. She should have gone on to do better things. Rowe and Alan Cox as Watson do share some nice scenes, such as when Holmes persuades Watson to help him, being cruel and complimentary at the same time. Roger Ashton-Griffiths makes for a wonderfully patronising [though too old] Lestrade. Bruce Broughton contributes a superb score that really enhances the movie, with a terrific jaunty main theme that sounds both appropriately ‘Holmesian’ and evocative of younger years. The score has a real feel of adventure throughout, though at times it sounds very much like John Williams; hardly surprising really. Though it has its problems, I really wish this had been a hit and we could have seen more adventures of the young Sherlock Holmes, Rowe or not!