CINEMA CLASSICS: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

A game is afoot in Hammer’s spooky contribution to the Sherlock Holmes tradition. 

Artwork by A.D. Black

Who made it?: Terence Fisher (Director), Peter Bryan (Writer), Anthony Hinds, Kenneth Hyman (Producers), Hammer Films.

Who’s in it?: Peter Cushing, André Morell, Christopher Lee, Marla Landi, David Oxley, Francis De Wolff. 

Tagline: “Ten times the terror in Technicolor!”

IMDb rating: 7.0/10.

In addition to the myriad of Dracula and Frankenstein pictures released by Hammer, they also branched out into gothic mystery with one of the bloodiest books starring Sherlock Holmes. Fantastic casting and superb direction make The Hound of the Baskervilles one of the best Holmes adaptations and one of the better Hammer productions. Given the talent involved, could this be one of Hammer’s most underrated films? Let’s take a look.

When the cruel aristocrat Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) turns his lustful eye to the daughter of an abused servant, she escapes from the mansion. Baskerville pursues her through the moor with a pack of beagles, but they are spooked by a howling in the distance. Baskerville dismounts and pursues her on foot, before finding her and stabbing her to death in the nearby abbey ruins. Suddenly, a dog unseen by the audience appears and kills Baskerville. As legend has it, the pooch has become known as the “Hound of the Baskervilles,” and any night a Baskerville is alone on the moor, the hound will kill him.

Several centuries later, the death of Sir Charles Baskerville is being reported by his best friend, Dr. Richard Mortimer (Francis de Wolff), to Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Dr. Watson (André Morell), who are willing to meet the new owner of Baskerville Hall, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee). A tarantula attacks Sir Henry briefly in London and Holmes suspects foul play. Holmes puts Watson in charge of watching over Sir Henry as he returns to Baskerville Hall, and advises him not to let Sir Henry go out onto the more after dark. On the way to Baskerville Hall, Watson learns that a mad convict named Selden (Michael Mulcaster) has escaped from nearby Dartmoor Prison two days ago. At the Hall, Watson and Sir Henry learn from the butler, Barrymore (John Le Mesurier), that one of the two paintings of Sir Hugo was stolen several months ago. Watson then inquires Barrymore about further details of Sir Charles’s death since Barrymore was the first to discover the body, and Barrymore claims he found it by chance. Watson meets a man named Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his daughter, Cecille (Marla Landi), who save him from sinking into quicksand in the Grimpen Mire. One night, Watson and Sir Henry investigate a mysterious light and are attacked by a strange man and the howls of the Baskerville hound are heard.

In the pantheon of actors to play Sherlock Holmes, Cushing makes for a sharp, charismatic and eloquent iteration of the great detective, with a distinct edge of eccentricity. For me personally, he holds a special place in my heart as a truly great Mr. Holmes. Morell is a steadfast and efficient Watson, and is charismatic and clever enough to carry the film while Cushing is not onscreen. The great Lee fits into the aristocratic archetype very nicely, and as usual, his magnificent timbre and bearing inspire respect in his presence and even vulnerability in certain scenes. As Dr. Mortimer, de Wolff brings a lot of bluster and fearfulness to the good physician, working well even in a limited capacity. Landi doesn’t fare as well with her Spanish accent faltering from time to time, but never to distracting degrees. Other supporting actors such as Le Mesurier, Solon and Mulcaster all work very well in their roles. Much of the horror comes from the strength of the actors’ performances, from their intensity and fear in response to the twists and turns of the story, and this in turn keeps the viewer invested in the story.

The bombastic score by James Bernard inspires excitement and fear at all the right moments, and provides a moody and dark accompaniment to the scenes on the moors. Like all Hammer films, the lighting and atmosphere is magnificent, with ominous use of shadows, mist, dim candlelight, rumbling thunder, and flashes of lightning amp up the gothic setting. The moody aesthetic combined with the bright Technicolor gloss as well as the sets give the film a bizarre, dreamlike quality. Shots that demonstrate the stark beauty of the land are contrasted with the gaudy colour and light of the Baskerville mansion. Director Terence Fisher creates a sense of mystery and peril around the swampy moors, which lends to a chilling atmosphere and a growing sense of suspense as Holmes and Watson attempt to unmask the mythical beast that haunts Baskerville Hall. The moor exteriors are highly effective, fitting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions exactly.

Peter Bryan‘s screenplay uses the framework of the original story but is not afraid to make subtle deviations for cinematic purposes, keeping a fine balance between movie expectations and loyalty to the novel. The great problem facing any writer with the task of transferring this particular story to the screen is that Sherlock is absent for at least half the book, reappearing as it were to tie-up the loose ends. This might be acceptable for a novel, but not for a film whose selling power depends on the hero’s name. Because of the strength of Cushing and Morell’s respective performances, it never becomes boring or loses its momentum.

This particular Conan Doyle story seems almost perfectly suited to the Hammer Horror style and formula, albeit changed around slightly and with an emphasis placed on the atmosphere and character interactions. This is very much a Sherlock Holmes story as a gothic adventure, and it works surprisingly well – showing just how flexible The Hound of the Baskervilles is as a story. From the opening scene illustrating the brutality and darkness of Sir Hugo Baskerville, it’s apparent that Hammer will be putting their own slant on the story; never deviating too far, but tweaking it to suit their approach.

The film certainly takes its time to weave the narrative, which doesn’t lend itself to frequent repeat viewing. Even though we don’t see a lot of Cushing’s Sherlock in the film, his arrival in the second half is a strong signal that business has gotten serious. Indeed, the movie opens very much like a conventional Hammer Horror, with a creepy scene of human brutality, with Sir Hugo Baskerville tempting fate in the pursuit of a woman across the moors, fully intending to rape her, and invoking a supernatural curse upon his family name. “May the hounds of hell take me if I can’t hunt her down!” he vows. It doesn’t end well for him.

In most versions of the story, the character of Cecille is portrayed as relatively innocent. She has even, on occasion, been paired off with Sir Henry at the end of the story in other film versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here, however, Cecile is portrayed as rather wild and unpredictable, creating an unsettling sense about her presence. The film uses her more abrasive attitude to illustrate the conflict of class between the Baskervilles and their peasant servants, which comes to a head in the climax. This type of character was quite new in the 50s and further cemented Hammer’s reputation for putting unconventional or indeed disturbing portrayals of female characters in their films.

The main problem comes with the climax, with all the buildup to the infamous hound, as the imagination is allowed to run loose and it ultimately exceeds what is onscreen. The denouement is rushed and it feels like the film gets wrapped up too quickly, despite all the loose ends being tied up. Again, this isn’t a dealbreaker but, after such a strong mystery element, the film deserved a stronger ending.

Overall, Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles represented a great deal of potential thanks to Cushing as a cracking Sherlock Holmes, which isn’t quite reached thanks to some underwhelming story beats and a lack of the iconic actor. Still, it more than gets by on its atmosphere and high caliber performances. It may or may not be the definitive adaptation of Doyle’s famous mystery thriller, but it is certainly a worthy iteration of the classic Sherlock Holmes story and a worthy addition to the Hammer library.

Best Scene

Why not watch the whole bloody thing on YouTube?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The first Sherlock Holmes movie to be filmed in colour.
  • Christopher Lee readily admited he had a morbid fear of spiders, and the panic on his face during the scene with the tarantula was not due to acting.
  • The Baskerville Hall set is a redress of that used for Castle Dracula in Horror of Dracula (1958), in which Lee and Peter Cushing also starred.
  • The hound they used was a real dog called Colonel. On the set before the hound attacks Lee’s character, they could not get Colonel to jump on Lee, so they started to “prod” him into action. Lee gave up and suddenly, Colonel lunged on him and bit right through one of his arms.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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