After successfully reinventing the Frankenstein and Dracula legends, Hammer Films turned to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most well known Sherlock Holmes story to adapt for the big screen. Filmed many times before and after, the Hammer version ranks high marks due to the casting of Peter Cushing as Holmes, the direction of Terence Fisher, and the familiar attributes that make their films so special and unique.
It begins with a prologue about the curse of the Baskervilles, as we learn that Sir Hugo (David Oxley, HOUSE OF THE LIVING DEAD) murdered a young girl who had escaped from one of his nights of debauchery. Hugo is then killed by a hound from hell, and the years that follow bring the same fate to all male heirs of the Baskerville name. The latest victim is Sir Charles Baskerville, who died of fright on the same Devonshire moors as Sir Hugo did. The new Baskerville heir is Sir Henry (Christopher Lee, THE CREEPING FLESH) who arrives from America to inherit the family property. Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing, THE GORGON) and Dr. Watson (Andre Morell, THE MUMMY’S SHROUD) are employed to protect Sir Henry as another mystery unwraps before them.
Hammer's take on HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES certainly has more grounds in the supernatural than most other versions, and they kept the horror angle in their advertising ("The Most Horror-Dripping TALE EVER WRITTEN!"). In the first-ever color Holmes movie, Peter Cushing is marvelous, fully immersed in the role through use of self-furnished props and enthusiastic mannerisms. Andre Morell provides an intelligent and refined Watson, and the cast is rounded out with a number of Hammer character vets, including Francis De Wolff (THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL) as the burly Dr. Mortimer and Miles Malleson (BRIDES OF DRACULA) doing his "comic relief" shtick as Bishop Frankland (and sporting a very distracting platinum toupee). Not under monster guise the first time for Hammer, Christopher Lee plays Sir Henry with great authority and likability, and he even gets a love interest, the feisty Cecile Stapleton (Marla Landi, FIRST MAN INTO SPACE, THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER).
As usual, Fisher's direction is tight and the cinematography is rich, complimented by beautiful shots of the foggy moors and detailed interiors (and this was primarily shot within the confines of the tiny Bray Studios, Hammer’s home until 1966). Perhaps the only thing that hampers the film is the disappearance of Holmes during the middle (when he sends a solo Watson to Devonshire, only to make a big entrance later) and the disappointing appearance of the rather modest hound during the climax. Reportedly, footage of children playing the parts of Cushing, Morell and Lee interacting with the animal were shot in order to make it appear large and intimidating, but the effect proved to be embarrassing and was scrapped (I'd love to see those outtakes!). A lot of the usual Hammer behind-the-scenes creative talent from the period worked on the film, including producer Anthony Hinds, executive producer Anthony Nelson Keys, cinematographer Jack Asher, production designer Bernard Robinson and make-up man Roy Ashton. The screenplay is by former camera operator Peter Bryan, also responsible for some great Hammer movies (namely BRIDES OF DRACULA and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES), though his later efforts are considered much lesser (THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR, TROG) even though they are still fun. Hammer’s house composer James Bernard gives us another rousing score, and seasoned Hammer fans will easily recognize cues from the climax of HORROR OF DRACULA used in HOUND’s opening scenes.
Released theatrically by United Artists, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES has been an MGM home video property for quite some time, with the company first releasing it as a non-anamorphic DVD in 2002. After MGM created a new HD transfer for the film, Arrow Films in the UK licensed it for a UK Blu-ray release in 2015, with Twilight Time now claiming the transfer for this limited edition (3000 units) US release. The film is presented in 1080p HD in a fitting 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and Twilight Time has done an admirable job with their first release of a Hammer film on Blu-ray (we hope there’s many more to come). The color palette is quite striking, and at times the transfer looks like a painting coming to life, a proper approximation of what the original Technicolor must have looked like in a theater. Even when the image looks more on the flat side, it still impresses with rich detail, good grain structure and deep black levels. Print damage is minimal, and only an occasional blemish can be witnessed. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track may not have incredible range but it certainly serves the film well, with the dialogue being clear and Bernard’s terrific score also sounding perfect. An isolated music and effects track is included, as are optional English SDH subtitles.
Carried over from MGM’s 2002 DVD is "The Actors Notebook" (13:00) an excellent video interview with the late Christopher Lee. Lee fondly discusses Arthur Conan Doyle, director Terence Fisher, co-stars Andre Morell and Marla Landi, working with the actual “hound”, and he mentions the discomfort he felt while having a large tarantula crawl up his shoulder! Lee's comments about Peter Cushing are especially heartfelt and once again shows the great fondness and respect he had for him. Also carried over from the DVD is Lee reading two separate excerpts from the novel – “Mr Sherlock Holmes” (14:35) and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (6:22) – which are accompanied by Sidney Paget's original text drawings. Lee's distinct voice lends itself to Conan Doyle's writings, and this adds a real touch of literary class to this proceedings. The more recent featurette, “Margaret Robinson Talks About The Hound of the Baskervilles” (14:52) has the film’s uncredited mask designer (and the widow of set designer Bernard Robinson) discussing her week-long stint on the film, measuring one of the dogs to make its mask, despite the animal’s reputation for biting (it didn’t give her any trouble) and how she constructed something flexible enough for it to wear.
The first audio commentary has David Del Valle and Steven Paros, who give background on the original story and its characters (and the differences when compared to the film), discuss the ongoing longevity of Holmes and the film’s place in Hammer’s cinematic history. This is a tight, engaging conversation that not only focuses on the film in question, but also on Hammer films and the talented people working in front of and behind the cameras during this “golden” period. It’s also nice to hear both Del Valle and Paros touch upon other Sherlock Holmes movies that both Cushing and Lee acted in (they are also hinting that they hope to be back on commentaries for further Hammer “installments”, so hopefully Twilight Time has more in the works!). A second informative and entertaining audio commentary features Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer, and Hank Reineke. All three are very well spoken; Scrabo (who adds quotes from Hammer expert/documentarian Ted Newsom, including his recollections on working with Cushing and Lee on their final collaboration) acts more as a moderator here, as the other two participants share facts about the original story, make comparisons to the 1939 version, describe how the film was advertised in the U.S. (playing up the horror elements rather than it being based on Sherlock Holmes), they clear up the truth about the legendary tarantula scene (a plot point not in the original novel), and even discuss some of the film’s supporting cast (including John Le Mesurier, who plays the butler in the film). Rounding out the extras are the original trailer, an MGM 90th Anniversary trailer, and a listing of the entire Twilight Time Blu-ray/DVD catalogue thus far. A booklet insert is also included and features liner notes by Julie Kirgo. (George R. Reis)
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