“A SIGHT TO SHATTER THE NERVES! A STORY TO STUN THE SENSES!”
“Never Has The Night Known A Beast Like This!”
“IT’S THE PICTURE ABOUT THAT BONE-CHILLING HOWL!”
“It’s Ten Times The Terror in TECHNICOLOR!”
All of the above plus two sets of prodigious bosoms, letters dripping blood, and a large, very wishful-thinking depiction of the hound’s head with glowing eyes and blood-dripping jaws and better-to-eat-you-with teeth was crammed onto the original half-sheet poster for Hammer Films’ take on the best-known of all Sherlock Holmes stories. (Tastefulness was, after all, a Hammer trademark.) It was certainly an attention-grabber — maybe too much so. (I used to own that poster, but gave it away because I didn’t like looking at it.) Sure, it was swell for branding the picture as a new horror movie starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, but as the first film in a proposed series of Sherlock Holmes movies, it was perhaps less well-judged. The fact that no such series materialized after this one lost money, suggests as much. The pity is that — apart from a few horror-oriented embellishments of the Hammer kind — the 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles is a really good Sherlock Holmes movie. Judged as a film, it’s likely the best version — certainly better and more atmospheric than the more famous 1939 one that made Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce into the best-known Holmes and Watson of all time.
Though I’m not the world’s biggest Hammer fan, I admit that I’m probably a little prejudiced toward Terence Fisher’s Hound because it was the first version of the story I saw. I remember seeing it with a group of friends on TV on a Saturday afternoon and being pretty captivated by everything except the prologue (which has sense grown on me). One of our number was a young lady I was rather sweet on, and she called the movie “unnerving.” To this day, I think that’s probably the single best word to describe it. I didn’t realize at the time — I think I was 14 — that much of what made it so was Fisher’s direction and his use of color. But that — combined with the effectively bombastic James Bernard musical score, the production design by Bernard Robinson, Andre Morell’s Watson, and Cushing’s take on Holmes — is a key factor. (Christopher Lee is rather wasted in the role of Sir Henry Baskerville, and is a bit too stiff and proper to be believable as a man of passion transfixed by Marla Landi’s peasant pulchritude.)
Cushing’s Holmes is a striking departure from the usual portrayal. It’s not just that he captures the character’s arrogance — to the point of making him not very likable — but it’s that Cushing plays Holmes as a pasty-faced, twitchy drug addict. Though Holmes’ drug use was never ignored — to the degree that the censors allowed — Cushing is the only actor I’ve seen play him as an addict. What’s interesting about this is that no mention is made of the detective’s cocaine addiction in the film. (Even the ’39 Hound managed to slip, “Oh, Watson, the needle,” past the censors as Holmes’ curtain line.) Cushing — and one presumes, Fisher — seems to just take it as a given. It makes for an interesting variation, and it helps explain the character’s extravagant and short-tempered qualities. By itself, this makes this Hound worth seeing — even if you know the story all too well — but there are other aspects of the film that make it one of the better Sherlock Holmes movies.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Hound of the Baskervilles Sunday, Aug. 24, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.