Ham-fisted cinematic adaptations of popular literary works don’t always completely undermine the integrity of their source material. Mark Fraser looks back at a Hammer horror film which appreciated the concept of poetic licence.
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Admittedly it has been many years since I’ve closely read Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. But if there’s one thing I remember clearly about the book, it’s that it comes across better as a detective story than a horror one.
Like Conan Doyle’s other Sherlock Holmes yarns, the novel is clever, intriguing, pleasantly tense, a little eerie, full of nifty clues and red herrings as well as highly entertaining – a perfect mix of ingredients for an intricate crime drama. This combination of elements, however, does not necessarily make for a bona fide scary movie, even when the title suggests there’s a malevolent beast lurking somewhere within the narrative.
Fortunately, a few of the folks at Britain’s Hammer Film Productions didn’t share this sentiment when, in 1959, they released a version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (THOTB) which remained entrenched in horror film territory right up until its climatic showdown, when it was finally revealed that there was no supernatural element at work in the story at all.
Directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Andre Morell as Dr Watson, this rather amusing take on the early 1900s novel is – to be completely honest – a bastardisation of the book. It is, however, not a totally disrespectful one, even when it is indulging in its fair share of dramatic liberties.
Part of the reason for this, one suspects, is that the film makers – including scriptwriter Peter Bryan – held the source material with a certain amount of reverence. If anything, it looks as though they wanted to make a proper Sherlock Holmes movie while keeping it strictly within a horror milieu.
Although there are a number of similarities between the film and the book, there are far more differences, with some of them being quite significant.
Added by Fisher and Bryan – for instance – are an assassination attempt of Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) in his hotel room using a tarantula; a cave-in at a deserted underground tin mine that almost takes Holmes’ life; Dr Watson’s clumsy near-fatal accident when he unwittingly stumbles into a Grimpen Mire bog pit; as well as a major change in direction for the novel’s leading female character Cecile Stapleton (Marla Landi), who effectively becomes the movie’s femme fatale and, ultimately, an incarnation of pretty much everything that is evil about women.
Like the book, however, THOTB follows the adventures of the detective and his faithful sidekick as they are asked by Dr Richard Mortimer (Francis de Wolff) to investigate “a case of extraordinary interest, and one which present(s) immense opportunities to the scientific expert” (Conan Doyle’s words) – that being the night time death of Sir Charles Baskerville (Sir Henry’s uncle) some weeks earlier, presumably of a heart attack after being chased by a giant hound in the Dartmouth moor near Devonshire.
Additionally, this task involves protecting the dead man’s newly arrived nephew, who is planning to take up permanent residence at Baskerville Hall. As sole heir to the family fortune, Sir Henry is also set to inherit its curse, which dates back to 1742 when the then patriarch Sir Hugo (David Oxley) overstood his demented mark by rendering “his body and soul to the Powers of Evil” and, in the process, had his throat ripped out by “a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon” (Conan Doyle’s words again).
I reference the author’s phrasing here – instead of the related lines in Bryan’s script – as it highlights the fact that the film’s narrative actually does embrace the spirit of the source material, even if it audaciously fiddles with its execution.
In the book, for example, when the demented Sir Hugo hunts down the daughter of a local yeoman in the moor (after the crazed man and his drunken squire mates kidnap her while her father and brothers are not at home), the unfortunate “young maiden” falls dead “of fear and of fatigue” before he can capture and rape her. It’s at this point he is attacked and killed (according to one bystander, who isn’t in the film) by “a hound of hell as God forbid”.
While this “fairy tale” (as Holmes describes it in the book; in the film he calls it a folk story) is outlined in the second chapter of the novel, it opens the movie as a violent prologue, during which Sir Hugo ruthlessly tortures the servant girl’s father (David Birks) in Baskerville Hall before chasing the hapless woman (Judi Moyens) to a deserted, crumbling abbey where he viciously stabs her with what looks like a sacrificial dagger, this somewhat pointless murder providing the cue for the arrival of the unseen beast.
Although this cinematic rejigging takes obvious liberties, it arguably encapsulates the intention of Conan Doyle’s prose – namely to establish an ominous and cursed environment where it’s conceivable that the supernatural just might exist; a place where Holmes’ usually scientific approach to solving crimes could be seriously challenged.
Along with cinematographer Jack Asher, Fisher and Bryan successfully achieve this goal by establishing a moody, gothic horror scenario in which the detective can say to Dr Watson with a straight face: “There is more evil here than I have ever encountered before.”
The film makers also twist the plot of THOTB their way by (as mentioned above) transforming Cecile from a sympathetic character to one that personifies evil. In the book, for instance, she tries to warn Sir Henry of the imminent danger he is facing (“Go back to London. Start tonight! Get away from this place at all costs!” she pleads with Dr Watson after mistaking him for the baronet when they first meet). On screen, however, Cecile is nothing more than a wicked tease who tries to lure the man to his proposed fate through seduction.
Fittingly (in the world of Hammer at least) – when she does eventually get swallowed up by the swamp after the botched murder attempt during the final minutes of the film – the curse effectively dies with her. If anything, Cecile becomes the proverbial witch who must be punished, acting out what would become the studio’s favourite misogynistic tradition of depicting the grim deaths of women.
While most Sherlock Holmes purists will probably have issues with this version of THOTB, they can’t deny some of the film’s key characterisations are spot on – another sign that the people behind its production had good intentions.
As the eponymous Baker Street detective, Cushing is nothing short of fantastic. Quick, fastidious, curt, slightly eccentric, a little mischievous – and with a penchant for calling his sidekick “old boy” – this Holmes is the real deal. His performance is ably matched by that of Morell as Dr Watson, whose screen presence is strong enough to suggest (as is made clear in the novel) he is key to the ultimate success of the investigation.
Meanwhile Lee – as the last of the Baskervilles – delivers a crisp and tidy rendition of the newly-arrived aristocrat whose life is in danger from forces unknown. Like Cushing he is an absolute pleasure to watch in just about every scene he’s in, although his appearance is somewhat different from the description of the American sounding Sir Henry given in the book, in which he is “a small, alert, dark-eyed man about thirty years of age, very sturdily built, with thick black eyebrows and a strong, pugnacious face”.
Finally there’s Oxley’s brutal Sir Hugo, the tyrant who has no problem with forcefully burning a servant in the open fire place (as a means of disciplining the poor man for “condemning the sport of his master”) before leading the gang rape of his daughter.
As with many of the performances in countless Hammer productions, his delivery is deliriously ham-fisted – setting the tone for the rest of this entertaining, albeit derivative, detective horror story.
Words by Mark Fraser
1. Although there is a tin mine mentioned at the end of the book, which serves the same purpose as it does in the film – it is where the titular hound is sometimes kept by its owner.
2. I’m not totally sure about this being the actor, but he was the only one in the end credits who possibly fitted the bill.
3. This line doesn’t appear in the novel.
Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Salvador” Is More Revolt Than Revolution | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness