October Horrorshow: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hammer Film Productions may have found its greatest success with its gothic horror films, but they still kept up work on other productions. The Hound of the Baskervilles is, of course, an adaptation of the famous Sherlock Holmes novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. But calling it a departure from Hammer’s horror catalogue is not entirely accurate. For one thing, the people involved in the production are among the most recognizable names from the studio. Terence Fisher directed, Anthony Hinds produced, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starred. In addition, while Hound is a mystery, there are loads of gothic horror elements present in the source material, making it the most adaptable of the Sherlock Holmes stories to Hammer’s style of horror.

The film opens with a recounting of the final night of the cruel Sir Hugo Baskerville, who met his end in the 1700s or thereabouts. He is lord and master of Baskerville Hall and all its surrounding lands. He is a monster of a human, quick to dole out physical punishment to his servants for little or no reason. He’s also a would-be rapist, pursuing a young maiden into the night. But, as is related, Hugo meets his end, apparently ripped to shreds by a mysterious hound that roams the moors of Devonshire. Since that time, according to the recounting, the moors have been a dangerous place for the descendants of Sir Hugo, the latest victim being Sir Charles Baskerville.

But a new Baskerville is to take up residence in the hall — Sir Henry Baskerville (Lee), young, dashing, and tall. At the behest of the family physician, Dr. Richard Mortimer (Francis de Wolff), Sir Henry hires Sherlock Holmes (Cushing) and Dr. John Watson (André Morrell) to investigate the death of Sir Charles and keep Sir Henry from any potential harm. What follows is Holmes and Watson sleuthing around town and moor trying to find out who, or what, has it in for the Baskervilles.

As a Sherlock Holmes film, Hound is no more or less impressive than any other. The source material may be revered, but I think that may be because it has the most recognizable title of all the Holmes stories. The story is, in fact, a little thin, as evidenced by the large amount of add-ons and padding in Peter Bryan’s screenplay. But, don’t think for a second that this is a mediocre or forgettable film. Hound is a fine example of a Hammer film. Being from the late 1950s, it relies on atmosphere rather than the gore that cropped up in later productions. It also relies on the strong performance of its lead. In this case that was Peter Cushing, since Christopher Lee’s Sir Henry was little more than a MacGuffin.

There’s some tedious cliché to get through at times, including a creeping tarantula. I can’t say how audiences in 1959 responded to this, but by 2017 this little segment was enough to produce some eye rolling. But one thing that was inescapable for me as I watched this film was that it felt like I was watching a museum piece. No one makes films like this anymore. There are also better examples. It felt as if I was watching this film for its historicity rather than any form of entertainment. For its part, the film was not able to break through the clinical nature of my viewership, despite its quality. It didn’t draw me in like the Frankenstein films that have been reviewed so far this month. Maybe I was missing the point. Or, maybe not. After all, making money was Hammer’s first purpose. Telling a story was secondary. That’s never more clear than in watching a film like The Brides of Dracula. Some of that cash-grab attitude seems to have seeped into The Hound of the Baskervilles, as well.

One final note. The sound work in this flick is ghastly. Much of the sound is canned effects that loop over and over like the world’s most annoying ringtone. It’s embarrassingly lazy, and so poor that at first I thought it was a joke.