BR: Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1959)

August 19, 2016 | By

HoundBaskervilles1959_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Near-Perfect

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  June 14, 2016

Genre:  Sherlock Holmes / Mystery

Synopsis: Holmes and Watson travel to the dank moors to solve a series of grisly killings attributed to a mad dog or something more supernatural.

Special Features: Audio Commentary #1: film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros / Audio Commentary #2: Cinema Retro’s Paul Scrabo and Lee Pfeiffer with Hank Reineke /  Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Interview with hound mask creator Margaret Robinson (14:51) / 2002 Interview with actor Christopher Lee: “Actor’s Notebook” (12:58) / 2002 Christopher Lee audio reading excerpts from “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (14:36) + (6:21) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




As noted by film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros in the first of two commentary tracks that adorn this near-perfect Twilight Time Blu-ray release, Hammer Films’ evolution to a horror icon was gradual, shifting into full gear during the sixties and seventies, but during the 1950s and early 1960s the British studio was still putting out suspense films, crime dramas, and in the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first of a franchise that never materialized.

Hammer had everything going for it: a blazing colour production, a new team of Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morell, who would reappear with Cushing in the taut suspense-drama Cash on Demand), and what must have seemed like the perfect timing, since Fox’s Holmes series ran its course after 14 films, ending with Dressed to Kill in 1946, but according to Del Valle and Peros, Hound underperformed, and Hammer being a rather frugal entity, stopped the series and put Cushing and co-star Christopher Lee (Lord Baskerville) in more horror outings, sometimes using their marquee value to sell sub-standard works, or in spite of star billing, have glorified cameos or tertiary parts (as in the loopy Scream and Scream Again).

It is a pity that Hammer didn’t make a second gamble on Conan Doyle’s hugely popular creation, because one wonders whether Holmes’ resurgence in Eastmancolor would’ve led the studio to branch out with related detective lines instead of revisiting the classic vampire-werewolf-mummy shockers more often than necessary.

Another sharp observation made by the film historians is how Baskervilles feels like a horror film at times, as though director Terence Fisher (The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and The Curse of the Werewolf) either couldn’t fully switch to suspense direction, or felt (on his own, or due to a smidge of influence from studio owners) that giving Baskervilles a gothic feel would ensure success with the Holmes fans as well as the hardcore Hammer horror crowd. (The opening sequence that introduces the ‘cursed’ Baskerville is amazing for its cruel tenor, ornate lighting, and the sadistic glee of so-called noblemen who treat a servant and his daughter like pets.) Fisher’s instincts were spot on for this entry; there are some fans who regard the 1959 version as the best translation of Baskervilles from Doyle’s plot and the novel’s tone to the big screen.

Peter Bryan’s script is literate, brisk, and offered Cushing plum dialogue to render his Holmes as a feisty, agile super-sleuth, while the characterization of Watson is more firm, lacking the overt comedic mutterings of Nigel Bruce’s interpretation from the Fox films. Even though Cushing played Holmes for Hammer only once, he makes a fine successor to Fox’s Basil Rathbone.

The storyline is still the same: the detectives are summoned to the moors and solve a series of violent deaths caused by a massive dog, which may be a ghostly curse seeking revenge on the Baskervilles’ latest patriarch. The killings are partly caused by an animal and / or a cult killer (a strange addition that adds some ‘horror’ to the suspense film, but was never developed by the filmmakers), and Lord Baskerville (Lee, clearly enjoying a rare opportunity to play a romantic lead) develops a crush on the exotic daughter of his neighbour, played by the equally exotic Marla Landi, who would co-star with Lee The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and soon retire from film.

Issues of class struggles and jealousies are neatly larded throughout the story, adding depth to the seething jealousies that lie at the root of the vicious killings, and while Hammer kept the budget tight – may sets stem from prior horror films, such as the oft-seen banquet hall at Bray House– it’s still a gorgeous production. Fisher’s background as an editor pays off with several superbly edited, tight chase scenes throughout the moors, and Jack Asher’s cinematography is very ornate, with rich earth tones and deep reds – typical signature colours of the studio’s horror films of the fifties and early sixties.

James Bernard’s score does drift into Dracula terrain (some cues were allegedly ported over from that film), but its orchestral design contributes to the film’s rich veneer of being a period thriller, and several familiar character actors also adorn the production, with Miles Malleson being especially amusing as the local vicar – a bit clumsy and slow, but sly enough to force a little drink from upper class parishioners like Baskerville.

The BR’s second commentary groups Cinema Retro’s Paul Scrabo and Lee Pfeiffer with Hank Reineke, and amid some duplication of facts, the trio offer some differing digressions on the cast’s careers, further appearances in Conan Doyle adaptations, and cast notes. Also newly recorded is an interview with hound mask creator Margaret Robinson.

Ported over from the 2002 MGM DVD is a lengthy interview with Lee discussing the making of the film, being the leading man with love interest Landi, and the emerging, deep friendship and affection between Lee and Cushing that lasted to the end of the latter’s life. Cushing was a notorious scene-stealer, creating a unique tempo for his character using an assortment of business with props, movements, and mannerisms, often challenging fellow actors in a genial game of ‘What’s he up to now?’ Both tracks refer to Cushing’s antics, which were challenged by supporting actor Malleson.

Also from the MGM disc is a trailer, and Lee reading excerpts from Conan Doyle’s writings.

TT’s fine limited release will likely be a worthy candidate for a reissue, as it offers a variety of excellent contextual extras for a film that gets more delicious with each viewing. Those in Region B land can also find the film in an equally packed Arrow Films release, which boasts different extras, such as an audio commentary with Hammer scholars Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, a 36 min. making-of documentary (“Release the Hound!”), a 20 min. portrait of actor Andre Morell (“Andre Morell: Best of British”), a 47 min. 1986 documentary on Conan Doyle’s character (“The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes”) narrated by Christopher Lee, Stills Gallery, and 26-page booklet with notes by Robert J. E. Simpson.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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