Our reviews of The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1939) (published July 1st, 2004), Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection (published April 20th, 2011), Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection (Blu-Ray) (published March 29th, 2011), and The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1983) (published November 18th, 2010) are also available.
Elementary, my dear Watson
Like all of us growing up, there were a few things that I really, truly loved. They were, in no particular order: comic books, Saturday afternoon horror movies, and the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So imagine my delight when I discovered that two of those three loves had come together in the form of 1958's The Hound of the Baskervilles. This version from Hammer Films was the first color film version of the often filmed mystery classic, the seventh film version of the tale itself, and the 121st Holmes tale to be transferred to film. This incarnation also served as Peter Cushing's first tour of duty in the central role while affording Christopher Lee one of his rare romantic roles.
This version of The Hound of the Baskervilles serves as MGM's first chance to present movies from the studio whose name dripped blood, Hammer Films. Is this release up to snuff or is it an example of the MGM we all remember from a few years ago?
Facts of the Case
In the 1600s, Sir Hugo Baskerville murdered a peasant girl who refused his advances. Shortly thereafter, Sir Hugo is found dead on the moors, viciously murdered by a terrifying hound from hell. Since that fateful night every Baskerville has suffered the same grisly fate, with the latest victim being Sir Charles Baskerville.
Told of the legend by Dr. Mortimer, a friend and physician to the newest Baskerville heir, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are engaged to see that the same thing does not happen to latest Baskerville, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee—Serial). Thrown into a case full of local superstition, Holmes navigates his way through a maze of ancient lore and innocent blood. Can Holmes protect Sir Henry and in the process break the howling curse that is The Hound of the Baskervilles?
It was 1958 and Hammer Studios had just reinvented the classic horror legends of Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. Presenting these grisly tales for the first time in color, the studio was looking for another property to give their special spin to. Enter Hammer's American associate, Kenneth Hyman, as he persuaded Hammer executives to get the ball rolling for yet another film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1902 classic with the hope that it would turn into a long running screen franchise. For the script, cameraman turned screenwriter Peter Byran was brought in to alter the Victorian mystery into something a little more in line to what Hammer fans were looking for, namely having the moors run red with lots of Technicolor blood as events took on a more supernatural spin. While within the context of the movie these two different sensibilities sometimes clash, for the most part this marriage of styles clearly works to the film's advantage. All the expected turn of events of the source material are present but exaggerated in that very Hammer way of doing things. In fact, it is worth noting that this is probably one of the most faithful adaptations Hammer ever produced, and maybe therein lies a key to the movie's ultimate box office failure. To Hammer, the production of this movie was a big deal and to help ensure the project's success, the man in charge of Hammer's greatest successes, The Horror of Dracula and The Revenge Of Frankenstein, was brought onboard to direct. To his credit, Terence Fisher was usually the right man for most any directorial job as he was a craftsman of the highest order. Fisher was efficient, he kept on budget, and his movies looked good. He was a man who never forgot his training as a film editor, bringing with him a tightly controlled sense of economy and an awareness of pace and style. Looking at the movie, it's hard not to be struck by just how quickly everything moves and how much energy is visible in each frame. Still, like any other director Fisher was only as good as the person working behind the camera and in cinematographer Jack Asher Fisher had one of the best. Asher was masterful at creating the movie's lush, brightly colored surroundings as well as squeezing every ounce of danger and dread out of its fog-ridden moments. From a visual perspective, the film is a gothic style delight and it's remarkable to go back and marvel at what was created on those tiny little soundstages. Everything looks and feels right while maintaining a sense of place and texture. From the detail in Holmes' very famous London flat to the countryside thick with mist and evil, the images pop off of the screen in colorful joy while also creating suspense in their deep, brooding grays. Finishing things off on the production end was composer James Bernard's score. More than anyone else Bernard was the artist who gave Hammer Films a musical identity, and here he offers up his standard Gothic mixture while also throwing in a healthy does of fast paced action/adventure music. If blood flows freely on the moor, then Bernard's score is a red blooded affair that juices up the onscreen activity.
It is worth noting that as a whole, the production crew on The Hound of the Baskervilles was a group of very talented artists who totally changed the face of cinema and quite literally saved the British film industry from ruin.
Moving on to in front of the camera, for the all important lead role Peter Cushing (Star Wars) was signed to play the world's greatest detective. It is amazing how closely he resembles the classic Sidney Paget renditions of Holmes. As a Holmes fanatic since childhood, this is one of Cushing's greatest performances. He is equal parts antisocial and flirtatious, moody and introverted, while also active and able to command with a moment's notice. His is a Holmes fascinated by everything around him and in his hands we see a much more physical Holmes than many may be used to. It's a pitch perfect performance and one that stands with the greatest of the screen Sherlocks.
One of the joys of getting to know Hammer Films was looking to find which members of Hammer repertoire would pop up in each new release and what kind of variation of their usual role they would be playing. To that end, The Hound of the Baskervilles offers up a major change of pace. In fact, this semi-forgotten Hammer gem offers up the rarest of viewing pleasures—Christopher Lee playing a romantic lead. To be honest, it's kind of jarring to see him play this kind of role, but once getting used to it he really does fit in quite nicely. As always, Lee moves with uncommon grace and as usual he commands attention in every scene he is in with his good-natured if slightly arrogant ways. It's a welcome change of pace to see Lee kiss a girl that he does not then proceed to kill. Another welcome presence in The Hound of the Baskervilles is Andre Morell (The Plague Of The Zombies) as Dr. Watson. His Watson is very much the equal partner to Holmes and not the blithering idiot popularized by Nigel Bruce. Morell gives Watson a smart take full of humor as he looks with great affection at his partner/roommate's numerous quirks. It's an excellent counterpoint to Cushing's Holmes and offers the mystery and mayhem some much needed warmth.
My praises of the film do put forth an interesting question. If this production was so beautifully mounted and the film was so masterfully acted, why then is The Hound of the Baskervilles not looked at with as much respect as the film exploits of Dracula, Baron Frankenstein, and the Mummy? I think this screen version tried too hard to please too many people. For the Hammer crowd, The Hound of the Baskervilles became too much of a mystery with not enough gore. For the Sherlock Holmes crowd, the movie was too much of a horror film. In the end, both crowds stayed away in droves and it's a pity. Judged on its on terms, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a total success and can easily stand with many of the studio's better movies. Hopefully, its release on DVD will bring it the new fans it so clearly deserves.
As noted earlier this is MGM's first release of a Hammer film and things do start off on a negative note. The transfer is a non-anamorphic 1.66:1, and for my feelings regarding that look to the section below. As for the transfer itself, it's not that bad. The rich, vibrant colors that are one of the film's calling cards are well represented here. Colors this saturated can often be a real problem but the transfer pulls them off nicely. There is little in the way of compression artifacting, blacks are quite solid, and shadows and fog possess good detail. The print itself does show some signs of wear and tear, but overall it's an acceptable image that flirts with being pretty good. Just as a side note, if you are one of our readers who checks the numerical scores we assign discs, please be aware that because the disc is non-anamorphic I knocked 10 points off of that score.
Sound is good old mono and has withstood time rather nicely as well. While there is the faintest degree of background distortions, it never proves distracting. While things may get a little thin on both the high and the low ends, it still manages to carry a good deal of warmth. Dialogue is clear and is well intertwined with Jimmy Bernard's excellent score.
The test of any Hammer release on DVD comes with the supplements section. While The Hound of the Baskervilles may not carry the amount of extra materials as the standard Anchor Bay treatment does, what is here is certainly welcome.
Included are two featurettes, both featuring Christopher Lee. The first is basically Lee sitting down and talking about the making of the movie, some general Hammer info, and a warm remembrance of Peter Cushing. Hardcore Hammer fans have probably heard most of this before but any time spent with Mr. Lee is good time. Next up is Christopher Lee reading two selections from The Hound of the Baskervilles. I will admit that this is a nice touch and one that I have viewed and enjoyed several times already. The package is then closed out by the film's original theatrical trailer. As anyone who has read my work over the years knows, I love this vintage advertising, as it's nice to look back and smile at simpler times.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After becoming spoiled by Anchor Bay's lavish treatment of all things Hammer, I was bracing myself for MGM's first foray into the cult world of Hammer Films. I'm happy to report that this is not the bare bones disc I was fearful of, while it does in fact feature a solid couple of features with the most visible surviving link to the glory days of Hammer horror, Christopher Lee.
The main problem I have with this release is not so much that the disc wasn't given anamorphic enhancement, but rather MGM's across the board refusal to grant anamorphic enhancement to any movies shot in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This isn't even going into a discussion of their uneven record of giving anamorphic enhancement to movies shot 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. I know with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio the viewer is looking at what is basically a windowboxed picture, but what is important here is the resolution that an anamorphic transfer adds to an image. If DVD is the best and most affordable of home video devices, shouldn't companies that release DVDs take full advantage of the available technology? MGM is the only major player in the DVD field that does not give across the board anamorphic enhancement, let alone enhancement for films shot 1.66:1. I have read of MGM reps using the excuse that they only use the best masters they can find for transfers. Well, if a small company like Anchor Bay can go out and find what they need to give every one of their releases the most basic of treatment—and 16x9 is the most basic thing we should see on every widescreen DVD—then I fail to see why a huge company like MGM cannot offer the same thing. If they can't put forth the best possible product, either wait until you can get it done properly or license the film out to someone else who is going to take the time and the effort to do it right.
I fully realize that this means little to the average, run-of-the-mill consumer, but it should. As more and more 16x9 televisions enter American houses, people are going to quickly see just how bad a widescreen movie presented in non-anamorphic video looks and then you are going to have some mighty upset people on your hands.
A forgotten little gem from the Hammer crown makes a very welcome debut on DVD, and if MGM's refusal to give the film an anamorphic transfer is a disappointment, it should for no reason keep the hard-core Hammer or Sherlock Holmes fan from picking up the disc. Even without 16x9 enhancement, the movie still looks quite good and there are enough extra features to avoid the bare bones tag.
As always with all Hammer newcomers, you might want to give the thing a rental. If you know what you getting into, the under $10.00 price tag does make it an easy buy.
As is to be expected, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson clear themselves of all charges. MGM is thanked for not totally dropping the ball with this Hammer release but is still sentenced to six months community service for that lack of anamorphic support. Let's hope that their eventual release of The Vampire Lovers is a greater success.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurettes with Christopher Lee
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