THE SCARLET CLAW
I love a mystery – yes I do! I also love a good horror thriller. But the best thing I like is when you mash up the two. A prime example is Universal’s 1944 Sherlock Holmes chiller The Scarlet Claw. The name alone invokes goose bumps. This is number eight of the twelve Holmes movies produced by Universal starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce playing Doctor Watson. The film was directed by Roy William Neill and most fans consider this to be the best of the series and I totally agree.
The cast includes Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson, Gerald Hamer as Potts, and Paul Cavanagh as Lord Penrose.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are visiting Canada and attending a conference on the occult. Lord Penrose, who is overseeing the conference, receives a message that his wife Lady Penrose has been murdered in their village known as La Mort Rouge. This means “Red Death” in French. Why anyone would name their village Red Death and then live there afterwards is beyond me. Lord Penrose leaves to return home and Holmes and Watson are about to do the same when Holmes receives a telegram sent to him by the murdered women before her death. The letter asks for Holmes’ help because she is afraid for her life. She wasn’t wrong! Too late to save her Holmes decides to go to La Mort Rouge and investigate her death.
When Holmes and Watson arrive at the village they discover that the terrified inhabitants all believe that the murder is the work of a monster. The glowing monster is supposed to roam the marshes at night and later on when Doctor Watson actually sees it he describes it as a “ball of fire.” Holy Mackerel! The monster is Jerry Lee Lewis!
Holmes does not believe in monsters – at least not the supernatural kind – and as he investigates further he discovers that Lady Penrose was formerly a well-known actress called Lillian Gentry. So lemme get this straight, Lillian Gentry married Lord Penrose and became gentry – literally. Holmes recalls that Lillian Gentry was involved in a famous murder case that took place several years earlier in which an actor named Ramson killed another actor in a jealous fury over her. Officially Ramson was supposed to have been killed in a prison escape two years previous but Holmes was now convinced that he was alive. He also believed that not only was he alive but that master of disguise Ramson had created a new identity – perhaps more than one – and was living in La Mort Rouge. Holy back from the dead Batman!
Next Holmes turns his attention to another inhabitant of La Mort Rouge, Judge Brisson. Why? Because he presided over the case and pronounced sentence on Ramson. Helluva coincidence two people from the same trial living in the same village. From such things are murder mysteries made from – not to mention good horror movies. Despite Holmes’ best efforts the judge is murdered. Victim number two!
Tracking Ramson down to his hideout out on the marshes, Holmes figures out that Ramson uses phosphorescence to glow in the dark and appear as Watson’s “ball of fire.” Holmes also discovers there is a third person the madman intends to kill. Unfortunately, said madman gets the drop on Holmes and holds him at gunpoint. Watson saves Holmes – he does it by blundering but he saves Holmes. It is also too bad he did it before Holmes could find out who the third victim was to be.
It turns out that the third victim is Journet the local innkeeper. He was formerly a prison guard and Ramson has it in for him. So that makes three people from the trial living in the same village. That is stretching coincidence a bit far. Am I going to complain? No, I’m just pointing it out. Because of this Journet goes into hiding and Ramson therefore kills his teenage daughter Marie when she refuses to give her father up. Holmes comes up with a way to trap the killer and finding Journet convinces him to play along.
Watson makes a big show that he and Holmes are leaving and returning to London. Meanwhile Journet comes out of hiding and lets everyone know he is going to the church to offer prayers for his dead daughter. Potts the Postman offers to walk with him and he turns out to be Ramson and attacks Journet. Only it isn’t Journet but Holmes disguised as Journet. The two men struggle but Ramson gets away. However, the real Journet catches Ramson and avenges his daughter by killing him.
The Scarlet Claw is not an adaptation of any of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories and is an original tale. However, it does bear some resemblance to The Hound of the Baskervilles – another Sherlock Holmes story that is just as much horror as mystery. One of these days I’ll review the Hammer Films version of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Peter Cushing. Now that is a great mash-up of horror and mystery.
The Scarlet Claw is in black and white – which I know will put some people off. I happen to think that the lack of color adds to the film noir effect and make the marshes and the ambiance even moodier. But what do I know I just watch these things.
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are true to form with Bruce providing the comic relief. He does get to save Holmes even if he bumbles while doing it. There is also a scene I like where Holmes and Watson catch Journet slapping his daughter Marie and Watson is outraged. You get the feeling that if Holmes had not held him back the old man would have taken on Journet. Bravo Watson!
I love this movie and I wholeheartedly recommend it. If you love Sherlock Holmes, if you love gothic horror, if you love a mystery, if you’re tired of listening to me then I suggest you go and watch this movie. You can find it on YouTube. I give this movie four gray geeks!
That is all for now and as I say sayonara remember these words of wisdom. Two wrongs do not make a right but three rights definitely do make a left.