THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959)
The Hound of the Baskervilles is a 1959 film directed by Terence Fisher and produced by Hammer Film Productions. It is a mashup of mystery thriller and gothic horror. It’s based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and it stars Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville and Andre Morell as Doctor Watson. And of course the Hound plays himself.
The Hound of the Baskervilles has been adapted to the screen numerous times. To date there have been well over twenty movie and television versions making it easily not only the most popular Sherlock Holmes tale but one of the most popular stories of all time.
All of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels have a part within them that deals with backstory essential to the plot of the novel. This is primarily true of the novels and not the short stories. It might take the form of a flashback, or it might be a stand-alone chapter, or one of the characters might tell a story. But it is there in every Holmes novel – at story within a story. In this particular tale it is the saga of Sir Hugo Baskerville whose nefarious actions brought the curse of the Hound From Hell upon his family. Ooooo I love saying that!
The original story and most of the film adaptations start with Holmes and Watson in their Baker Street rooms where they are then joined by a Doctor Mortimer who goes on to tell them the tale of the Hound From Hell (I said it again). In this film, rather than show Holmes and Watson together and then have Doctor Mortimer relate the story, the movie actually starts with Sir Hugo Baskerville and his dastardly deeds and the horrific curse he brings upon himself and his family. Only when the story is done are we shown that it is Doctor Mortimer speaking relating the story. The horror starts with the very first scenes as a kind of teaser. I love it!
Doctor Mortimer, played by Francis de Wolf, has come to Baker Street to ask Holmes and Watson to travel to Dartmoor and investigate the strange death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville. The man was found dead in the moors surrounding his estate Baskerville Hall. The official verdict was death due to heart failure but Mortimer believes he was scared to death by the ghost hound that is a family curse. Now the heir to the title, Sir Henry Baskerville of South Africa, is coming to take over the estate and Mortimer fears for his life. It seems the family suffers from a congenital heart problem that Sir Henry shares with his late uncle. Holmes dismisses any supernatural aspect to what is happening but does believe Sir Charles was scared to death. He agrees to meet with Sir Henry.
At the meeting a series of strange events occur which make Holmes suspicious. One of Sir Henry’s boots is missing and he is almost bitten by a tarantula. Spiders creep me out so that scene alone almost made me wet my pants. Holmes is now convinced Sir Henry’s life is in danger but having prior commitments he cannot go to Dartmoor at this time. So he sends Doctor Watson in his place.
Watson and Sir Henry arrive at Dartmoor only to discover a crazed convict named Selden has escaped from the nearby prison. As if our heroes didn’t have enough trouble already. Sir Henry meets his servants Mr. and Mrs. Barrymore. On the walls are portraits of Sir Henry’s ancestor including the infamous Sir Hugo. But another portrait of Sir Hugo has been stolen and the Barrymores can give no explanation as to how or why.
The next day Watson and Sir Henry go for a walk. In the village they meet Bishop Frankland – not only a clergyman but a noted entomologist as well. In those days entomology also included arachnids and all forms of invertebrates. Remember the tarantula that almost got Sir Henry? On the way back they cross the moor and get lost. Watson falls into quicksand in what is called the Grimpen Mire and two people rush to his aid – a man called Stapleton and his daughter Cecile. Sir Henry is obviously smitten with Cecile. When they try to shake hands with Stapleton they discover he has webbed hands.
That night Watson sees a light on the moor. He and Sir Henry go to investigate. A strange man rushes by in the shadows and then a hound is heard howling in the distance. A figure is seen silhouetted on a hill in the distance. These events upset Sir Henry so much he faints and Watson helps him back to the hall. Watson then discovers that the silhouetted figure was Sherlock Holmes – who had been in Dartmoor all this time but had let everyone think he remained in London so he could investigate more freely.
Holmes and Watson find the corpse of the convict Selden. He had been killed on the moor by a wild beast while wearing clothes that belonged to Sir Henry. It turns out that Selden was the brother of Mrs. Barrymore and she had been feeding and clothing him. It was Selden’s light Watson had seen on the moor. Holmes is convinced that the Barrymores and Selden had nothing to do with Sir Charles’ death and so he continues his investigation.
There is an attempt on Holmes’s life in an abandoned copper mine from which he narrowly escapes. We also discover that Bishop Frankland is missing a tarantula. I hate spiders! Holmes puts it all together thanks to the stolen portrait of Sir Hugo. They set a trap for the murderers (there is more than one) in the same place where Sir Hugo is supposed to have been killed by the Hound from Hell. I got to say it again. Sir Henry is almost killed but the trap works, the mystery is solved, the good guys win, and Holmes and Watson once again make the world safe for goodness and apple pie.
As I said before The Hound of the Baskervilles has been adapted into movies and television more than twenty times. As a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, I once owned a deerstalker cap and Calabash pipe, and I have seen over a dozen of those adaptations – including the ones with Basil Rathbone, Stewart Granger, Tom Baker, Matt Frewer, Richard Roxburgh, Ian Richardson, and Jeremy Brett. For me this one with Peter Cushing is the most enjoyable!
However, it is not the most faithful adaptation. Nor is it the longest running adaptation. And an argument can be made that several of the others are far more stylish. Why then is this one my favorite?
This is the one made by horror people, played by horror people, and geared towards a horror audience. Hammer Film Productions made this adaptation and they are most famous as a horror films company during the 1950’s – 1970’s. I loved their Dracula and Frankenstein movies and nobody did horror better than they did. There were two actors who were reigning kings of horror for Hammer – Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Both of them are in this movie with Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. Ironically, Christopher Lee would himself go on to play Sherlock Holmes.
Peter Cushing was a bit of inspired casting. Not only did he make an excellent Sherlock Holmes but he was also considered something of an authority on the great detective and brought authenticity to the part. Cushing wasn’t the only bit of inspired casting. Andre Morell played Doctor Watson beautifully. This is the Sherlock Holmes story that allows Watson to shine. Holmes is missing from a good chunk of the story and Watson operates solo. In this adaptation Morell plays Watson straight, as he should be, and provides nothing of the comedy of previous Watsons. And there is of course a young Christopher Lee playing a dashing Sir Henry Baskerville. Lee and Cushing were good friends and there is obvious chemistry in their scenes together.
This is not the first adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles but it is the first in color – heavy, moody, groovy color – just as it should be. The music was standard Hammer Films canned music but my God do I love hearing it – and can it make your pulse quicken. The director was Terence Fisher who directed most of Hammer’s horror films. I’m glad he did this one.
There are liberties taken with the story and this film deviates from the novel in several places. If you are a Sherlock Holmes purist this might upset you. This has never bothered me because the liberties taken helped amp up the gothic horror elements. Sherlock Holmes is a mystery character that leads very well to horror and thriller. Nowhere is this more true than in this movie. Therefore I gleefully give The Hound of the Baskervilles four and a half gray geeks.
If given the opportunity watch The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) with Peter Cushing, I whole-heartedly recommend that you do so. You will not be disappointed.
That is all for today my geek brotherhood. Thank you for letting me share this movie with you. As I leave you remember these words of wisdom, trust in God but tie up your horse.