Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories rarely wandered into the realm of full-blown horror (usually remaining squarely in mystery/suspense territory), but The Hound of the Baskervilles – with its elements of Satanism and tales of a savage hound from hell – is an exception. As such, it's not surprising that Baskervilles is the only Holmes story that has been adapted by Hammer Studios. Naturally, the film juices up the original story with a few Hammer-friendly elements – a mysterious dagger, a tarantula, a little sex – but it offers a surprisingly solid, classical take on the World's Greatest Detective.
The film's moody prologue tells the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley, Bunny Lake is Missing), a wealthy, savage man who lives in the lavish Baskerville Hall and takes pleasure in torturing his servants. When a young woman he has enslaved escapes, Sir Hugo pursues her with the aid of a pack of hounds. He finds her and stabs her to death. Then, the tables turn: Sir Hugo is killed by demonic hound (or at least that's what people claim).
Centuries later, this story has become a folk tale of sorts. The legend says that if any member of the Baskerville family is alone at night on the moor near the Baskerville estate, the hellhound will return and kill them. The story gains new life when Sir Charles Baskerville is killed under unusual circumstances: could the legend really be true? Or does someone simply want to make it look true? Either way, it seems that Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones), the new owner of Baskerville Hall, has reason to fear for his life. Enter the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson (Andre Morell, The Bridge on the River Kwai), who devote themselves to separating fact from fiction.
The plot is busy and convoluted even by Holmes standards (perhaps because the original story was longer than most and thus had more time for red herrings), but the film more or less delivers exactly what it sets out to deliver: a perfectly solid little Sherlock Holmes movie with a generous sprinkling of Hammer violence and gothic atmosphere.
Cushing's take on Holmes mostly seems to be to play up the character's fundamental dickishness, which actually works pretty well. This is a man who seems to enjoy making other people feel stupid, and on more than one occasion he regards murder scenes without a trace of empathy (in one instance, he simply watches a character die without even trying to help... the character had it coming, but still). Cushing bulldozes through large chunks of exposition with relish, laying out all sorts of evidence and swatting down the theories of his associates. Meanwhile, Christopher Lee turns in one of his more restrained Hammer performances as the respectable Henry Baskerville. It's not a particularly remarkable turn on its own terms, but it's sort of fun to see Lee getting a chance to play such a thoroughly ordinary character. I also quite liked Andre Morell's portrayal of Watson, who comes across as less of a bumbling comic relief figure than usual.
Director Terence Fisher (best known for helming a solid batch of Hammer horror films in the '50s and '60s) keeps things moving at a brisk clip, and his bright-but-ominous colors give the film a unique visual look that sets it apart from a lot of other Holmes movies. Given Fisher's filmography, it's no surprise that the film's best scenes are those that dip their toe into the horror genre. It's not quite essential viewing, but there's plenty here for Holmes fans and Hammer enthusiasts to enjoy.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 87 minutes
Release Year: 1959