Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles has been adapted in various formats over the years, even two times in 1959 – one of which we’re discussing right now. Something about Conan Doyle’s Holmes story makes it prime fodder for film; perhaps it’s the mysterious hound itself, which adds a seemingly supernatural bent to Conan Doyle’s generally well-grounded stories, or maybe it’s the way the story works with movement more than some of Holmes’ other cases. Whatever the case, many writers and directors have attempted to re-envision The Hound of the Baskervilles, but arguably none of them have come closer to finding the right mix of Gothic horror and Conan Doyle’s wry humor than Hammer Films’ 1959 chiller directed by Terence Fisher.
Fisher was known for his work on popular Hammer films of the ’50s and ’60s, including greats like Horror of Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, and 1962’s The Phantom of the Opera; after The Hound of the Baskervilles, despite middling acclaim, he also worked on another Conan Doyle mystery, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace. Here, though, Fisher pairs the eerie subject matter of the story with Peter Cushing’s expert take on the character of Sherlock Holmes, casting a number of a Hammer stars in major roles. Besides Cushing, there’s Christopher Lee playing Sir Henry, cursed to die on the moors at the jaws of the Hound of the Baskervilles; Miles Malleson, playing a bit part as an alcoholic bishop who can’t keep his hands off the brandy (or his telescope aimed at women’s windows); and Ewen Solon, playing the father of love interest Cecile (Marla Landi). And Fisher enlists the help of Peter Bryan to adapt Conan Doyle’s story into screenplay form, who gets his start writing Hammer horror here before moving on to The Brides of Dracula and The Plague of the Zombies later in the ’60s.
Fisher recognizes the spooky elements of The Hound of the Baskervilles and capitalizes on them early in the film. The opening, set a hundred years before Holmes’ later investigation into the attempt on Sir Henry’s life, involves a group of lecherous high-class individuals chasing after a scantily-clad servant girl, first in the halls of a moody castle and then outside, on the darkened valleys of the moor. The scene wouldn’t be out of place in any number of Hammer pictures involving monsters like werewolves or vampires, but Fisher pulls back from the supernatural besides the titular hound and a curse that casts a shadow on the Baskerville name; instead, the real monsters are the humans that create the problem in the first place, and Fisher spends much of The Hound of the Baskervilles documenting sins of the father and the illogical progression of hatred passed down through generations.
At the heart of this is Cushing’s Holmes, accompanied by Andre Morell as Dr. Watson. Cushing steals the show here with a fantastic portrayal of Conan Doyle’s character, at times so absorbed in his own investigations that he comes off as caustic to Watson, who is clearly barely following his tutor’s lead. At the same time, Holmes is remarkably loyal and often witty to a degree that many will find in line with Conan Doyle’s creation; while Fisher dwells on the spookiness of the setting – the wails of the hound ringing through the night – there’s also an undercurrent of humor and pleasantness that runs throughout the film, especially in any scene where Malleson shows up. It’s a pleasing mix of both thematic elements that keeps the story running smoothly and the viewer entertained.
The Hound of the Baskervilles features some significant changes to Conan Doyle’s story, but most of these elements are simply here to give a more visually intriguing story on-screen. At one point, a tarantula shows up to terrorize Sir Henry – not part of Conan Doyle’s work, a little too much action for Holmes’ generally observational techniques, but still exciting when Fisher uses these moments to create more tension, particularly for Sir Henry’s state of mind.
And really, The Hound of the Baskervilles boils down to an expert use of atmosphere and mood to give this Holmes case a horror feel, complete with a chilling soundtrack and creepy English settings. With Cushing as the didactic Holmes, there’s very little about the film that underwhelms, and that’s a testament to Fisher’s direction, Bryan’s writing, and the cast’s flourishes. There are a number of adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but none treat the horror fan so well as this 1959 Hammer film.
Twilight Time has released The Hound of the Baskervilles on Blu-Ray in a limited edition of 3000 copies, as per their usual modus operandi. The film is presented in 1080p HD with an English 1.0 DTS-HD MA track, and for the most part the quality on this film is great. Textures are well-rendered, there’s little grain, and the colors really pop – especially a couple of scenes that have a greenish hue to them. The film was shot primarily in daytime even for night scenes, however, so some of those scenes are a bit too dark because of the effects used to darken the footage. Not too much of an issue on this Blu-Ray release, though.
Normally I don’t love mono tracks, but it works well in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the audio sounds particularly good here. Clear and crisp, the mono track highlights the dialogue and also the soundtrack by John Hollingsworth. There are also English subtitles.
As for extras, the disc is rather limited, but there are a number of features certain viewers will enjoy. One is an isolated film score, which is nice for fans of the score itself; there are also two audio commentaries, one by film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros and one by film historians Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer, and Hank Reineke. Both commentaries are great for film buffs and those interested in the film itself.
There’s a newish interview with Margaret Robinson, who created the hound mask for the film, which runs around 14 minutes; she talks about the difficulty of working with the dog, who was sometimes rather mean-spirited. An older vintage interview with Christopher Lee finds him talking about his work on the film, how The Hound of the Baskervilles puts him in an unusually romantic role, and how great Peter Cushing was both on and off set. There’s also a segment where Christopher Lee reads pieces of Conan Doyle’s original story.
Finally, as usual, Twilight Time includes a pull-out booklet with an essay from Julie Kirgo as well as new cover artwork and excellent art for the inside cover booklet. All told, this is certainly a Blu-Ray you’ll want to pick up to own this classic Hammer picture not steeped in their monster style.