The Hound of ’59
My friend Lucy published today a nice lengthy piece about the 1939 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.
You can find the post here, and read it through the usual Google Translate thingy. It’s excellent, and it raises an interesting question, by noting that The Hound of the Baskervilles is treated as a proper Gothic story, an old dark house film.
This got me thinking about the connection between the Canon and the Horror genre, and so while clouds gathered and the storm approached, heralded by thunder and lightning, I brew myself a cup of hot tea, and I took a look at the other Hound, the one that was unleashed on the moors, in the full shocking splendor of Technicolor, by Terence Fisher, with the assistance of the fine gentlemen of Hammer Films.
The first Holmes movie in color.
Another Gothic adaptation, featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
It was, if you recall, the year 1959.
And thunder and lightning are indeed a suitable background soundtrack for the film, that opens in Baskerville Hall and gives us a sample of Sir Hugo’s debauchery and evil, and features a stormy night and a run on the moors and the curse, of course.
Let the hounds of Hell take me if I can’t track her down!
The set-up leaves us no doubt: the Baskervilles are cursed, and nothing good will come out of it.
But we’re ten minutes in the movie already and Holmes dispels all this Gothic nonsense pointing out there must be legends like that all over the place.
On first impact Cushing’s Holmes is brisk and apparently unsympathetic, with a strain of arrogance and superiority that makes the character stand out and conform to the most widespread perception of the character – but as it is to be expected Cushing’s interpretation is much more subtle and nuanced.
OK, OK, let’s stop and get our bearings.
What are we talking about?
Arthur Conan Doyle published The Hound of the Baskervilles as a serial in The Strandbetween 1901 and 1902 – eight years after The Final Problem, and Holmes’ death at Reichenbach.
Holmes just wouldn’t stay dead, and while the story is set before the Reichenbach events, it was still a big thrill, surely, for the readers.
In the book, Holmes is called to solve the mystery of the curse of the Baskervilles, that has a tendency to lead to an early grave the descendants of rakish Sir Hugo.
Holmes is sceptic – and should not have been in in the first place: apparently Conan Doyle planned the novel as a “creeper” (that is, a thriller) with historical and supernatural elements. Only later did he decide to turn his novel into a Sherlock Holmes story.
And to be completely honest, Hound is not one of my favorite Holmes stories. Conan Doyle leaves us too long in the sole company of Doctor Watson, that gets dispatched to Dartmoor while Holmes is otherwise engaged in London. And when Watson is alone the novel slows down and goes nowhere, confirming the good doctor is, by all means, a bore.
The Terence Fisher movie does have the same problem – André Morell is a fine actor, and his Watson is not just comedy relief, but remains a bore – but gives us a modicum of relief by bringing sir Henry Baskerville to the fore, and Christopher Lee playing Sir Henry can hold the scene and keep us engaged even in the slow parts in the first act of the story.
The script takes a number of liberties with the original plot – but that’s to be expected in a movie adaptation.
But what strikes the viewer the most is the famous Hammer aesthetic, that filters and informs the whole movie. And so yes, this is a horror movie, and a Hammer Horror to boot. So much so that Baskerville Hall is actually the set of Castle Dracula from the previous year’s Hammer Dracula.
The powers of Evil can take many forms. Remember that, Sir Henry, when you’re at Baskerville Hall. Do as the legend tells and avoid the moor when the forces of darkness are exalted.
The novel’s plot is intricate, and screenplayer Peter Bryant and director Fisher make a few simplifications but keep the “creeper” element in the foreground. They do it so avoiding the most blatant tricks -like the seance in the Rathbone version – but play on atmosphere and camera angles, on lighting and lack thereof.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is a movie designed to scare, not to baffle, studied to cause anxiety and not just puzzlement. And it is interesting how some of the changes hint at a more misogynistic and exploitative twist, as if Hammer was gauging and seconding some of the tastes and expectations of its public.
If you don’t believe it, look at the original poster with the blazing hound’s head and little else, and at the original trailer.
This is the trailer of a horror movie…
The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most popular flirtation of the Canon with the supernatural, and the most extensive. The original Sherlock Holmes remains completely free of supernatural elements – which is interesting, considering Conan Doylke’s own fascination for and interest in the unknown, the supernormal and spiritualism in particular.
It’s like the rational spirit of Holmes was able to keep Conan Doyle’s mysticism at bay, and yet the Victorian and Edwardian setting brought with itself – despite it all – a Gothic element that would be later exploited by creators of apocrypha and pastiche-writers.
We’ll have to get deeper into this issue.