Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"Doctor Who" Series 9 Reviews

With the ninth series of Doctor Who rapidly approaching, I am, of course, gearing myself up for my customary series of reviews for the episodes. However, I wanted to inform those who may be anticipating my reviews, that I will be doing things a little differently this year.

Seeing as this blog is called The Consulting Detective it follows that it should be devoted to all things Sherlock Holmes. So, I am trying to return to my initial focus with this blog and all other movie-related ramblings have been consigned to my other blog, Sacred Celluloid, which you can access by clicking here. That will include this year's Doctor Who-related reviews.

I should also mention that due to the fact that the majority of stories for the upcoming season are two-parters, I will only be posting reviews after the second episode, thus judging them as a story on a whole, I find that that is a fairer assessment.

So, to Whovians across the world, our wait is almost at an end. From everything I have read, Series 9 will be one wild ride. I for one am very excited.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review - "Mr. Holmes" (2015)

As I have remarked on this blog before, Sherlock Holmes' retirement has been a point of interest for Sherlockians everywhere. Arguably the most famous instance of Holmes in retirement in fiction is Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind which found the detective on the verge of being a centenarian struggling to recall the details of his remarkable life. To be perfectly frank I was not quite sure what to expect when I learned that the novel was being adapted to the screen. I had never read the book but its mixed reputation in the Sherlockian community has lead to some skepticism on my part. All-the-same, the time finally came when I had to see the film which eventually became known as Mr. Holmes and featured Academy Award nominated actor Ian McKellen as the great detective.

The year is 1947. Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has just returned to his seaside Sussex cottage after a trip to Japan in the hope of procuring prickly ash, a homeopathic remedy for memory loss. The elderly Holmes is cared for by his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) who takes an interest in the career of the great detective. As Roger's relationship with Holmes deepens, the boy manages to convince Holmes to continue searching for the truth regarding his final case. Holmes recalls that he successfully solved the mystery but cannot remember the outcome. The mystery involved a husband who feared for his wife who has begun to act strangely. As Holmes nears the truth it appears as though Holmes has finally been confronted with a case he cannot solve...

Mr. Holmes is a Sherlock Holmes which is quite different than most. While it is not an entirely original concept to feature the detective as the central figure of a character study - such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - past films dealt more heavily with the detective's work as a detective. As the posters for the film boldly declared, the film would instead be about "the man beyond the legend." Mr. Holmes goes to lengths to peel away the surface aspects of the character by having Holmes say that he does wear deerstalker hats, is not fond of pipes, and did not even reside at 221B! In doing so, Mr. Holmes may very well be the most in-depth look at Sherlock Holmes that we have ever seen.

The major difference between this film and others in the Sherlockian sub-genre is that it finds Holmes struggling - not with the case at hand but with himself. While this was explored in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the Holmes of Mr. Holmes is battling the aging process itself as he struggles to remember the details of his final case and learn why he was so insistent on exiling himself to Sussex to keep bees. For a die-hard Sherlock Holmes fan it is incredibly unconventional and - to be perfectly honest - rather difficult to watch my favorite heroic figure struggle against unbeatable forces.

Ian McKellen and Milo Parker in Mr. Holmes
To play this most unconventional portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is Ian McKellen whose filmography, though I am loath to admit it, I am not as familiar with as I should be. Simply put though, McKellen is excellent as both the elderly Holmes and the more youthful detective during the numerous flashbacks which depict Holmes' final case.  He conveys all aspects of the detective's character very nicely which range from his coldness and intellect to wry humor and eventual self-realization. By all accounts, the part of Sherlock Holmes is not an easy one to play and with the script's added challenges, I can imagine that it was something of a trial for McKellen but he rises to the occasion brilliantly.

The rest of the cast compliment McKellen very nicely. Laura Linney brings incredible realism to her role as Holmes' skeptical housekeeper Mrs. Munro and, as the film progresses, she shows that she has some fine acting chops. The same goes for the young Milo Parker as Roger whose friendship with Holmes drives much of the story forward. The old man and young boy's friendship also feels very real and is wonderfully acted by both parties. Fans of Sherlockian cinema will also want to keep an eye out for Nicholas Rowe star of 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes who plays an actor playing the great detective in a film.

The whole production of Mr. Holmes is top notch. The costume design and cinematography are excellent - the beautiful English coastline is wonderfully realized on film. Direction from Bill Condon is fine too. This was Condon's second association with McKellen the two have previously worked on Gods and Monsters the story of Frankenstein director James Whale. In all, Mr. Holmes overcomes its unconventional points with its brilliant acting and stunning production values. Mr. Holmes truly is a Sherlock Holmes film like no other and I award it four very deserved stars out of five.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sacred Celluloid

I think it's safe to say that we're in something of a Sherlockian dry spell now so material for this blog has been pretty minimal lately. Still needing an outlet for my thoughts and opinions, I have created a second blog which I will maintain in addition to this one.

The new blog is entitled Sacred Celluloid and can be found here. Sacred Celluloid will host my thoughts and reviews on movies on a whole including classic cinema, recently-released features, and everything in between. I hope that you will stop in from time-to-time, and rest assured that big news in the Sherlock Holmes world will still be covered here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review - "Sherlock Holmes and The House of Pain"

The worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells do not often mix. Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are firmly rooted in a realistic world while Wells' novels of science fiction are quite different. However, of all Wells' novels, one does seem to lend itself pretty easily to the Conan Doyle Canon; that being The Island of Dr. Moreau which was first published in 1896. There are elements of Gothic horror inherent in Wells' novel of science-gone-wrong and it is not a difficult proposition to link these themes to the stories of the world's most famous detective.

Despite the possibilities, to my knowledge the crossover has only seen print once or twice before; Guy Adams' The Army of Dr. Moreau and Don Roff's "The House on Moreau Street" which threw R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke into the mix as well. The latest pairing of Holmes and the mad doctor can be found in Sherlock Holmes and the House of Pain by Stephen Seitz which is the subject of today's review.

An old acquaintance of Dr. Watson's arrives at Baker Street in need of help. His sister, a missionary, has disappeared in the slums of Spitalfields. Journeying to the section of the city, Holmes and Watson soon hear tales of massive rats which live beneath the streets of the city. On a sojourn into the sewers, Holmes and Watson discover that the rats are highly advanced intellectually and have created their own law. The sight stirs in Holmes vivid, horrific memories from his days at university where he met Dr. Alexandre Moreau who conducted ghastly experiments on animals. Has the mad doctor returned? In order to answer the question Holmes will butt heads with a young George Edward Challenger and confront horrors from his past.

Sherlock Holmes and the House of Pain excellently blends together the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. In his introduction, Seitz neatly fits Wells' novel into the chronology of the Canon. Seitz's novel is set in 1887 and therefore allows for the young Holmes to easily recall the days from his youth before he was a consulting detective. The novel also manages to nicely capture the essence of Gothic horror which brims beneath the surface of Wells' original. Seitz's writing manages to make the most of these horrific situations and I for one was drawn into the story easily, never truly questioning the logistics of Holmes and Watson encountering rat men in the sewers of London.

While Seitz's voice for Watson was admirable, his efforts to re-capture the voice of Sherlock Holmes did fall a little flat at times. Holmes was never able to show off his brilliant cognitive ability, which I believe hurt the narrative in places, especially when Holmes was recounting his days as a student and meeting Dr. Moreau for the first time. As to the characterization of George Edward Challenger, I cannot say. Challenger was, of course, the other famed character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who appeared for the first time in The Lost World. Challenger has gotten the reputation for being a loud, boisterous man which Seitz conveyed very well. However, any specifics regarding the man I was unable to pick up on as I have not yet read The Lost World.

As can be implied from a story involving giant rat men, there are references to The Matilda Briggs and The Giant Rat of Sumatra. Seitz's novel does live up to the great detective's assertion that the "world is not yet prepared" for the story, something which cannot be said for all versions of the untold tale.

In all, Sherlock Holmes and the House of Pain is an original, fast-paced story which seamlessly combines the worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. The narrative, though at times over-the-top in execution, is thrilling, told in an authentic Doylean manner. The novel does at times fall short as Holmes does not always sound like his Canonical counterpart. However, I give the novel 3.5 out of 5 stars and do not hesitate in recommending it.


Sherlock Holmes and the House of Pain will be released 23 September, 2015 by MX Publishing. I received an advance copy from the author in exchange for a review.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Happy Birthday Peter Cushing

Peter Cushing (1913-1994)

Without doubt horror's finest actor

Happy 102nd Birthday

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review - "The Creeping Flesh" (1973)

Seldom has a horror film been produced which could actually be likened to a Shakespearean tragedy. A notable exception is 1973's The Creeping Flesh, which is described by author Mark A. Miller in his book Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema as being "the best of the last [Cushing and Lee contributions]." Highly atmospheric, morose, and brooding, The Creeping Flesh boasts one of Cushing's finest performances which we shall examine as we conclude Peter Cushing Month.

Peter Cushing stars as Professor Emmanuel Hildern who has returned from New Guinea with a skeleton of what he believes to the be the embodiment of evil. Hildern is a broken man after his wife lost her mind and confined to an asylum overseen by his cold, emotionless brother Dr. James Hildern (Christopher Lee). It was while in James' care that Emmanuel's wife died. However, fearing that insanity may be a hereditary trait, the Professor has lied about his wife's mental illness and death to his only child, his daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilborn). Quite by accident, Emmanuel discovers that when exposed to water, the skeleton miraculously re-glows flesh, and drawing some of the blood from the specimen, the Professor inoculates his daughter, hoping to vaccinate her against insanity. Soon, his plan backfires and before long both Emmanuel and his brother James will look pure evil in the face...

In the 1970's, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were lucky to have a spat of well-written movies come their way. The two men starred in three successive films: Horror Express, The Creeping Flesh,and Nothing But the Night (1973). All three films had very original premises, which was not the norm for quickly-produced horror films at the time. While the previously-reviewed Horror Express' script allowed for a fun, scary romp, The Creeping Flesh is different. It's a very downbeat film, laboring on topics like insanity and the root of evil. These type of philosophical discourses were few and far between in films of this sort, and this manages to make The Creeping Flesh feel rather sophisticated in a way. At the end of the day, it's still a cheaply produced horror film, but the ideas which it touches on are far deeper and more far reaching.

Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing) prepares to vaccinate his
daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilborn) shielding her from madness
The concepts which are introduced in the film are expertly handled by Cushing and Lee. While Cushing is today best remembered for his excellent turns as Baron Frankenstein or Professor Van Helsing, his role as Professor Emmanuel Hildern may be one of his best on screen. Hildern begins as the typical dotty scientist who abandons the needs of his family (in this case his daughter Penelope) to make a breakthrough in scientific thought. Hildern becomes a more multifaceted person when we learn that he does care for his family and is trying to protect her in his own misguided manner. Of course, like most dotty scientists in horror films, his plans go horribly awry. Cushing lends a great deal of realism to his performance as Hildern, and he becomes one of Cushing's most pitiable characters. One of the film's most memorable (and heart-wrenching scenes) finds Hildern's daughter, Penelope, discovering the secret about her mother, donning her mother's old dress and beginning to play the piano. Hildern, lured to the room in which he has stowed his wife's possessions first believes that his wife has returned to life, only to have his own ludicrous dream shattered when he discovers that it was Penelope all along. Cushing, sobbing uncontrollably, is simply stunning.

While Emmanuel Hildern may be one of Cushing's most emotional roles, the part of James Hildern is surely one of Christopher Lee's coldest. Whether he is subjecting a patient to electric shock therapy, or shooting an escaping prisoner in the back, seldom has a character as heartless as James Hildern been put on the screen. What is fascinating about James is that he is not truly a villain, he's simply an unlikable guy who, like his brother Emmanuel, is driven by his desire to revolutionize scientific thought, which leads him to stealing the skeleton from Emmanuel's lab come the tense finale. Lee is simply in top form here.

However, the true standout (aside from the already lauded Cushing) is Lorna Heilborn as Penelope. After she's vaccinated by her father for madness, she begins to spiral downward, losing her mind completely. It's an emotional punch in the gut for the viewer knowing how much Emmanuel tried to protect his daughter, made all the more poignant by Heilborn's excellent performance. All of the stars are wonderfully directed by Freddie Francis, a veteran of many Hammer films and Amicus horror anthologies which meant that he'd worked alongside Cushing and Lee many a time. Though at heart a cinematographer, Francis managed to combine his love for camera work with directing which manages to give The Creeping Flesh a truly unnerving atmosphere, and come the finale, a number of wonderful camera shots.

Looking into the face of pure evil
As noted above, The Creeping Flesh is greatly benefited by a truly engaging, original screenplay which was written by Peter Spenceley and Jonathon Rumbold. Many reviewers have likened the story to a Shakespearean tragedy, so it's no great spoiler to say that the characters aren't very well-off come the ending. But, the roots of the tragic story-line go deeper. It is the misguided efforts of the main characters which eventually leads to their downfalls which adds greatly to the sense of irony which permeates the entire movie. There is also a brilliantly choreographed twist ending which is hinted at in the film's very beginning, and with the introduction of this twist, the film's entire meaning is flipped dramatically on its head. There is much debate over what actually happens in the movie, the ending rendering much of it ambiguous, which is just one more indication that The Creeping Flesh was taking risks where other horror films of the period were not.

It would not be misguided to call The Creeping Flesh one of the best horror films of the 1970's. An original screenplay creates three vivid characters, all of whom are brought to life brilliantly on screen and who extenuate the emotional vein which runs through the picture. What's more it's filmed by a director who had a keen eye for fascinating visuals and capped off with nicely realized twist ending. All of these ingredients make The Creeping Flesh a horror film not to be missed by both the Peter Cushing enthusiast or a vintage horror film fan. It receives a well-deserved 4.5 out of 5 from me.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Review - "Horror Express" (1972)

Despite the fact that British Hammer Films paired Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on a number of occasions, it was a small Spanish studio who paired the two in one of their most memorable,exciting, and truly unnerving horror films. Originally entitled Panico en El Transiberiano (Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express), the film was ultimately re-titled in English-speaking countries as Horror Express. The excellent film is the subject of today's review for Peter Cushing Month.

In the early 1900's, Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) discovers a neolithic creature encased in ice while exploring the caves of Manchuria. Placing the creature in a crate, Saxton plans on traveling back to Europe across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express where he runs into his rival, fellow anthropologist,Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing). Before long it becomes clear to both men that Saxton's specimen is not dead and is now running amok on the train - it's glare able to kill a man. A race against the clock is soon on as Saxton and Wells must stop the monster and discover the creature's secret.

On a personal note, I discovered Horror Express a many years ago when I came across it in a video store. Fascinated by both Lee and Cushing, though arguably pretty unfamiliar with the bulk of their work, I decided to give the film a try. Being perhaps of an impressionable age, I found the movie incredibly chilling, and I daresay I had never seen a movie which caused me to lose sleep. More recently, I discovered that the film was restored on Blu-Ray (and believing that I am not as impressionable as I once was) jumped at the chance to see the film again. Boy, am I glad that I did. Horror Express is without doubt one of the strangest horror films I have ever seen, but such a fascinating, entertaining film, and even after all this time, still pretty unnerving.

Horror Express can be looked at as one of those "kitchen sink" horror films. In the span of a 90-minute movie, we have: an Edwardian setting, a speeding train, a neolithic monster, a creature from beyond this world, zombies, blood, gore, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, a pretty countess, a Rasputin-like mad monk, an incredibly eerie musical score, and Telly Savalas. I'll give you a second to let that all sink in. Ready to continue? Good. Despite the combination of eclectic plot points, the film succeeds in making everything work. Never do any of the sub-plots or characters feel superfluous - they all add greatly to the overall story. In fact, Horror Express' greatest asset is its very original script, written by Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Halevy. While the film begins in the usual monster-on-the-loose vein, by the mid-way point, an interesting twist has been introduced and the whole film is truly turned on its head.

"Monster? We're British you know"
The excellent screenplay is complimented in no small part by its stars. Christopher Lee heads up the cast as Sir Alexander Saxton. Lee gets to play a heroic character in the film, an occurrence which was fairly uncommon in '70's horror films. He lends true weight to the (at times silly) story and the seriousness with which Lee conducts himself adds gravitas. Peter Cushing's Dr. Wells is one of the actor's most endearing creations; even in the scenes in which Wells is experiencing the most dire of circumstances, Cushing's eyes cannot help but twinkle. What is notable about Cushing and Lee in this movie is that the two of them are both agents of good, easily setting aside their differences to save the day. Both are also endowed with some very campy bits of dialogue, but both actors, ever the professionals never let the audience see them make light of their faintly comical lines. For example, after Saxton's creature has broken out of its crate, killing the train's baggage man, Wells demands: "are you telling me that an ape that lived two million years ago got out of that crate, killed the baggage man, and put him in there, then locked everything up neat and tidy and got away?" to which Saxton steadfastly replies: "Yes, I am." Perhaps the most infamous case of unusual dialogue to be found in the film comes after Julio Pena's police inspector accuses Saxton and Wells of possibly being the monster themselves. "Monster?" Cushing's Wells counters, "We're British you know."

The supporting cast compliment Cushing and Lee wonderfully - if not at times achieving a memorable status with a bit of zealous overacting. Alberto de Mendoza walks away with perhaps the film's most memorable role, that of the mad monk, Father Pujardov, who goes a little off his rocker come the film's final third. Silvia Tortosa is likable in the extreme as Countess Petrovski, and any possible romance between the Countess and Saxton is well-handled. One cannot overlook the obvious elephant in the room, that elephant being Telly Savalas as cossock Captain Kazan who attempts to restore some order on the train. Savalas hams it up in the extreme, seen gargling with a glass of vodka. It's an insane performance, totally in-keeping with the nature of the film.

Despite its at times campy nature, Horror Express still manages to be an unnerving film. Due in no small part to the sense of claustrophobia, the sense of tension in the film is produced almost effortlessly. Unlike Hammer, whose scenes of extreme gore were few and far between until the early '70's, Horror Express different. The creature, who wipes its victim's brains of their memories causing blood to weep from their eyes, noses and mouths, is truly a chilling sight. Horror Express was one of the first horror films of its kind to use blood extensively. One cannot overlook the terrifically eerie musical score either which was provided by John Cacavas. Cacavas' score somehow manages to sound creepy, funky, and vaguely Russian all at once. Click here to listen to the film's haunting theme.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about the production of the film was Peter Cushing's reluctance to accept the part. Produced in late 1971, Cushing was still suffering from the recent death of his wife Helen and was not keen on traveling to Spain, especially due to the film's scheduled shooting around the Christmas holiday. It was Christopher Lee, Cushing's close friend who convinced Cushing to stay on, and Lee even invited Cushing to spend Christmas with his family. That's what's so appealing about Horror Express - it is perhaps the only film in which Cushing and Lee co-starred which showed any indication of the two men's strong friendship which existed off screen.

Rather perfectly described as The Thing from Another World meets Murder on the Orient Express, Horror Express is a fun, eccentric horror romp. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are delightful as the film's leads, leading a host of great supporting actors in the campy, creepy fun. As a standard horror flick it's very entertaining. As a Cushing and Lee collaboration, it's one of the best, which therefore earns it 4.5 out of 5 stars.