Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Horror of the Hound Part II

Atmospheric poster for the 1939 adaptation
Part II - Sherlock Holmes Goes to the Movies

The Hound of the Baskervilles has been adapted countless times (27 times to be exact). The Gothic aura seems to draw people in, because who doesn't love a good old-fashioned horror story every once and a while? As we continue to take a look at how the Gothic genre has influenced the history of Hound, I'd like to highlight three adaptations in particular. They are the ones which conveyed the foreboding atmosphere of Doyle's original best, and carried on the legacy of the Horror of the Hound.

By 1939, The Hound of the Baskervilles had already been adapted eleven times. There were two German versions in the 1910's and 1920's, two English versions (one featuring legendary Sherlockian actor Ellie Norwood, the other featuring the forgettable and lamentable Robert Rendel) and another German-made version made in Germany and released in 1937. This 1930's German adaptation was said to be a favourite of Adolf Hitler's and featured a bit of Nazi propaganda! Yet, none of these versions could hold a candle to the famed 1939 film made at 20th Century Fox, the first Sherlock Holmes movie to star Basil Rathbone as the detective. (For those interested in further trivia, 1939's Hound was the first Sherlock Holmes film set in the Victorian Era.) At the time of release, Fox wasn't known for horror films, the market being monopolized by Universal Studios, where the Sherlock Holmes series would soon emigrate. Yet, they did know a thing or two about movie detectives, and by 1939 Fox was running two highly successful detective series - the first being the exploits of Hawaiian detective Charlie Chan, based on the works of Earl Derr Biggers and the second being the adventures of Japanese detective Mr. Moto, as played by Peter Lorre and based on the novels of John P. Marquand.

Despite the fact that horror was not Fox's territory, the studio did an excellent job in capturing the essence of Doyle's novel. A great deal of their success is due to the massive moorland set which was constructed especially for the film. In a commonly believed anecdote, Richard Greene (the film's Sir Henry Baskerville) wandered onto the set and actually got lost. Whether this was true, or a clever bit of publicity, the set is moody with jagged rocks, swirling fog et al. Onto this imposing structure swaggers Rathbone's Inverness-clad, deerstalker-wearing detective, and the Victorian milieu, coupled with the gas lamps and hansom cabs glimpsed earlier add not only an aura of the fantastical but the cozy.

Peter Cushing (right) and Andre Morrel (left)
in Hammer Film's 1959 Hound adaptation
The Hound of the Baskervilles returned with a vengeance in 1959, in what I believe is one of the finest Sherlock Holmes films ever made. I have written of Hammer Film's 1959 venture in the past, but please humour me for the time being as I reiterate. Coming off the success of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (both starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), the studio turned to Doyle's novella as inspiration for their next film. Cushing makes for a film Sherlock Holmes, at his condescending and prickly best, while Andre Morrel rates as one of the screen's best Dr. Watson's and Christopher Lee cuts a distinguished figure as Henry Baskerville. It is interesting to note that Hammer never saw the film from a Sherlock Holmes angle - what they saw was the potential for a horror film - and that's just what they delivered!

By today's standards, Hammer's attempts to turn The Hound of the Baskervilles into an out-and-out horror film can come off as pretty campy. Nothing screams: "Look at how hard we're trying to scare you" as the opening scene in which David Oxley's venomous Sir Hugo Baskerville chases the servant girl across the moor, stabs her to death and his killed by the hound in an eerie point-of-view shot. Yet, things improve. The attempt on Sir Henry's life by means of a tarantula is pretty tense stuff (especially for this reviewer who has a deathly fear of spiders). Then, there's Stapleton, who becomes a revenge-seeking farmer with webbed hands, who performs a sort of sacrificial rite on Seldon the convict's corpse after the latter falls victim to the demon dog. The climax is relocated to a crumbling abbey on the moor, and the detective and doctor must stop the hound from worrying Sir Henry's throat as they're being threatened by a knife-wielding Stapleton. It's all pretty standard Hammer horror stuff - but I love every minute of it.

With just the right amount of overly-red fake blood and Technicolor, 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most bombastic adaptation of Doyle's famous story. In the years that followed, there were numerous other adaptations, most of which stuck closer to the source material than Hammer's. Yet, in doing so some of these films were so busy incorporating every one of Doyle's plot points, they forgot to make the film scary. The 1982 version starring Tom Baker and the 1988 version with Jeremy Brett fall victim to this slight error. but I'm glad to say that the most recent version of the story rectified problems, restoring the novel to its horror story roots.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on location
in Dartmoor for The Hounds of Baskerville
The second episode of Sherlock's second series, The Hounds of Baskerville certainly takes the cake for the scariest version of Doyle's novel. Mark Gatiss' efforts to amp up the horror are incredibly successful. This is in part due to the fact that it keeps Sherlock Holmes around the whole time. If you recall from Part I, I discussed how Holmes' removal from the story can make it feel more ominous due to a lack of skeptical insight on the detective's part. Sherlock takes care of this by having Sherlock see the hound with his own eyes, and he begins to question the logic which he holds dear. It's a bold move, and a drastic departure from the canon, but beautifully executed - the pay-off coming in the fireside chat between Sherlock and John, which spawns one of the series' finest deductions scenes. Gatiss also discussed the idea of turning Baskerville into a secret military lab. In an age where we question our government and conspiracy theories run wild (who doesn't like a good conspiracy theory every now and then), The Hounds of Baskerville manages to play upon our fears and manages to keep it current. Aesthetically, the episode is incredibly creepy - filming on location in Dartmoor was brilliant, and even in broad daylight the moor is unnerving. There's the gas mask-wearing killer which is downright freaky (because Steven Moffat taught me how scary gas masks can be - see The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances), and even the CGI hound at the end, though pretty fake, is still unnerving, and certainly not the worst-looking hound in the history of Sherlockian cinema.

And so we come to the end of our journey - from The Hound of the Baskervilles' initial publication in 1901 to 2012. In that time, a scarlet thread of Gothic horror has run through its tangled skein of existence, easily making it one of the most beloved detective stories and horror novels ever written.

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