Saturday 14 July 2007

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

If you hadn't noticed the name at the beginning of the credits, you'd probably realise that this was a Hammer film from the jarring style of the background music or the vivid colour. If not, the fact that it's a Sherlock Holmes story that begins with a man being thrown through a stained glass window then thrust into a fire, and follows up with a pack of hunting hounds being set free to chase his escaping daughter, would give it away. It's Sir Hugo Baskerville doing the chasing and he's being played by David Oxley, trying his best to be Raymond Massey. Soon of course Sir Hugo is soon chased himself and his death at the hands of the hound has passed into legend and become a curse on the Baskerville family.

Sherlock Holmes is brought in by Dr Richard Mortimer who believes that the legend is the cause of another Baskerville death, this one Sir Charles Baskerville whose heart apparently ceased to function while being chased across the moor at night. Being a Hammer film, and an early Hammer film at that, it features such staples of the studio as Peter Cushing, Andre Morell and Christopher Lee. Cushing is Holmes, of course, and he's a fine Holmes too, if not up to the calibre of Basil Rathbone. Morell is Watson, and again perfectly fine in the role without being Nigel Bruce. Lee is Sir Henry Baskerville, the last in the family line who is heading back home from Johannesburg and whose life is in apparent serious danger.

I know Cushing and Lee best from where I saw them first and most: Hammer horror films, which this really counts as even though it's a Sherlock Holmes detective story. This is the first that I've seen in quite a few years and it feels like coming home, playing very comfortably indeed. The acting is as great as the sets, as Hammer was always uncannily good at making them seem far more grandiose than they actually were, getting far more out of their films than they put in financially. The standout has to be Miles Malleson as the inebriate Bishop Frankland, a very characterful performance.

As for the story, it's Hammer level stuff which means it's great fun but with a whole bunch of holes. Don't watch the way too colourful blood and the little inconsistencies all over the place. It's fun, and more importantly it was something new because nobody else was doing anything this graphic at the time. Yes, this was considered graphic. Wander around online, starting at Wikipedia, and read the BBFC comments on the early Hammer films and be stunned. They thought that the material Hammer churned out from the late fifties onwards for a couple of decades was just beyond the pale, unredeemable obscenity. They considered banning them outright.

I look at this material and see something else. The films from their heyday, beginning with 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein and heading onwards for a decade or more, seem like good old fashioned family fun now, a newer take on the Universal horrors, more colourful in every meaning of that word, yet a long way short of the excesses of the modern day. Does every generation say this about the last one? Even some of the more truly excessive Hammer horrors of the seventies, like the Karnstein trilogy with all that naked skin and overt lesbianism, never felt dangerous or pornographic, just the dessert to the more mainstream main course, after the kids had gone to bed.

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