Hammer unleashes The Hound of the Baskervilles!
The Hound of the Baskervilles Film Review
Hammer’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the handsomest and most exciting.When Sir Henry Baskerville returns home after the mysterious death of his uncle to claim his family title and the ancestral home on Dartmoor, his life immediately comes under threat from the mythical curse that allegedly afflicts his kin. Errant tarantulas are secreted in his shoes. An escaped convict from a prison for the criminally insane is lurking out there. Strange lights can be seen across the moors at night. Someone is crying in the Hall’s shadows. And there is an unsettling howling carried across the bog. These elements have justifiably all become cliché, but they are the cornerstones of one the greatest and most beloved of gothic tales.That tale is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s enduring Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles, stunningly brought to the screen by Hammer Films in 1959. The Terence Fisher helmed masterpiece brings Peter Cushing’s celebrated Baker Street detective and Andre Morell’s indomitable Dr. Watson to the aid of Christopher Lee’s beleaguered Sir Henry, and pits them all against a superstition lent ferociously vivid and vengeful life. Intrigue and suspense increase as the list of suspects pile up. Yet as dogged as the super-sleuth’s sniffing around the haunted moors becomes, so too does the danger they all face. Colourful, exciting and with a few of its own clever twists, Hammer’s Hound is the best in breed.
Blu-ray Picture QualityArrow’s presentation comes via AVC and exhibits the Hound at 1.66:1. Grain is reasonably heavy and looks natural to me. The image, as a whole, is robust and film-like, retaining that all-important organic texture and without any detrimental digital sheen. There are, understandably, a few splotches here and there and some debris. I am not aware of the film having undergone anything extensive in the way of a restoration. Therefore, the image could probably have been cleaned-up a bit more. Even so, I was very pleased with how the overall picture looked, and there certainly isn’t any overt damage to speak of. Although a little dirty, the film looks fresh and vibrant.
One of Hammer’s most redolent and handsome productions, Hound benefits from marvellously saturated colours that are reproduced here with keen attention to vivid primaries such the dripping gore and the resplendent red hunting tunics of Sir Hugo and his dastardly mob. Greens and blues and purples come across well, too, leading to an often entrancing image. Contrast copes without hitches, and the transitions from the myriad sets and exterior locations is smooth. Obviously, Arthur Grant’s day-for-night photography cannot be masked and sticks out like a sore thumb though, as I have stated in my accompanying article on the film, this only adds to the weirdly off-kilter mood evoked by the tale and its bewitching setting on the isolated and haunted moors.
Hound benefits from marvellously saturated colours
Although the image definitely feels promoted by depth during the larger interior shots and, naturally, those perusing the deeper exteriors, I couldn’t call this presentation particularly three-dimensional. Rather, it looks painterly – painstakingly composed frames revel in the production design and the art direction so that there is always some detail to study in the background, and the foreground and, indeed, everywhere within and around the image. Tight definition may be denied some of the objects further away, but it is terrific when it come to close-ups.
Thus, the immortal faces of Peter Cushing, Christopher and Andre Morell are brought into sharp and iconic relief. This revealing clarity is also lavished upon props and costumes which, again, bring so much added period atmospherics. Patterns and stitching are abundantly clear and finely resolved. You always get your money’s worth with a gothic Hammer film in terms of sheer detail with set design, furnishings and bric-a-brac. You will almost certainly come to recognise items – candlesticks, decanters, beds, tables and ornamentation – from other entries in the studio’s illustrious canon because of the clarity they are awarded here. What I will say is that one scene, and one scene alone, caused me some problems.
As Sam Kydd’s loveable lackey pulls up the little wagon to let Dr. Mortimer off, leaving Watson and Sir Henry still seated and on the way to Baskerville Hall, there is evidence of edge enhancement around all the characters. Shot beneath a truly ominous and glowering sky, this haloing seems to stand out. Now, even given the apparent glow around the cast that is a part and parcel of the exterior photography and the lighting, there appears to be a fuzzy outline around shoulders and hats that removes, or dislodges the heavy grain that should be there.
Everywhere else, the grain slides naturally and smoothly over edges without this sort of appearance. To me, at least, this looks artificial ... and because the image is so natural otherwise, it seemed to stand out to me. However, I doubt very much that this will cause any concerns for the overwhelming majority of viewers. On the whole, this is another fine high-definition release from Arrow that should eminently reward Hammer fans with its lustrous and vivid presentation.
Blu-ray Sound QualityArrow provides The Hound of the Baskervilles with an uncompressed mono 1.0 audio track. Overcoming the latent limitations of such a vintage sound design, the track is still lively and energetic and typically ebullient. Let’s face it, once you’ve got a James Bernard score on the go, you need to batten down the hatches and take a deep breath because you are going to be in for all sorts of hellish hullabaloo. His brass and string crescendos are suitably demonic and his chase motif, albeit pilfered from Dracula (against his wishes, I should add) provides elegant impetus. His score does not lack for power and, considering its age, it sounds very effective.
This is a fine track that provides plenty of skin-prickling atmosphere
There is some background hiss going on, but this is perfectly acceptable and will not cause any distraction at all. No drop-outs occur and I had no issues with the dialogue levels. Each character has a very distinctive voice – something that you really notice with vintage British movies and those from Hammer most of all – and the track is up to the task of delivering their individual inflections, accents and verbal nuances with clarity. Effects such as the howling of the Hound, or of the wind, the crashing of glass and the tumble of the pit caving-in, as well as gunshots and the thudding of a cane on a stricken tarantula, are dealt out with suitable gusto. However, I did find that the fabled weeping that Watson hears in the night was a touch lower in the mix than it ought to be. Or maybe it was just me expecting it to be more emphatic.
This is a fine track that provides plenty of skin-prickling atmosphere, and brilliantly captures the fabulous wordplay from the outstanding cast. You may have to turn the volume up a bit to get some real comfortable oomph from the track, but this is not the tinny and diminutive audio that you may have been expecting.
Blu-ray ExtrasThe dog’s doo-dahs, folks!
As usual with an Arrow release, we get a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper. The original is my favourite, but the new imagery is handsome and respectful. The Collector’s booklet features new writing on the film by former Hammer archivist Robert J.E. Simpson, illustrated with original archive stills and posters. Plus we have the original theatrical trailer and an extensive Image Gallery.
There is an Isolated Music and Effects Soundtrack. This is quite a boon because it sounds so much better than the bootleg soundtrack that I have had to put up with in lieu of an official release of James Bernard’s full score.
A new audio commentary with Hammer experts Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby graces the release. Well, these contributions are always excellent and a sheer joy to listen to. This offering from the duo is certainly no exception. Informative, passionate and amusing in equal measure, this is the sort of chat-track that really benefits repeat listening.
Release the Hound! is a brand new documentary looking at the genesis and making of the Hammer classic, featuring interviews with hound mask creator Margaret Robinson, film historian Kim Newman, actor/documentarian and co-creator of BBC’s Sherlock Mark Gatiss, and others.
And there is André Morell: Best of British, a featurette looking at the late great actor André Morell and his work with Hammer and on stage. This is a great little chronicle that doesn’t shy away from the sad end of his life.
The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes is a 1986 documentary looking at the many incarnations of Conan Doyle’s celebrated character, narrated and presented by Christopher Lee.
Plus we get an archive interview in which the actor that looks back on his role as Sir Henry Baskerville in Actor’s Notebook: Christopher Lee.
And Lee is not done with yet. He reads out two enormously descriptive excerpts from the original novel of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Well, what can you say about this? Doyle’s vivid prose and Lee’s exquisite voice - priceless.
The Hound of the Baskervilles Blu-ray VerdictAfter the tremendous Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce version for Universal in 1939, Hammer reawaken The Hound of the Baskervilles and let it off its leash for a bravura outing that perfectly blends gothic mystery, Holmsien clue-gathering and outright horror. Cushing, Lee and Morell are on top form. Lee may be playing a good guy for once, but his performance is warm and credible. Morell makes for an outstandingly proactive Dr. Watson. And, Peter Cushing, of course, is magnificent as the determined, focussed and eminently unflappable Sherlock Holmes.
The only real downside to the deal, and the detail that would prove instrumental in downscaling its inherent “wow” factor was that the film was to be an “A” certificate, something that would test director Terence Fisher’s restraint to the limit. With the studio having paved the way for more explicit films with the brutal POW saga, The Camp on Blood Island, and then the super-shock double-whammy of Frankenstein and Dracula, Hound was to go against the grain and be a considerably toned-down affair. This was something that sensation-seeking crowds would not have anticipated when they saw the Hammer logo on the intimidating and bestial poster. They wanted blood and titillation... and from Hammer they had every right to expect it. And Fisher certainly wanted to deliver the goods.
Thus, even with these constraints, the canny filmmaker clearly set about pushing the limits of what was acceptable in a supposedly family yarn, as expertly and viscerally emphasised in the extended prologue sequence in which the truly nasty Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley on fine fiery form) torments, abuses and almost murders one of his unfortunate servants for the mocking glee of his equally sadistic friends, and then sets up another for what surely amounts to a gang-rape. But when the maid (Judi Moylens) escapes and flees across the moors, Sir Hugo’s rage escalates and he hunts her down with a pack of dogs, corners her in the ruins of the old abbey, and metaphorically ravages her with a symbolic knife... thereby setting up the curse on the Baskervilles when an unseen beast slays him for this atrocity.
Not only classic Hammer but a splendid telling of Doyle’s cherished masterpiece
Whoa! Censors be damned, this was testing stuff. Even today, this is a gruelling and intense set-piece that, perhaps, flies in the face of the prevailing mood that follows. Fisher would revisit such noble savagery with even more severity in the opening of Curse of the Werewolf, stamping his rage against assumed authority with yet stronger conviction. But his anger was fuelled here. It is a bravura intro to a film that, faithfully to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most celebrated Holmes mystery, drifts then into a milder tone of windswept sleuthing in dark ancestral edifices and around spooky, isolated moorland, eschewing the histrionic gore-spattered high-notes and heaving cleavages that Hammer was to become synonymous with.
Be that as it may, what this heart-stopping introduction delivered was a stark reminder that Hammer was never going to mess around, or pussyfoot, even if their hands were tied. Fisher’s warning is clear and vivid in its gloriously resplendent Technicolor, written in a few daring drips of Kensington Gore. This may have been a relatively tame literary adaptation but Fisher and co. wanted everyone to know that they could easily have gone for broke... if they hadn’t been hamstrung by the United Artists distribution deal.
The result was not only classic Hammer but a splendid telling of Doyle’s cherished masterpiece. Given the fine pedigree of this title, Arrow Video groom the beast with a largely terrific transfer, and parade it alongside a generous roster of tasty treats. Great background on the production is delivered with the retrospective feature and the typically entertaining commentary from Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby. The film could be cleaned-up further with a comprehensive restoration, but there’s no mistaking how grand it looks here. There are many adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and there are sure to be many more. But Hammer’s 1959 version is one of the handsomest and most exciting of this fascinating and enduring shaggy dog story.
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