Arrow Video take on Holmes, Hounds and Hammer Horror…
In the latter half of the 1950s, Hammer Film Productions seemed capable of doing no wrong having garnered commercial success and public acclaim, albeit with mixed critical reception, for their adaptations of horror heavyweights including Frankenstein and Dracula. By virtue of this success and the burgeoning confidence it inspired it would seem a natural choice for Hammer to turn its attentions to another stalwart of popular English literature, Sherlock Holmes, and that most iconic of tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles (referred as Hound from hereon). A tale steeped in the mystery of the Baskerville curse with the stalking dread of the eponymous fiend haunting the treacherous Devon moors, Hound appeared ripe for a Hammer makeover replete with all the Gothic hallmarks that had rapidly become their stock-in-trade and starring Hammer’s favourite sons Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (albeit taking third billing behind André Morell as Watson) under the stewardship of Terence Fisher.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Hammer’s production of Hound is that it represented their only adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes tale. The rights to the story were not even held by Hammer but were instead acquired by Kenneth Hyman, son of Eliot Hyman, head of Hammer’s US partner Seven Arts. Hammer’s official historian, Marcus Hearn, reasons this could conceivably explain why this remained the sum total of their Holmes output. Nonetheless, once the production was underway members of the Sherlock Holmes Society were actively courted by Hammer and visited the set during shooting, as the studio sought their approval for the project. In spite of changes in numerous plot details and the overall pacing, this approval appears to have been forthcoming, which was likely in no small part down to self-confessed Holmes devotee Peter Cushing, whose energetic turn as Holmes is informed by little details, idiosyncratic ticks and dialogue purloined from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.
The casting of Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville freed him from his increasingly customary villains to play one of his few romantic roles. The earnest, somewhat naive Sir Henry, newly arrived in unfamiliar surroundings and beset by the family curse, is bewitched by Cecile (Marla Landi), as wild as the moors that dominate the locale. In interviews Lee has expressed a certain level of frustration with the limitations imposed upon him, suggesting that his prospects of playing such parts were constantly confounded by the perception amongst casting directors that he was too tall and foreign looking to be convincing as a romantic lead. In a more familiar role as a respectable authority figure, André Morell’s thoughtful, cerebral Watson significantly breaks out of the mould of the amiable fool as popularised by Nigel Bruce, and due to Holmes’ prolonged absence in the middle part of the story Watson’s ability to shoulder a share of the burden of the investigation is crucial. Indeed whilst Hammer’s production is punctuated by moments of mirth, Watson is consistently in on the joke rather than representing the butt of it, with Miles Malleson’s effortlessly eccentric Bishop Frankland performing the comic function in this instance.
Despite mounting a handsome production, complemented by strong performances from principal and supporting cast, when it comes to the crunch Hound represents a good rather than great entry in the Hammer portfolio. As is well documented the major issues lie chiefly with the realisation of the hound itself and if one compares the publicity materials which confidently herald the terrifying beast from hell to the dispiriting sight of an amiable Great Dane lolloping about in a mask, a contemporary viewer must have found it difficult not to feel shortchanged given Hammer’s growing reputation for delivering thrills to rapt audiences. During the production, such was the dissatisfaction with the hound’s scenes that producer Anthony Hinds, in a move largely uncharacteristic of cost-conscious Hammer, approved additional budget to reshoot sequences with children (or dwarves depending on who you talk to) standing in for the principal cast in an effort to make the dog seem more ferocious. Unsurprisingly a week’s additional filming yielded nothing of genuine value and none of the new footage was deemed worthy of inclusion in the final cut.
Presented in its OAR of 1.66:1 Hound looks fantastic nearly 60 years later. Never shy of a bold colour or two, Hammer’s feature is well served by this presentation, detail is excellent and colours well rendered with the vivid crimsons of the film’s more bloody moments matched by the impressively solid blacks of gloomier scenes.
Hound comes with a LPCM 1.0 soundtrack. Dialogue and sound effects are clear and those dramatic moments in the score come through with suitable vigour and without distortion. An isolated music score is included as well.
Audio commentary with Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby
Sit back, try to relax but probably best to brace yourself – what Hearn and Rigby don’t know about Hammer and the British horror genre isn’t worth knowing. Together they possess an encyclopaedic knowledge not only of virtually every aspect of the film itself but also manage to fire off biographies on cast and crew along the way with a dizzying array of facts and trivia at their disposal. That they are extremely comfortable both with the medium and each other’s company makes for a free-flowing, informative yet light-hearted commentary.
Release the Hound (30:20)
A brand new documentary from Arrow including contributions from authors Mark Gatiss and Kim Newman, crew members Hugh Harrow and Peter Allchorne, and mask designer Margaret Robinson. Between them the contributors provide background to the Hammer version of Hound, the emphasis on the gothic elements that had been established as Hammer’s trademark, Cushing and Morell’s interpretations of their roles as Holmes and Watson, and their thoughts on the production as a whole. Harlow, Allchorne and Robinson also reminisce on their experiences of working on Hound touching upon subjects as diverse as the colour of Peter Cushing’s hair and his love of props to shooting the key scene featuring the hound and the struggles the crew had in getting the desired effect. Margaret Robinson talks in more detail about her work with the dog and the process involved in creating the mask for the ill-fated reveal.
André Morell – Best of British (19:43)
An excellent piece covering André Morell’s career with special focus on his Hammer roles. In particular, Jason Morell talks eloquently about his father’s life, his early years as an actor and typecasting as an authority figure; Morell’s relationship with his wife Joan Greenwood and the divergence in their acting profiles; his ambivalent attitude to his work for Hammer; and the piece concludes with the disarmingly candid perspective of a son recounting his father’s decline and death from lung cancer.
The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes (46:04)
Dating from the mid-1980s , this documentary piece presented by Christopher Lee traces Sherlock Holmes countless screen incarnations down the ages. Amongst the highlights is archive film footage of Arthur Conan Doyle discussing his inspiration for Holmes, extensive clips and Lee’s hamming up proceedings at any given opportunity. The eagle-eyed may also notice amongst the executive producer credits a certain Brian Yuzna.
Actor’s Notebook – Christopher Lee (12:59)
An interview with Lee on more sober form and all the better for it as he discusses his thoughts on Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Hammer’s adaptation of Hound and his working relationships with Terence Fisher, his friend Peter Cushing and his love interest, Marla Landi. Lee also broaches the subject of his aversion to spiders which made the tarantula scene in the film all the more real and the problematic hound scene. Returning to his friendship with Cushing, Lee recounts their poignant final meeting during a Hammer documentary in 1994 months before Cushing’s death.
The Hound of the Baskervilles excerpts read by Christopher Lee (14:36) and (6:24)
Also included on the disc is the original theatrical trailer (1:59) and an extensive image gallery of stills, character portraits, publicity shots and promotional materials. In addition a booklet is included containing new writing on the film by another of Hammer Horror’s foremost aficionados, Robert J.E. Simpson.
Classic Hammer horror meets a classic Arrow release – the quality of the transfer is matched by a superb collection of special features making this recommendation not so much easy as elementary…
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum