Skip to main content

It means murder, Watson. Cold-blooded, refined, deliberate... murder.

The Hound of the Baskervilles
(1983)

(SPOILERS) The 1988 Jeremy Brett Hound of the Baskervilles was, sadly, an early sign his incarnation wasn't full proof, doubly disappointing because there was an expectation, based on previous form, that it might have been the telling of the tale. Luckily, there's another '80s TV version that's much more satisfying. Half a decade earlier, Douglas Hickox directed Ian Richardson in the latter's second, and alas final, Holmes outing. If The Sign of Four was merely adequate, in part due to the changes made to the story, Charles Edward Pogue furnishes Hound with several creative solutions to key challenges in adapting the material.


One thing I didn't recall from seeing this originally was how unrestrained the material is in places. Not in the gothic sense of the Hammer 1958 version (still one of the most satisfying), although the realisation of the 'orrible 'ound itself is appealingly fantastic – animated phosphorescence and striking glowing eyes – and the studio-created, fogbound Grimpin Mire of the climax is a marvellously evocative creation (cinematographer Ronnie Taylor won an Oscar for Gandhi the year before). No, I'm referring to the sexual and sadistic content. 


In an early scene, Dr Mortimer (Denholm Elliott, underutilised) recounts the legend of the hound as presented by cruel Hugo Baskerville, who takes off across the moor in pursuit of a serving wench. He proceeds to rape her, Hickox intercutting the act with a horse floundering in the mire, before the hound puts a stop to him. 


Later, Laura Lyons (Connie Booth), whose association with Sir Charles Baskerville was that of a full-blown affair in this version, is strangled in her bed while her drunken husband Geoffrey (an ever- explosive Brian Blessed, "cursed with a vision of genius and only a mediocre talent to express it") sleeps below. It's a particularly cold, unblinking fate, particularly given the way Holmes and Watson earlier exit the Lyons' abode with Geoffrey poised to inflict untold violence on her (for all they know), which doesn't seem very noble (Holmes' straightening of the poker Geoffrey has just bent is very nifty, however – taken from The Speckled Band).


LestradeHe isn't in one of his silly disguises, is he?

David Stuart Davies referred to the main weaknesses of this version as "the additions and infelicities introduced", but I'd argue such elements make frequently adapted texts the more interesting. As such, I consider the addition of Geoffrey Lyons generally a positive one – I mean, it's Brian Blessed! – even if Pogue never does enough to really make his presence an effective red herring, or to allow his framing for murder have an impact (he needs to speed on to the climax). 


Part of the problem in the suspects stakes may be that, very good though Nicholas Clay is as Hugo/Jack Stapleton (I can only assume, with Cherie Lunghi in The Sign of Four and Clay in this, that Sy Weintraub was a big fan of Excalibur – and why wouldn't he be? – although perhaps not enough to entice Nicol Williamson to play Holmes again), there isn't enough misdirection in the unfolding, such that we're in little danger of failing to observe that the man in Mortimer's story is very similar to the one making a pretence of butterfly hunting, and how the portrait on the wall resembles both (although, we're supposed to have caught up by that point). 


It doesn't help that the suspiciousness of Mr and Mrs Barrymore (Edward Judd and Eleanor Bron) has been reduced to the point of immateriality. I suspect, however, that there's intentional paralleling between the unrestrained frenzy of Hugo early on and Stapleton's gun-wielding attack on Holmes, Watson and Beryl Stapleton (Glynis Barber) at the climax.


Gypsy HolmesThe lady’s heart is burdened. Before her lies a difficult choice that in choosing has but one answer. Life and Death. Though in choosing death, she also chooses life. Though she cannot choose life without death. It is a choice with no choice. Yet she must choose. 

Pogue comes through with flying colours in filling the gap of the absent Holmes, however. Taking a leaf out of the peddler book from the Rathbone version, he goes a step further and includes the sleuth as a gypsy on the sides of the action, almost from when Watson arrives in Devonshire. While not as spooky as the séance in the Rathbone version, Pogue also adds a "supernatural" element in Holmes telling Beryl's fortune. Of course, he's wrapping his deductions in mystical language, but its nevertheless a curiously-motivated course, deceptively interposing himself between the woman and her fate and causing her great distress, essentially acting the puppeteer. To be so cavalier with consequences doesn't seem very in keeping with the generally warm-hearted Richardson characterisation, but that may be why it’s one of the most resonant scenes in the movie. 


Richardson noted of Pogue's dialogue that he "spent a great deal of time anglicising to make it sound like Conan Doyle" yet had to bow to certain Americanisms (smoking a "monstrosity like a meerschaum"), but there's little here that feels too wrong-footed. Neither Martin Shaw (who has been dubbed by an unnamed performer – Kerry Shale has been suggested) as Henry Baskerville nor Barber seem quite right in their roles, though, both looking as if they’re being dressed in period costumes rather than inhabiting their roles (Barber is also sporting a very '80s fake tan). 


Then there's Watson. Richardson was disapproving: "Churchill gave such a silly ass performance. He didn't give a damn about the part because it was just another job for him… Churchill's Watson was too common". There's definitely something of the buffer about Donald Churchill's performance – as there is about David Healey in Sign – a legacy of the defining Nigel Bruce incarnation, but I don't think he's nearly as disastrous as Richardson suggested. In part, both he and Healey are merely playing up Pogue's characterisation. More to the point, I just don't think Healey would work for this more action-orientated story. It needs someone who could conceivably be an ex-soldier, and convincingly shoot a convict or a hound. 


WatsonWere I the Notting Hill murderer, I should feel supremely confident with Inspector Lestrade bungling about.

I'm less convinced of Ronald Lacey as Lestrade, mainly because Lacey's too intelligent a performer to play an idiot entirely successfully. Thus, when Watson is one upping him, calling him an uncouth bounder or telling him to bugger off, or later when he reveals his scriptural knowledge, I'm more inclined to give Scotland Yard's finest the benefit of the doubt. 


HolmesBut without the imagination, Watson, there would be no horror.

Hickox does a stylish job, even if his peak period (Theatre of BloodSitting Target) was behind him. There's a curious choice of showing a glimpse of the very end of the film at the start (Holmes smiling as Henry and Beryl exit a room in Baskerville Hall together), while he generally knows how to step up the tension, the moors scenes proving particularly effective, avoiding a jarring sense of dislocation between the interiors and exteriors (by keeping the former at night and the latter in daylight). 


If you're thinking of picking up the Blu-rays of either of these Richardson Holmes releases, you might want to reconsider; the point of a 4K restoration is entirely defeated if you lose a third of the picture (they’ve been presented in widescreen, but clearly only the 4:3 prints were available). As for the David Stuart Davies commentaries, I'd recommend his starring Sherlock Holmes instead – a very good read. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Basically, you’re saying marriage is just a way of getting out of an embarrassing pause in conversation?

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
(SPOILERS) There can be a cumulative effect from revisiting a movie where one glaring element does not fit, however well-judged or integrated everything else is; the error is only magnified, and seems even more of a miscalculation. With Groundhog Day, there’s a workaround to the romance not working, which is that the central conceit of reliving your day works like a charm and the love story is ultimately inessential to the picture’s success. In the case of Four Weddings and a Funeral, if the romance doesn’t work… Well, you’ve still got three other weddings, and you’ve got a funeral. But our hero’s entire purpose is to find that perfect match, and what he winds up with is Andie McDowell. One can’t help thinking he’d have been better off with Duck Face (Anna Chancellor).

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.