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

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.