DIRECTED BY: TERENCE FISHER/1959
STREET DATE: JUNE 13, 2017/KINO LORBER
Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes bounds around the English countryside like an elementary schoolboy. His Holmes is all angular elbows, thrusting pointers, darting head, and a long coat that flutters out like a cape when he dashes downward into the boggy moors of the Baskerville estate. There he feasts his deductive mind on the gory death of the master of the house, and attempts to assuage the fear of the next in line, Henry Baskerville (the rigidly internalizing Christopher Lee), who’s nearly hobbled by dread of death at the teeth of a bloodthirsty hound that roams the forested grounds, the manifestation of a centuries-old family curse. We’re in the world of Arthur Conan Doyle as seen through a Hammer horror filter, and the union fits like a deerstalker hat on a foggy night.
The striking colors, a Hammer horror staple, are typically lurid, alone expounding on the under-roiling, censor-muted mix of murder, monsters, and sex, a Gothic confection all but coined by Hammer all-star director Terence Fisher. It was his The Curse of Frankenstein two years earlier that was the first color Hammer film, the first to smartly pair busy-body Cushing and lankily elegant Lee, and the first to body-snatch entire synopses from the original Universal vault of horror. By the end of the cycle, Fisher had directed Hammer versions of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man, along with a couple of dips into the Conan Doyle well, stamping each of them (and all of Hammer in the mind’s eye) with a colorfully lush dread. The violence has been rendered quaint with time, and the acting is sometimes too mannered for modern tastes, but no one can recapture what could only be crafted in that ten-year block of British filmmaking that’s somehow both restrained in tone and wallowing in gruesome visual excess. Together, Holmes’ whipping intellect, Watson’s (André Morell) empathic everyman, and Lee’s tenuous Baskerville lead us willingly into one of the most mordantly engaging adventures in the Hammer canon.
Kino Lorber’s DVD presentation sharply retains the murkiness of the world Fisher created – despite the colorful interludes of bloody mayhem, there’s a story-true chill in those boggy exteriors. The only extra on the disc (other than the requisite trailers) is a late-in-life interview with Christopher Lee – a heartfelt recounting of the production, his work with Terence Fisher, and, most poignantly, his close friendship with Peter Cushing. It deepens the enjoyment of the movie when you know the stars had as deep a friendship as he describes here.