Our rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
I have seen many Sherlock Holmes movies, some of them better than others and a few I wish had never been made at all. My expectations going into this film were very low, because frankly, Charlton Heston in my mind is much more iconic in scriptural roles than as the great consulting detective. Well, I stand corrected.
Whenever he is not on a case, the great Sherlock Holmes (Heston) often results to a seven percent solution of cocaine to engage his mind, much to the frustration of his friend and flat mate, Dr. John Watson (Richard Johnson). This time around, he is prevented from tedium and resorting to the little medical bottle by the appearance of a distressed young woman named Irene St. Claire (Susannah Harker), who is very concerned over the disappearance of her father. Holmes is merely excited about having something to do, whereas Watson is captivated by the beautiful Irene. She explains that the arrival of a parchment with some strange markings on it sent her father into hysterics the previous evening and he has not been seen since. Holmes catches up his coat and demands they accompany him into the country, to pay a visit to her father's dear friend, Alistair Ross (Edward Fox).
To their surprise, her father (John Castle) is already there -- and murder is not far behind, leading Holmes to involve Inspector Lestrade (Simon Callow) in what may be their most perplexing case yet. Based on a notable stage production in which Heston enjoyed the success and critical acclaim of assuming the lead, The Crucifer of Blood is loosely inspired by the story "The Sign of Four," but bears only the slightest resemblance to the original. I love all of Doyle's well-crafted mysteries but must admit it was nice to see a significant departure for a change -- here, the characters have almost all been renamed or altered completely, the conspirators are given notable screen time outside of Holmes' presence (so we see the storyline develop from their perspective), and there is quite a bit of dialogue that is simply marvelous. Its adaptation from the stage play shows -- but it's not a bad thing, since there are larger sets and outdoor shots in addition to interiors. It also includes a sinister twist in the last fifteen minutes that I did not see coming.
When this film was released there were complaints that Heston was too old to play Holmes, and it's true -- he is very old, but he gives such a delightful performance that I did not mind. I expected him to be over the top but his tone is moderated, his mannerisms are charming, and he is very effective, assisted immensely by a terrific supporting cast. Johnson as Watson is also wonderful, and the two of them have a nice dynamic as friends. The costuming is not magnificent but does invoke the Victorian era well, and it's also our chance to see Holmes in disguise -- and not be certain it is him, because for once his features are indistinguishable under the make-up. It does poke some fun at Lestrade (who kind of deserves it) but includes some nice references to the originals -- for instance, a jack knife on the mantle becomes rather important later on. For the most part, there is no content to speak of, although Irene does spend the last act in a very low-cut dress. The violence is not particularly graphic but does include several people being shot and/or stuck with poison darts. There is a minimal amount of blood. Opium plays a significant role; we see a man in a haze, and are uncertain as to whether or not he is hallucinating or has been visited by a ghost. Much is made of a curse.
The biggest problem is the inclusion of a half dozen abuses of Jesus' name in some form (primarily, the expression, "Oh, for Christ's sake!"). I found that unnecessary but the film was otherwise engaging. It took an original approach to material that has been played with a dozen or more times and benefits from its clever characters and unexpected twists. I could not rent it anywhere, so it was a blind buy for me -- one of the few that has proven worthwhile.