Our rating: 3 out of 5
The Hound of the Baskervilles is without a doubt one of the finest mysteries ever written. With its devious twist of fates, the illusive characters, and monstrous apparition that haunts the moor, it has become the volume by which all other mysteries are measured. There have been many adaptations into film, but this one has a particular gothic flair conformed more to the style of a Victorian horror film than the logic and precision of Sherlock Holmes. It's not your average retelling.
This particular adaptation opens in the darkened corridors of Baskerville Hall. A white-haired older man stands smoking a cigar by the wicket gate, checking his pocket watch. His nervous agitation is apparent with the passing of time, and his concern is not unwarranted. From the darkness there suddenly erupts a violent, snarling black hound. Sir Charles Baskerville flees into the garden-house and there his housekeeper and her husband find him sprawled on the ground, dead of a heart attack. The matter is brought to the attention of Sherlock Holmes (Ian Richardson) in his London flat. Ordinarily a case which most investigators would overlook, its interest lies mainly in the story behind that night, and a legend of a mysterious hell-hound who has haunted the Baskerville family for centuries. It began several hundred years prior, when Sir Hugo Baskerville kidnapped a local girl from the parish. She escaped through an upper window and fled into the darkness. In a drunken rage, Hugo went after her, pledging that he would sell his soul to the devil to find her.
The only surviving heir to the Baskerville estate is newly arrived from America. Sir Henry (Martin Shaw) believes that the traditions of the estate are nonsense, and there is no such hound. Dr. Mortimer (Denholm Elliott) believes that Henry is placing his life in danger, and requests that Holmes intervene. Intrigued by the case but finding it not pressing enough to warrant his immediate attention, Holmes sends his accomplice Dr. Watson (Donald Churchill) to Baskerville Hall. The manor has its fair share of secrets, from the strange comings and goings of the staff (Eleanor Bron, Edward Judd) to the eccentricities of local neighbors. An escaped convict is loose on the moors. Gypsies are encamped nearby. Watson has become very suspicious, but his investigations only turn up further questions. Sinister characters, a dark and cold manor house, a supernatural foe, and a master detective. All the workings of the classic tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle weave together to produce a chilling premise and a haunting climax.
Like all adaptations, the story strays in some respects to make a more interesting turn. The glittering gem in the film is the performance of Ian Richardson. He plays a clever and often eccentric detective with a level amount of humor, irony, and calculating precision. The rest of the cast make for an interesting ride, but it is Richardson who holds it all together. His voice, appearance, and overall charisma on-screen are what makes his Sherlock Holmes much more memorable than Jeremy Brett's. While it is a good adaptation, at times it bears only minor resemblance to the novel, particularly in the relationship between a young married woman and Sir Charles. Violence is the film's main downfall, as well as the gothic horror it employs. Many families will object to seeing a woman strangled on-screen and another attacked and raped on the moor. A man comes home in a drunken rage and throws his wife around, threatening Holmes and Watson with a poker. In a chilling sequence, a small dog is stalked and attacked by the hound, who mauls two people. A man falls from a cliff and we view his body on the rocks below. Someone drowns in a bog. There are allusions to an adulterous relationship and a mild amount of language. A woman has her fortune told by a wandering gypsy.
Although some of the costuming is clichéd and a few events are foreseen early on, for lovers of Sherlock Holmes or gothic thrillers in general, this Hound more than haunts the night: he leaves a vivid and chilling impression. But even he is no match for the cleverness of Sherlock Holmes.