Our rating: 4 out of 5
Sir Charles Baskerville has been found stretched out on the garden path of his country estate with a look of intrepid horror on his features. The singular case, as well as the evil history behind it, brings young Dr. Mortimer (Neil Duncan) to London to seek the consultation of Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett). There is only one remaining heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry, of American decent who is due to arrive in England on the morning steamer. Coming into more than two million pounds, Sir Henry is feared to follow in the same gruesome pattern of death as his ancestors. Their passing into the afterlife has always been inexplicable and tied to the legendary family curse... a giant hound who avenges itself on the family heirs for the medieval murder of an innocent girl. She had been kidnapped by Sir Hugo Baskerville and escaped across the moor.
Hugo's three drunken companions came over the crest of a small gorge and saw a horrible sight... the girl lay dead on the ground and standing over Sir Hugo was a gigantic hound. Ever since the family has been wary of the curse, all suffering from inexplicable fates. Holmes is intrigued and agrees to meet Sir Henry. Having heard the length of the tale, as well as the young man's intention to visit his family estate in Dartmoor, the detective sends along Dr. Watson (Edward Hardwicke) in his stead. Until he's completed a current case of blackmail, he cannot leave London. Watson takes to the task with great interest, finding the lonely stretch of barren moor a haunting experience. The house is vast and old, the servants have their secrets, and the neighbors are all eccentric. The nearest is Stapleton, a collector of rare insects and plants, and his beautiful sister Beryl.
Then there is also Mr. Frankland, a cantankerous old man with a telescope on the roof of his home, and a missing convict from the local prison. Candlelight signals, a boy who delivers food and messages across the moor, and the sinister atmosphere of the house all lend themselves to a rather slow-moving adaptation of Doyle's book. Brett seems fatigued as Holmes in the first half, obviously suffering from his first bout with illness. The opening scenes lack the usual vigor and excitement necessary. He's also too old to play the part as accurately as he might have ten years before. But by the second half we have the old Holmes back again, heartily pleased with himself and fascinated with the horrific truth as it unfolds. This could have been the essential adaptation were it not for the miscasting of the lead and the often laborious opening scenes. While enthralling on the page, the book doesn't lend itself well to direct translation.
Some scenes do profoundly stand out, visualized ideally from the novel, such as when Watson catches a glimpse of a figure against the moon, our first true look at the hound, and the scene between Beryl and Sir Henry in the rock formation. But I couldn't help comparing to the much darker and more gothic Ian Richardson adaptation, made five years earlier. This one holds closer to the book, true, but the other had more a mysterious sense of horror. There were some changes made and for the most part one can understand why. There really aren't any complaints about the content, since even the attack of the hound is handled civilly. A man is mauled by the creature before the beast is shot several times. Someone else wanders into the quagmire and drowns; his scene is drug out as he flails around, swallows swamp, and eventually sinks. There are several mild profanities courtesy of Sir Henry when he demands the hotel locate his stolen boot. Those searching for a faithful adaptation of Doyle's brilliant supernatural thriller will find The Hound of the Baskervilles enjoyable but slightly disappointing.