Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories – and the ongoing industry spun off from them – have a curious connection to the horror genre. The image of the master detective, stalking the fog-bound streets of London, seems to be as much a part of the Victorian horror world as Dracula and Jack the Ripper, and it is no surprise that enterprising filmmakers and writers have chosen to pit Holmes against these infamous monsters.
But the original Holmes stories only occasionally flirted with the supernatural, and even then, a rational explanation for events would be uncovered by Holmes in the end – like Scooby-Doo, Sherlock Holmes always found an altogether human cause for seemingly demonic forces.
The most famous of the Holmes stories is one such horror tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Originally serialised in The Strand magazine between 1901 and 1902, it is one of only four novel-length adventures for Holmes that Conan Doyle wrote. It remains the most popular and widely adapted of the Holmes stories, even though for a large part of the novel, Holmes is absent, leaving his companion and assistant Dr Watson to carry the story.
This tale of greed and murder sees Holmes and Watson investigating the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, apparently at the hands (or paws) of a gigantic supernatural hound, part of a family curse. It is down to Holmes to protect Sir Henry, the Baskerville heir while unmasking the killer from a collection of suspects and red herrings.
This is the most widely adapted of the Holmes novels, the story for some time being the ‘go to’ Holmes adventure for filmmakers. With the current trend to bastardise the Holmes character and use original (or barely recognisable) stories, the frequency of film and television adaptations has slowed, but with Sherlock Holmes being as popular as ever (albeit in modernised and unrecognisable forms), it can’t be long before another film or TV version of the tale appears.
The first Hound… film appeared in Germany in 1914. Conan Doyle’s creation was hugely popular with German readers, and this first film was a four part silent movie based on both the novel and Der Hund von Baskerville: Schauspiel in vier Aufzugen aus dem Schottischen Hochland. Frei nach motiven aus Poes und Doyles Novellen (“The Hound of the Baskervilles: a play in four acts set in the Scottish Highlands. Freely adapted from the stories of Poe and Doyle”), a 1907 stage play. As you might expect, it played fast and loose with the original story. Three further German adaptations appeared in 1920, and Richard Oswald, who had shot the third and fourth parts of the 1914 version, had another go in 1929.
The first British film based on the story was made in 1921 by Maurice Elvey, and it would be subsequently filmed again in 1932 in what would be the first ‘talkie’ version of the story. Edgar Wallace worked on the screenplay.
1937 saw another German version of the story, and in 1939 the first American version was shot. This superb version, made by Sidney Lanfield, is still regarded as one of the best adaptations of the book and was the first of fourteen Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, but – bizarrely – due to copyright reasons, it is absent from the DVD box sets of the Rathbone Holmes movies.
After this flurry of Hound activity, it would be a decade and a half before the next version of the story, another German adaptation. But in 1959, Hammer films added The Hound of the Baskervilles to their series of gothic horror movies that had begun in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein. Starring Peter Cushing as Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry, the film was a rather loose adaptation of the story – there is more drama and the horror elements are (unsurprisingly) emphasised. Yet thanks to Cushing’s performance (many consider him the definitive Holmes) and the sheer quality of Terence Fisher’s film, this remains a much-loved version of the story.
A decade later, Cushing would reprise the role of Holmes in a BBC TV series, taking over from Douglas Wilmer. The Hound of the Baskervilles was adapted as a two-part story in 1968. This was more faithful than the Hammer version, but the tight schedule and reduced budgets of TV showed in the production values. Nevertheless, for fans of Holmes and Cushing, it remains well worth seeking out.
Proving the global popularity of the story, the next version appeared in 1971 from the Soviet Union. Another Russian version appeared a decade later, as part of a TV series based on Holmes. This 147-minute adaptation adds some ill-fitting humour to the story and while handsomely mounted has some eccentric performances (Vasily Livanov’s Holmes is rather too laid back while other characters chew the scenery).
1972 saw a US TV movie version of the story, with Stewart Granger making for an unconvincing Holmes in a fairly lacklustre movie that co-starred William Shatner! But the worst was yet to come.
In 1978, Paul Morrissey made a disastrous attempt to make a British comedy version of the story, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore starring alongside a host of well known British names — Denholm Elliot, Joan Greenwood, Hugh Griffith, Irene Handl, Terry-Thomas, Max Wall and Kenneth Williams — none of whom could save the film. Crass, bad taste humour that was mishandled and sheer self-indulgence all around – it feels essentially like a vanity project for Cook and Moore – made this one of the worst comedy films you could imagine, devoid of laughs or any sort of coherent story. It even includes a parody of The Exorcist…
1982 saw a four part British TV adaptation, with a rather miscast Tom Baker as Holmes, and a year later another British TV film adapted the novel.
This was the first of what was planned as a series of Holmes TV movies to be co-produced with US producer Sy Weintraub. Unfortunately for him, the Holmes stories slipped out of copyright and Granada TV announced their own series with Jeremy Brett. Only this and The Sign of Four was eventually shot. With Ian Richardson as Holmes, it’s a solid though unremarkable effort from director Douglas Hickox (who was going for the visual feel of Dario Argento’s films) and suffers from Martin Shaw’s Sir Henry being obviously and unconvincingly re-dubbed by another actor.
The Granada TV series that had scuppered the planned film series eventually adapted 42 of the 60 Holmes stories, and finally got around to The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1988. While critics praised Brett’s nervy performance, the series was often overly stagey and perhaps a little too faithful to the stories to always work as drama.
Also in 1983, Peter O’Toole voiced the character in the animated version Sherlock Holmes and the Baskerville Curse, and this would be the last version for some time. Holmes and the Hound eventually clashed again in 2000, in one of four Canadian TV films with Matt Frewer, who was hopelessly unsuited to the role.
Equally unsatisfactory was a dull BBC version from 2002, with Richard Roxburgh as Holmes. This version again made changes to the original story but was ultimately rather flat and lifeless.
The most recent – and possibly most annoying – version of the story appeared in the second series of the BBC’s overly smug Sherlock. Titled ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’, it throws out Conan Doyle almost entirely, to tell a story of secret military research into mind-altering drugs. While Mark Gatiss’ screenplay retained the horror elements, it made the worst mistake possible when changing a familiar story – namely, that if what you come up with isn’t better than what existed, to begin with, why bother? The end result of this is a version that is just as much a slap in the face as Paul Morrissey’s ‘comedy’ adaptation.
It’s to be hoped that someone will make a more faithful, full-blooded horror version of The Hound of the Baskervilles soon. While the story might seem to have been done to death, there are always new generations unfamiliar with the story. And after so many ineffectual – or downright insulting – versions, we deserve a new version to match the Rathbone and Hammer versions.
Meanwhile, the story still inspires writers, artists and others in a series of novels, comic books, video games and even music…
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA