“Without the imagination, Watson, there would be no horror.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the more famous of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures for several reasons. One, is because it was not a short story as most were, but was novel length, originally published in serial format in The Strand magazine, along with Doyle’s other Holmes classics. Second, the story is one of the few times that Holmes left London, trading in the foggy back alleys of the city for the foggy rolling hills of the moors. Third, the plot pitted Holmes up against not just a crime to be solved, but one with a supernatural element, giving the whole thing a cool “ghost story” vibe not found in other Holmes stories.
The Hound of the Baskervilles has been adapted on film more than 20 times. This one is the 1983 version made for TV in England starring Ian Richardson (Brazil) as the great detective and Donald Churchill (Zeppelin) as his friend and assistant Dr. Watson. This pair is backed up by a group of well known character actors, including Brian Blessed (Flash Gordon), Connie Booth (Fawlty Towers), Martin Shaw (The Professionals), and a Raiders of the Lost Ark two-fer with Denholm Elliot and Ronald Lacey.
Sir Henry Baskerville arrives in England after the death of his uncle, to take over the Baskerville estate out in the English countryside. Sir Henry’s associate Dr. Mortimer, believes that there was something unnatural about Henry’s uncle’s death, something involving a Baskerville family legend about a demonic hound that roams the moors at night. Holmes agrees to take the case, not because of the supernatural, but the very real death threats and attempts on Sir Henry’s life. Out in the moors, there are suspects everywhere, including the Baskerville family’s longtime butler, a neighboring family, a gruff farmer living nearby, and a wandering band of gypsies in the area. Also, there are more and more sightings of a monstrous, glowing hound roaming around at night.
For his interpretation of the famous Holmes, Richardson plays up the “gentleman detective” aspect of the character, and downplays some of the character’s eccentricities. He’s also a fairly upbeat Holmes, smiling and even breaking out in laughter while palling around with Watson. Also, how much fun is it seeing Holmes running around in the iconic deerstalker hat and matching coat? In the original stories, as most fans already know, Holmes didn’t wear this well-known ensemble, except for when he visited the countryside. Fortunately, this story takes place in the country, so we fans get to have our deerstalker cap and, um, wear it too.
Churchill is often in danger of going too far into “bumbling comic relief” mode as Watson, but there are a few times when he lets Watson’s more serious and capable side show through as well. When Watson picks up a gun, with the intent of bringing it along with him on his trip to the moors, the look on his face shows that he’s not going to hesitate to use it if he has to. The supporting cast is good as well. Blessed’s frustrated farmer is a gruff, shouting guy with a loud and booming voice, perfect for him. Elliot brings his usual charm to his exposition-heavy character, while the famously creepy Lacey plays against type as a well-known figure in Holmes lore. Booth and Shaw are not standouts, but play their roles as expected.
As everyone who’s read the book already knows, Holmes doesn’t appear during the middle part of the movie, which has him saying he’ll stay behind in London while Watson goes through the motions of getting to know everyone at and around the Baskerville estate. Then, Watson even disappears for a good chunk of the plot, so Sir Henry can strike up a romance with a local lady. This might frustrate some viewers, who will ask, “Why isn’t Sherlock Holmes in this Sherlock Holmes movie?” Just remember that this is fairly close to how the book was written, and that Holmes does make his presence known.
Now the bad news: The video quality on the DVD is hurting. The picture is overly soft with white specks seen throughout. Dark scenes are also too soft, with the black levels looking splotchy and sometimes kind of green. The mono sound is unimpressive, but the all-important dialogue is clear. A useless credits page is all we get for extras.
Although the scenes of “bloodthirsty hound versus hapless aristocrat” are filmed with a great frenetic energy, know that this is mostly a talky whodunit, without a lot of the action thrills that recent Holmes movies have offered. Still, the whole thing moves along at a quick enough pace so that it never feels stale. Overall, it’s a “back to basics” take on Sherlock Holmes, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.