The curse of the Baskervilles goes back to the mid-eighteenth century, when Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) was at the height of his reign of terror in the area of Dartmoor that came under his influence. One night, he was preparing to rape the daughter of one of his subjects during a wild party, when she escaped and he rode after her on horseback onto the moors: once he caught her he murdered the girl out of spite, only to be struck down as legend has it by a fearsome hound. Now Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Doctor Watson (André Morell) are called upon to help descendent Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) when the family curse threatens to claim his life.
Who do you think was the best Sherlock Holmes? Basil Rathbone? Jeremy Brett on TV? Although he only played Holmes once in the cinema, Cushing is one of my favourites. This was the Hammer version of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous tale and the story's trappings of curses, hounds from Hell howling over the moors, deadly mires and an escaped murderer suit the Hammer style very nicely, with its bright colours and deep shadows all contributing to a rich atmosphere. Not to mention that Doyle's story has taken on the cast of a folk tale itself, with its frequent re-tellings and variations, which is appropriate to Hammer's preferred material.
Director Terence Fisher and his cast go about the film in brisk fashion; André Morell is a dependable Watson, but Cushing's Holmes is a man with a tremendously active mind, full of energy and enthusiasm for the mystery, though, like his Van Helsing, with a strong moral sense and more than a little obsessive. Cushing brings an arrogance to the role which would be offputting if we were not so sure that he was on the right track and fighting for the forces of good and rationality against the powers of evil, conspiracy and superstition. Everyone else is well chosen, with only Marla Landi as the "peasant" girl a curious addition on account of her hastily explained Spanish accent.
As with the other adaptations, this suffers the problem of a having a gap in the narrative when Holmes isn't onscreen for a while during the first half. This is necessary to build up the tension, and nothing beats the scenes where characters are out on the moors and stop, looking concerned when the sound of an unearthly howl drifts over the landscape, so knowing Holmes was out there too makes you feel safer yet also more worried for his own safety. Naturally there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this, but Peter Bryan's adaptation keeps it from us till the end, although he does make the villain's identity a little too obvious: to be fair, they are portrayed in a particularly shifty-looking performance.
The prologue, showing the origins of the curse, is fun, as after all it wouldn't be a proper Hammer Horror without attempted rape, murder and gruesome, possibly supernatural death in a period setting, but I'd have liked to have seen Sir Henry's predecessor meet his demise as well. We are always certain that Holmes is entirely correct in his continual assertation that Sir Henry (Christopher Lee at his most noble, but more than slightly clueless as well) is in grave danger, though the fact that Holmes and Watson could be in just as much peril offers a welcome frisson too. This version is good enough to make you wish this team had adapted another Holmes adventure, but it was back to vampires and other undead creatures for this studio when it was a box office disappointment. Also with: a tarantula and a comedy bishop (Miles Malleson). Music by James Bernard.