Wednesday, October 31, 2012

HAPPY HALLOWE'EN: an ode to 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'

Sidney Paget

First Off: a little review and then Hound rambles forevermore......

Our Holmes: Peter Cushing
Our Watson: Andre Morrell
Our Henry Baskerville: Lord Sauron
Our Hound: Marmaduke

This is not the worst Hound of the Baskervilles out there (Hello Matt Frewer and Kenneth Walsh); but it’s certainly not great either.  While it is atmospheric (in a technicolour-same-sets-and-costumes-as-Bonanza kind of way), it fails to emote any sheer terror. I am all for campy and I think that is where this best fits in.  Hammer productions was renowned for providing cinema adaptations of some of the greatest horror and thriller stories of all time ( often starring Cushing and Christopher Lee) and I think this is just one more case where they tried to evoke an atmosphere and slightly failed.  This Hound is not scary. Now, let’s face it, with the exception of the psychological terror we experience thanks to fog machines and good lighting and a modern premise in the BBC adaptation, few have actually seen a scary version of Hound.  The Richard Roxburgh “Hound” won’t keep you up at night.  The Jeremy Brett? Well, egads. Enough about that. The Basil Rathbone? Okay, dude, the Rathbone enterprise drives me bonkers. WHY? Because the Watson is useless. Nigel Bruce, you suck.

It is not particularly creepy; but it tries. It’s also not bad on the faithfulness front.

I don’t fault this version for its lack of provoked eeriness.  It does throw an “Elementary, My dear Watson” in and mentions Holmes’ “two pipe” (instead of notorious “three pipe” ) problem. There is little to no chemistry between  Watson and Holmes but that is part and parcel of extracting one view from the Canon. Those, indeed, are faults that a purist notes. They also played a lot with Miss Stapleton’s role and strayed far from canon.  The idea of spousal abuse might not have been as easy to film in the 1950s, perhaps.  The best part of this adaptation ( and why it is heralded as a pivotal adaptation) is in its conceptualization of Watson. No longer is he seen as the bumbling Watson of yore ( think Nigel Bruce, think Howard Marion Crawford in the 1954 TV series starring Ronald Howard); but rather as a deductive and intelligent individual in his own right. In short, as Watson is in the book.  

Prior to this, Hollywood and Television belief was that in order to draw in an audience, you needed to provide as many ingredients of a fascinating and entertaining tale as possible. Sherlock could provide the smarts and the wits and the super-brain, the tales themselves could provide the thrills and the Watson could provide the comic buffoonery.  This is before, I believe, they realized that the quiet balance between the two minds was indeed enough to draw in a thinking audience.  One need not sacrifice Watson for the ill-founded belief that a guy with his figurative foot-in-the-bucket is what is needed to generate appeal.  If this was so, why did thousands of people flock to the newsstands to buy the Strand upon its publication?

I think part of the beauty of  The Hound of the Baskervilles and the testament to its long-lasting appeal is that it is shaped around an oral narration.  The curse of the Baskervilles and the legend of the Hound has been passed down from generation to generation in the kind of story that flickers candles on a stormy eve and makes things go “bump” in the night.  You, of course, are deliciously scared when this occultish tale is spun by Dr. Mortimer at the beginning of the novella and  yet, on screen?  It’s hard to get to that deliciously creepy feeling as it tickles up your arms and causes you to look  behind your shoulder.
Sir Benedict as Sherlock on the moors in BBC "Hounds"

The brilliance of Hound is that it separates Holmes and Watson.  Watson, now more than ever, is our intrepid and trusty guide. It is Watson who , with service revolver ready, follows Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall and hellish Dartmoor.  It is Watson who encounters and theorizes the extent of the villainy of Stapleton and the outlaw-on –the-moors Selden.  Holmes works behind the scenes waiting, instead, for a self-proclaimed unneeded and grand entrance.  Often, film-makers find this a bit of a Catch-22.  While they are eager to adapt and visualize the most famous tale of the Canon; they are confronted with the very real fact that condensing this piece means sacrificing what little time the hero of the tale actually has in the story.  People want to see Sherlock Holmes deduce things and yet the story is very much an exploration of Watson’s endeavours to utilize Holmes’ methods when left on his own.

The novel is also brilliant in its mesmerizing marriage of detective thriller and horror story.  Those with a devoted interest to Conan Doyle know that he was absolutely obsessed with the Occult and the Supernatural.  He researched and practiced the New Age, believed in fairies (!!) and séances and was quite into all of this dreaded and spiritual stuff. As such, he is able to infuse his story with elements quite unexplainable to the untrained and naked eye.  To further this, he is able to clash his own beliefs in the extraordinary with his creation’s absolute certainty that nothing beyond the possible can exist.  Everything must have data, be circumscriptive to logistics and rationality.  Coupling his passion for the occult with his sleuth’s obvious disdain for anything that cannot be reasoned away provides added delight for the reader.

Perhaps the most pervading delight for the 1902 reader was the return of Sherlock Holmes.  The last they had seen him he had been thrown off the Reichenbach Falls by his nemesis Moriarty and eulogized in a postscript by Watson.  Modern Holmesians recognize that these intermittent years just make up the Great Hiatus; but readers of the long-awaited return believed this to be yet another memoir of a time set before Holmes’ death.  For many, who had worn black arm bands (across continents) and wrote threatening letters to Doyle, this was a much-needed glimpse back into a world they were starving for.

Sidney Paget
To show amends perhaps, and fair justice to his North American fans ( who were quite vocal and passionate), Doyle did well in including a North American in his tale: the Canadian Henry Baskerville who is much the same level of hero in the tale as Watson or Holmes.  Doyle is (perhaps) showing an olive branch for murdering the dear literary love of many; but also recognizing his success rested largely on other continents than his own.

 This Hallowe’en ---in the midst of the Frankenstorm that is shaking our tree limbs to tap on window panes, the lights to flicker and the rain to fall on the pavement illuminated by sleek streetlamps, it is the ideal time to light a few candles and curl up with this amazing story.  You can search to the ends of the earth to find a televised or film version  of it that will evoke the same giddy delights awaiting those who turn its creepy pages for the first time: you will come up with naught.  This is the story of the Canon because it is a marriage of all that is wonderful about the Holmes stories ,yes, but also contains the elements of the genres that keep us craving more narrative similarities: thriller, mystery, psychological horror. 
From "The Hound of the Baskervilles" graphic novel


Rissi said...

I've only seen the BBC adaptation of this story (I think) but it wasn't my fave of the three from S2. Still... the mystery was sharp and kept me guessing.

Charity said...

Holy crap, that comic book looks awesome. This is my fav Holmes story in spite of him not being in it much, and they've never really done it justice on-screen. Hated the Roxburgh version (why is he shooting up in station bathrooms?). I enjoy the Rathbone one simply because -- BASIL RATHBONE. My fav's actually the Ian Richardson version, which is odd since it's pretty "WTF?" the whole way through. I just like him, I guess.