Monday, July 11, 2016

The Game's Afoot: Hammer's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

It's always a pleasure to see a Hammer film released with respect in this country. Too often (especially when the major companies are involved) they seem packed off to market with a sense of haste, and perhaps a little shame, in bundles - as though the studio wanted to be rid of all their holdings in one stroke. This is why it's so gratifying to see the affection invested in Twilight Time's release of Terence Fisher's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959), which was recently issued with a wealth of extras in the company's usual strictly limited edition of 3000 units. I'm not sure how many copies of this MGM/UA acquisition currently remain, but suffice to say, grab it soon or forever hold your peace.

HOUND was arguably Fisher's most visually sumptuous collaboration with cinematographer Jack Asher, his chief collaborator on all his early Hammer horror titles, from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) through THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1961). Not only does Twilight Time's disc present the film in all its vivid Technicolor beauty, but - as the company's brand dictates - it also includes an isolated music (James Bernard) and effects track. It is not the first time this has happened on disc with a Hammer film - Synapse Films did this with TWINS OF EVIL, which had also been so issued back in the 1990s on LaserDisc - but it is still uncommon indulgence for a Hammer title, and - shockingly at this late stage - a home video first for both Fisher and Bernard. One may wish that Twilight Time had been able to provide the actual session tracks, as they do with many other releases, but those original recordings presumably no longer survive.

This HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES was one of the most eye-popping matinee treats of my movie-going youth, and it was fascinating for me to revisit the film in such clarity, to compare its ripe present tense with the memories of my racing young imagination. For example, the main title cards unfold over a series of three paintings; I couldn't help but remember that, as a kid, I accepted these paintings without question as authentic scenic views. I wanted to believe in the story I was about to be told, and I did from the get-go. Seeing them again, they are actually a bit crude but their handmade quality still feels admirable.

As the director's credit fades, we are treated to our first and only unobstructed view of one of these paintings, depicting the exterior of Baskerville Hall in the 17th century, when it was presided over by the cruel Sir Hugo Baskerville. Fisher transitions to reality with a (rather bumpy) camera track toward a stained-glass window, which suddenly smashes as a man is hurled through it. This launches us into a ravishing early example of what would, only a few years later, become finessed into the "extended pre-credits sequence": a narrator takes us back to the evening of one of Sir Hugo's bacchanals for neighboring land barons (all adorned in complementary colors), when their violent revels built to a lustful head, which Sir Hugo (David Oxley) intended to reward by offering his "herd of rams" the services of the abducted daughter (Judi Moyens) of an impoverished man in his debt.

The sequence, still a bit shocking for its blunt inferences, is one of Fisher's (and therefore Hammer's) greatest, and it gets the film off to a start that's equal to anything in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or HORROR OF DRACULA. Peter Bryan's dialogue is ripe with pop and crackle, and Jack Asher's cinematography is similarly fraught with bristling effects, adding to Oxley's fearsome performance with slightly unfocused close-ups and a surprisingly rugged focus rack as he crosses the room that make his off-the-rails energy seem truly uncontainable. 

That blue you see behind Sir Hugo, on the ceiling, is flickering with a coming storm but it's also luminous in ways that only the best Technicolor cinematography can be. What he is saying here is that "the bitch" (shocking for 1959) has escaped. She has made her way off into the Hall's surrounding, treacherous moors, where - against the advice of his saner fellows - Sir Hugo determines to retrieve her by turning loose his hunting dogs.


Here on the moors, Hammer's art department, led by the heroic production designer Bernard Robinson, turn an obviously interior "exterior" set into a splendidly dimensional outpost of the imagination, whorling with nearly three-dimensional fog as the aristocracy mercilessly descends upon the working class. The depth of field in these shots can never be as adequately conveyed on DVD as it is here.


Startlingly, considering the effort put forth to present the young woman as a real and vulnerable character in a remarkably brief amount of time, Sir Hugo is successful in finding her, whereupon he decides to take his satisfaction not by raping her, but by stabbing her to death. The contact of knife and torso occurs below the camera range, as it would in a rape sequence of this period, and the imagery of the blood-covered blade as it is raised into view is double-charged with significance.

But it is Sir Hugo's last night on earth as well, as his act of murder is answered by a hellish howling on the moors, followed by the arrival of its fabled inhabitant, who attacks him and sends the murder weapon bouncing overground, where it settles in a nicely decorative arrangement - rather like the shot of the mask that ends Fisher's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).

From this shot, we dissolve to the present, where we are surprised to learn that our narrator is not one of those storytelling conventions of the cinema, but far more practical: the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles is being read to Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and his associate Dr. Watson (Andre Morell) as a prelude to enticing them to accept the challenge of unmasking its mystery. As storytelling devices go, this one still works like gangbusters.

As a whole, the sequence is comparable to much in Hammer - the introductory backstory of the beggar in the Marquis' palace in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), for instance - but here its colorful, compact execution is a veritable fireball, worthy of Powell and Pressburger at their most impassioned.

And yet, for all this, the moment in the picture that most stands out for me now is the quieter, painterly perfection of the meeting of Dr. Watson, who's out poking around the moors, and Cecile (Marla Landi), the sullen daughter of the Baskerville family's groundskeeper Stapleton (Ewen Solan). I seem to recall David Pirie, in his invaluable book A HERITAGE OF HORROR: THE BRITISH HORROR CINEMA 1945-1972, comparing the shot to the imagery of John Keats' 1884 poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci," which is not at all off-base. Pirie may have also invoked the painter Thomas Gainsborough; I can see his hand in the brushstrokes but Gainsborough didn't usually waste his time on likenesses of the peasantry. The same goes for John Singer Sargent, but if either of them had taken a brush to Keats' poem, the result could not have looked much different.

And the textures! Thankfully, Twilight Time's disc gives us all the textures and fine details that have stayed with me over a lifetime, from the rough tweed of Holmes' overcoat to the uncanny blue hues of Watson's pipe smoke.



And feast your eyes on this marvelous, wholly unnatural use of emerald green! Irrational color was one of Jack Asher's great signature traits, which can also be seen in his weaving of the color lavender throughout THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), where is appears consistently in advance of every appearance or attack by a vampire.

Finally, though I don't recall this particular shot popping out at me in any previous viewing, I was struck anew by this shot of Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, surprised in one of Baskerville Hall's closed-off rooms. The color here is less ostentatious than in the aforementioned green, but admire, if you will, the contrast of the rich blue limning Lee's shoulders and the quietly hellish reds burning up from the bottom right, just enough to delineate the equine profile of that rocking horse. Mario Bava could do no better.

In addition to this exquisite 1.66:1 presentation, the disc treats to two audio commentaries, one by film historian David Del Valle and filmmaker Steven Peros, and another by CINEMA RETRO's Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer and Hank Reineke; a pair of Christopher Lee featurettes (in one, he lends his resonant baritone to Conan Doyle's original text); an interview with Bernard Robinson's widow Margaret about the creation of the mask worn by the Hound in the film's climax; and an original theatrical trailer. An accompanying eight-page booklet includes appreciative liner notes by Julie Kirgo that touch on the original story, the film's original release, its grace notes and its place in the realm of what she calls "British Romanticism" and rightly allies with the best of Powell and Pressburger.

I should also mention that Hammer's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is also available as a handsome Region B disc from Arrow Video in the UK. The presentations are perfectly comparable but there is some variety in the extras. While the supplements are largely shared by both releases (with Arrow uniquely adding an Andre Morell profile), the music and effects track is exclusive to Twilight Time. The commentaries offered by the two companies are likewise exclusive, with Arrow offering an animated and informative discussion between the always-welcome Hammer authorities Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby. 

Twilight Time's disc is available directly from Screen Archives Entertainment, or use this handy link. 

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