You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dawg…
I’m pretty much positive that the first film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles that I ever saw was the 1959 Hammer version starring Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. According to the database, I assembled several years ago from the television schedules in the Nashville newspaper for those years during which I developed my love of all things horrifying, I must have seen it on September 25, 1965, at 4:00 P.M. That was when the afternoon movie aired by our local CBS station, The Big Show, was on the air. I was in second grade at the time, attending a school close enough to have gotten home from by then, so it fits. None of the other showings I found were possible candidates. I would have either been on my way home from school during a period when it was a much longer trip, or the movie was shown much too late at night for me to have stayed up for at the tender age I was when it was broadcast. Ergo, not only did I see it when I was seven years old, I didn’t watch it again until I was much older. And yet, that viewing is firmly etched into my brain. I remember every detail clearly as if I saw it for the first time just a few years ago. We had only recently gotten our first color TV set, and I recall being fascinated by the vibrant hues of the process Hammer used in their productions.
Funny, isn’t it, how something we experience so young can have such a profound effect on our lives in later years? I had no idea who Sherlock Holmes was in 1965. I didn’t have a clue what a baronet was. I’m not entirely certain I was clear on what a hound was, and yet…
A baronet, by the way, is what Sir Henry Baskerville was. It’s a sort of hereditary knighthood, passed from father to son, or to the eldest male heir, with an attending estate thrown in. Baskerville Hall, in this situation. Baronets are not nobles. They are landed gentry, the highest level of commoner, just below a baron in the English social hierarchy. In case you were wondering.
Anyhow. It wasn’t long before I began exercising my newly gained literacy by tracking down the novel on which the film was based. I was a precocious child, given to reading beyond my years. By the end of the decade, I’d read all the Holmes tales, along with most of the major classics of horror and a great deal of world literature. It was not unusual for me to blaze through one long or two short books a day, and still have time to play with my friends and accumulate a host of scraped knees and bunged up elbows riding my Spyder-style bicycle recklessly and with wild abandon down the hill in front of our house to the wooden ramp waiting at the bottom, launching myself into the Venrick’s front yard to fetch up in a tangle of limbs and metal tubing, then back up the hill to do it all again.
God, to have a fraction of that energy back now! And the resilience to withstand the gallons of Bactine my mother was obliged to apply to my myriad minor injuries.
So, the Hound. The book is nominally a mystery, but I’ve never seen a movie version that couldn’t be properly classified as a horror film. The Hound itself is a monster if there ever was one, a gigantic beast that kills either through fear or by the vigorous application of its fangs upon fragile and succulent body parts. Inspired by centuries of English folklore, it is a primal, supernatural force, despite being nothing more than a dressed-up mastiff.
Well, let me tell you about mastiffs. I had a friend some years ago who raised that particular breed of dog. I once saw one pull a tree it had been tied to out of the ground. A smallish tree, true, but not a sapling. Maybe six inches in diameter at the base of the trunk. A tree. Out of the ground. This is not a puny animal. It was a terrifying beast, even with its owner nearby to keep it calm.
That’s one of several reasons why I prefer cats. I never want to own a pet that I cannot beat in a fair fight.
I count a dozen film versions of the story in my collection, including at least one silent, three German adaptations, and one in Russian. That is by no means an exhaustive list. My sources list over thirty film and television adaptations, parodies, pastiches, and reimaginings in several languages including Bengali, Ukrainian and Italian, since 1914. It might be the most filmed mystery novel of all time. Ergo, I hope the populace is at least somewhat familiar with the plot.
If not, here it is, in a nutshell: Holmes is charged with the protection of Sir Henry Baskerville, newly arrived from overseas. Sir Henry has inherited the family estate upon the death of his Uncle Charles, who was frightened to death, apparently by the family curse. Sooner or later, the Hound always gets the baronet, and the line passes on to the next heir. Holmes sends Dr. Watson down to Devonshire with Sir Henry while he finishes up some business in London. As it turns out, there is another heir envious of the title who has arranged to have his big, mean dog kill Sir Charles and try to kill Sir Henry. Holmes arrives in time to stop the plot, and the bad guy is swallowed up in the Great Grimpen Mire that surrounds the Baskerville estate. The End.
The book was written in 1901, during the Great Hiatus, that period when the world thought that the Great Detective’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had killed him off forever. Originally serialized in The Strand Magazine before its 1902 hardback publication, The Hound of the Baskervilles was a sort of nostalgic look back at the period before Holmes and Professor Moriarty threw each other off the rocky ledge into the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland in “The Final Problem”, published in 1893. The novel’s success convinced Doyle to bring Holmes back in 1903 in the short story, “The Adventure of the Empty House”, and things continued on as before until Doyle’s passing in 1930. The stories themselves were firmly set in the Victorian Era, however, with Holmes retiring not long after Her Little Majesty’s death in 1901 to raise bees in Sussex.
The film versions are consistently set within the canonical time period. The best one is probably the 1939 version, starring Basil Rathbone in the first of his fourteen movies as Holmes. This one and the first sequel, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, were made at 20th Century Fox. Rathbone took the series to Universal, and a contemporary wartime setting, for twelve more pictures with varying degrees of success. Still, he is firmly entrenched as the definitive Holmes for many fans of the character.
Cushing himself reprised his performance for a BBC Holmes series in 1968. The deerstalker cap has been worn on the Devonshire moor by Stewart Granger, Ian Richardson, Jeremy Brett, Matt Frewer and Richard Roxburgh, and even comedian Peter Cook and the former Fourth Doctor himself, Tom Baker. The tale has been adapted to the stage and numerous radio broadcasts, including one 1941 American performance with Rathbone in the lead role, as well as a 1977 episode of that last great hurrah of old-time radio horrors, The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. There was a Classics Illustrated comic book edition, and Marvel Comics adapted the tale in the black-and-white magazine Marvel Preview #5 in 1975, among many other comic versions. Variations have been done on both the BBC’s Sherlock series with Benedict Cumberbatch and CBS’s Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller. It’s a tale no one inspired by the Great Detective can leave alone, and that suits me fine. Of all the canonical Holmes tales, it is the one closest to my heart, for it has within its telling a true monster, even if the solution is a bit Scooby-Dooish. I’m looking forward to seeing what form the next adaptation of the grand old story takes. And the one after that. They’re bound to be interesting and should be appropriately terrifying. One hopes.
And so, until next time, my dear epicures of eeriness…
Be afraid. Be very afraid.