The packaging of MGM's DVD release of Hammer's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES carries the critic's quote, "The best Sherlock Holmes film ever made." That may be stretching the truth a little but I'm willing to go along with the hyperbole when the film is this good. The movie begins with Holmes and Watson being told the tale of Sir Hugo Baskerville by Dr. Mortimer (Francis DeWolff). It appears that hundred years earlier, Sir Hugo kidnapped a young girl servant for the debased pleasure of himself and his house full of scummy friends. When the girl escaped across the moors Hugo gave chase with a pack of hounds, caught her and stabbed her to death. Moments later he was attacked and killed by a giant hound and ever since that day every male Baskerville heir has died a mysterious death on those same moors. Dr. Mortimer, a friend of the family, also informs Holmes that just weeks before, the most recent Lord of Baskerville Hall was found dead under strange circumstances. Mortimer asks Holmes to help him protect the life of the last male member of the family, who is arriving soon to take over the estate. The detective meets with the new Lord and agrees to help in this matter of the "Hound of Hell".
This is the best known and most often filmed Holmes story, even though no version has ever been able to overcome the difficult problem of having Sherlock absent from the middle part of the tale. One of the strengths of this version is that when Dr. Watson and Henry Baskerville take center stage, the film doesn't suffer for it. Andre Morell is an excellent Dr. Watson, avoiding the horrible trap of earlier adaptations of making the character an idiot. Watson was never supposed to be a bumbling fool and Morell shows us a competent man caught up in mystifying circumstances, doing his level best to solve the case. Christopher Lee, as Baskerville heir Sir Henry, is given a rare opportunity to play a romantic lead and does a fantastic job. At the time Lee was petitioning for better roles at Hammer and this film had to feel like a step in the right direction for the actor. As Henry he is urbane, sophisticated, and a true gentleman — things that cannot be said of Dracula in the sequels he was being asked/forced to make for the studio, but the real acting laurels have to go to Peter Cushing as Holmes. He wonderfully captures the many facets of Doyle's beloved character. He is at times arrogant and pompous but always most concerned with finding and stopping evil. He doesn't suffer fools gladly but you never doubt his innate goodness or his desire to unravel the mystery at hand.. Cushing is, in many ways, the perfect Holmes and it's a shame that this fine film is his only big screen interpretation. Some of his BBC TV Sherlock adventures have been issued on DVD in recent years but those production's low budgets and cramped sets are all too often a distraction from the fine acting. It is a shame Hammer did not produce more Holmes films with their excellent production design and this movie's overall level of high quality. What a missed opportunity!