Thursday, June 24, 2010

Whitechapel Vampire and Two Hounds

I watched the other two Matt Frewer films I have, The Whitechapel Vampire and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Then I watched the Peter Cushing version of HOUN for contrast. This is not the 1959 Hammer film with Christopher Lee as Sir Henry; this is the BBC TV version from 1968, where Cushing replaced Douglas Wilmer.

The Whitechapel movie opens with us witnessing the murder of a monk in a church. While he prays, a hooded figure sneaks up on him from behind and accuses, "Brother, you have sinned." Then the figure pounces and kills the frightened monk. We don't see exactly how.

Next, at Baker Street, Holmes and Watson discuss a newspaper advertisement for a famous psychic medium who is offering readings. Holmes is appropriately skeptical, but Watson says that all people want to believe in an afterlife. Holmes objects that not all people do, and says that Watson, as a man of science, should scorn such mumbo-jumbo. Watson accuses him of hubris and tempting the gods to teach him a lesson. While they're still arguing, they conveniently get a supernatural case in the form of the vampire mystery. I'm not sure I wanted Watson to take the spiritualist side, as if he were a stand-in for Doyle. But whatever. On with the plot. They meet Brother Marstoke, who is the leader of the abbey where the murder took place. He also collects pagan religious idols, despite his Christianity.

This is not the first apparent vampire attack that the abbey has suffered. During their missionary work in British Guyana, there was a rash of rabies among the villagers, thought to be caused by vampire bats living in the area. They had no access to medicine or inoculation, so Brother Marstoke gave the go ahead to coat some captured bats with poison. Then the other bats would presumably lick the poison off during grooming sessions. Even though many bats died, the rabies outbreak did not stop. Also, two of the monks were attacked, apparently by a vampire, and died. There were puncture wounds in their necks, and a bloody message on the wall suggested that the murders were in revenge. Local superstition attributed this message to a pagan demon Desmodo, who resembles a giant vampire bat. Maybe also the curse was because of Brother Marstoke having pagan idols? Because of all this, the mission was closed, and the monks returned to England, to their home parish of Whitechapel. Brother Marstoke was away for about a year before he returned to the abbey, then suddenly the attacks resumed and another monk was killed.

Holmes agrees to investigate but he insists that there is a logical, non-supernatural explanation for the supposed vampire. He and Watson find another message in blood, and they question all the monks and nuns in the abbey. Suspicion also falls on a black scientist named Dr. Chagas who was present at the mission in Guyana. He studies bats, and he disagreed strongly with the scheme to poison them. However, he has an alibi for the London murder, since he was with Brother Marstoke at the time. There's more suspects, including some servants from Guyana, and another monk who blames Brother Marstoke for the curse and tells him to leave.

I tried to follow the plot, but got confused by the red herrings and clues. I didn't understand how the victims had "sinned," and was puzzled by some weird earthquakes that kept happening in the church. It did of course turn out to be a human perpetrator using a modified garden implement to create the puncture wounds. However, Watson still got to gloat in the end because Holmes got saved from death, as predicted by the psychic woman. Too convoluted and supernatural.

Very quickly into The Hound of the Baskervilles, it became clear that this film was Frewer's first in the series for Hallmark Entertainment. His mannerisms and voice affectations here were excessive and annoying. He's particularly insufferable as they discuss Dr. Mortimer's walking stick. I'm not sure if it was Frewer's choice to overact like that, or if the director encouraged it, but it's very noticeable, and Watson seems visibly frustrated with him. They even dressed Holmes up in a garish dressing-gown with a matching tasseled cap during the smoking scene, so I don't know what they were thinking. He looked sort of like Paget's illustration of Culverton Smith. They also made Holmes a bad violin player. I'm glad that Holmes was toned down in the later films, although it appears that I am missing the SIGN adaptation they did. I'll have to keep looking for it.

Sir Henry is played by Jason London, and he seems a reluctant baronet, uncomfortable with formalities. He doesn't want to be called "Sir Henry," and he says that he's only going to Dartmoor to tie up some business, rather than stay and live at Baskerville Hall. Sir Henry is surprised that all the tenant farmers depend on him to not sell the estate, and he doesn't like living on Dartmoor until he meets Beryl Stapleton. Also, he tells Watson his backstory, saying that his father left England because he was cut out of the will by his stepmother and two half-brothers Charles and Roger. Thus the theme of family conflict and resentment is introduced early. When Sir Henry asks his opinion of the family legend, Barrymore suggests that Sir Hugo's companions probably murdered him themselves, and they only made up the story of the demon hound to cover up their crime.

The movie was all right, though some plot points were changed. For instance, Mrs. Barrymore claims that her brother Selden was innocent of murder and had only signed a confession because he was a simpleton who did not understand what the police were saying. Also, Holmes does not meet Watson at the stone hut on the moor, but stays out of the plot longer. So Watson discovers the body of Selden and thinks it's Sir Henry; only when Stapleton joins him does he realize that the body is that of the escaped convict. So when does Holmes get to see the painting of Sir Hugo, I wonder?

In the morning, Holmes sends a telegram to Watson, instructing him to leave for London the next day, and take Sir Henry with him. Then seemingly by chance, Miss Stapleton sends Sir Henry a message imploring him to come to a private meeting at her house after dark. Sir Henry insists on going, but lets Watson follow, as long as he stays hidden. It's at that meeting, interrupted by Stapleton, that the dog is loosed after Sir Henry. The dog looks far too small to be the demon hound. Watson gets occupied fighting with Stapleton, so Holmes comes out in disguise and shoots the blind dog. But the dog gets away and attacks Stapleton for some strange reason, mistaking his scent for Sir Henry's, and they both perish in the bog.

I'm not sure why that was changed, but anyway they go back to Baskerville Hall for explanations, and Watson gets to complain now about Holmes's deception and his foolhardy plan. In disguise as a shepherd, Holmes had somehow persuaded Miss Stapleton to send the message to Sir Henry, so that meeting wasn't by chance after all. The movie tried for a happy ending, too, suggesting that Sir Henry would still accept Miss Stapleton, unlike in the book, where his nerves are too shot and he leaves to travel around the world with Dr. Mortimer.

Now for Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock in HOUN, which was dramatized in two episodes by Hugh Leonard. In many places, this BBC version is almost word for word faithful to the book. Except for the opening, where Sir Charles tells the legend of the hound to his dinner party guests, particularly Dr. Mortimer. Thus we are introduced to Mr. Frankland and Jack Stapleton early, but Dr. Mortimer claims to be new to Dartmoor, contradicting Holmes's later deduction that he's been a country doctor for five years. (Unless Mortimer has practiced in a different place in the country before recently moving to Dartmoor.) Dr. Mortimer initially is skeptical of the legend, saying that Sir Charles's fears are caused by his illness. After the guests leave, Sir Charles goes to the gate to wait for Laura Lyons, then he runs away in fright and dies. Dr. Mortimer is still near enough to rush over and find him.

After the credits, Holmes and Watson make deductions from Dr. Mortimer's stick as usual. Then he arrives and praises Holmes's skull before telling his tale. Soon they travel in a cab to the Northumberland hotel. Sir Henry has an odd voice. Is it just because he's trying for an American accent, or is that the way he normally talks? So anyway, they discuss the warning note and Sir Henry's missing boots before Holmes tries to find out who followed him. Holmes glimpses the bearded man but does not meet with the cab driver. Finally Holmes sends Watson with Sir Henry to Dartmoor, and the mystery starts in earnest.

Sir Henry likes Dartmoor right away, and is cheerful even as they hear about the escaped convict Selden. When they arrive at Baskerville Hall, Sir Henry jokes, "Watch out for the hound!" He even invites Mr. Frankland over to dinner and is polite and amused by his legal stories, whereas Watson finds them deplorable. However, there appears to be some discrepancy about when Sir Henry meets Miss Stapleton. Dr. Watson meets Stapleton on the moor as usual, then has tea at Merripit House, where he receives Miss Stapleton's furtive warning for Sir Henry. Stapleton says he'll call on Sir Henry later, but we aren't shown this scene, nor told whether Miss Stapleton will come along. All we see instead is Mr. Frankland's visit.

In another added scene, Watson goes following after Barrymore at night and winds up in the yew alley. He gets chased back into the house by the hound. The next day, Sir Henry remains skeptical, proposing that it was merely a feral sheepdog like Frankland says, but he agrees to help Watson find out Barrymore's secret. (Then without explanation, Sir Henry goes to meet Miss Stapleton on the moor, as if he's already infatuated with her.) So that night they wait up together and catch Barrymore signaling to Selden. As they pursue Selden, they hear the howl, and they share a dramatic moment discussing whether the hound might indeed be real.

Holmes appears on time once Watson investigates the stone hut, and their conversation is cut short by the cry of the dog. They find Selden's body together, and Stapleton joins them briefly. Then at a pub, Holmes resumes his conversation with Watson, explaining about Stapleton and proposing a trap. Holmes doesn't call in Lestrade for the capture, and instead he and Watson while away their time in Coombe Tracey, telling Laura Lyons the truth about Stapleton.

There is another extra-canonical scene where Stapleton and his wife argue in their house. She begs him to give up his murder plot, and Stapleton accuses her of genuinely falling in love with Sir Henry. She denies this, but inadvertently lets slip that she sent Sir Henry a note of warning in London. Then he becomes furious and starts to abuse her; we know of course that he ties her up and will later tell Sir Henry that she was too ill to come to dinner. It's a pretty good scene, and at least it features an explanatory line by Stapleton about how he plans to move back home to Costa Rica and prove his identity there so he can inherit. Doyle had left this plot point dangling in his book.

The story ends rather abruptly after the climactic dog attack and Stapleton's death in the bog. There's no wrap up about releasing Stapleton's wife, nor a return to Baker Street. Perhaps they used up all their available time with their long extra-canonical scenes. Despite this flaw, it's one of the most accurate adaptations of the HOUN novel.


Anonymous said...

I saw Frewer's Hound and that was enough to put him in my "least liked Sherlock Holmes" column. But AFAIC, Peter Cushing is full of win. His Holmes is one of my favorite interpretations.

Anonymous said...

Frewer's antic at the beginning of Hound were enough to make me glad that he didn't appear on time!