Blu-ray Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)

STUDIO: Kino Lorber | DIRECTOR: Paul Morrissey | CAST: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Denholm Elliott, Joan Greenwood, Hugh Griffith, Irene Handl, Terry-Thomas, Max Wall, Kenneth Williams, Roy Kinnear, Dana Gillespie, Penelope Keith, Jessie Matthews, Prunella Scales, Spike Milligan
RELEASE DATE: 10/12/21 | PRICE: Blu-ray $19.99
BONUSES: Theatrical trailer
SPECS: NR | 85 mins | Comedy | 2.35:1 widescreen | English DTS-HD 2.0 monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

In the annals of odd collaborations, this 1978 comedy adaptation of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles may not be one of the all-time weirdest, but it certainly was unusual (and misguided).

The notion of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore playing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson was a sound one; putting a Who’s Who of British comedy actors in the supporting cast should’ve guaranteed the film was an amusing farce. Assigning Warhol protégé emeritus Paul Morrissey as the director and co-scripter was the element that makes Hound as off-kilter as it is.

Morrissey was a true innovator on the NY underground film scene. Although all of his early films had Warhol’s name in the title (and the very earliest ones were attributed to Andy), Morrissey’s best films — Trash, Women in Revolt, Heat are indeed comedies, but “weirdo” comedies about junkies, drag queens, hookers and hustlers, and people who live off of stuff they find in the garbage. Morrissey had a trademark comic characteristic: utilizing actors with very thick accents (be they Italian, German, or Joe Dallesandro’s thick Nu Yawk accent) and often having them play off against each other (as in Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Mixed Blood).

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with 1978’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Cook and Moore, on the other hand, were seasoned comedy professionals by ’78 — from Beyond the Fringe to Good Evening — who crafted brilliantly absurd sketches and memorable daft characters, but always with an internal comic logic. Morrissey would’ve been a fine director for their performance film Derek and Clive Get the Horn (1979), but he was a very bizarre and inappropriate choice for a Sherlock Holmes parody.

And so, now having a beautifully restored edition of this oft-forgotten comedy, we can give it a second look. And, in fact, there are some funny moments in the picture, but not enough to sustain the 85-minute running time. The good moments are also buried alongside wrongheaded inclusions like Exorcist jokes, which don’t fit with the Sherlock Holmes mythos (nor are they funny).

The plot of the film is a direct spoof of Conan Doyle’s most-adapted Holmes story. The first, most blatant mistake made by scripters Cook, Moore and Morrissey is that the immortal sleuthing team is broken up early on. Holmes decides that Watson should go this one alone, and thus the first three-quarters of the film finds Watson in the Hound plotline and Holmes wandering around from vignette to vignette. At one point Holmes is at a brothel; another finds him meeting his clinging mother (played by Moore). The partners do eventually reunite to solve the case but, before that, an inferior version of one of the most famous Cook and Moore sketches of all, “One Leg Too Few,” is shoehorned into the script.

Cook’s sketches could be inserted into a full-length movie script. Stanley Donen specifically requested that a bizarre concept from the Cook and Moore TV show Not Only… But Also… (about an order of nuns whose method of worship is leaping on trampolines) be put into Bedazzled (1967). It fit in perfectly, as that film is essentially a series of sketches with one theme (the Faust legend). The inclusion in Hound of “One Leg Too Few” — a classic bit in which Dudley plays a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan — is ham-handed and makes one wonder if the great comedy team were paying off some kind of a debt making the picture.

The redeeming factor here is that, even when working with the most mediocre material, Cook and Moore were a delight to watch. The same is true of the top-notch supporting cast, who bring some life to their one-joke roles. The forefather of modern British comedy, Spike Milligan, has a nice cameo, but the comic veteran who comes off best is Kenneth Williams (of the Carry On film series), who gives a suitably over-the-top performance as Sir Henry Baskerville. Williams has many scenes with Moore and his wild overplaying of his part finds him becoming the comic focus of every scene he’s in.

Buy or Rent The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”