The Hound of the Baskervilles 1959 ****

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Any vaguely annoying dog still gets referred to as the Hound of the Baskervilles to this day; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is a cultural touch-stone as popular as Sherlock Holmes himself. Film and tv version of this celebrated story are rarely up to snuff; this Hammer production, directed by Terence Fisher, plays down the hound itself in favour of a meticulous attempt to nail the original narrative; with strong atmosphere and a perfect cast, it’s a welcome addition to the Holmesian canon.

Who better to play the great detective that Peter Cushing? The length of Cushing’s career, and the number of films he made in old age, might blind us to what a vigorous and dashing figure he cuts here, quite literally bouncing of the scenery at some points. But there’s also method in his madness; Cushing nails the mood-changes in his first dialogue scene as he considers the request of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), seeming to dismiss, then engage with his client. Holmes is a spikey wit here, while Watson (Andre Morell) is anything but a buffoon. Fisher even keeps with the source by having Holmes off-stage at key moments, but with Christopher Lee a saturnine Henry Baskerville, and John Le Mesurier as the butler, there’s no lack of good manners on show.

What really works here is the deductions; what Holmes sees, and how he puts it all together, perhaps because for once, this is not pastiche Conan Doyle, but a fair reworking of his actual plot-lines. Flickering lights on the moor, strange paintings, ravenous devil dogs; all the elements are in place, and although the final masked pooch effect is rather underwhelming, the conclusion still packs a punch.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps too violent to be a tv staple, and yet too cerebral to appeal to horror fans; either way, it’s a real genre classic that deserves to be exhumed and enjoyed. Cushing and Lee are both in strident form here, and Fisher displays the kind of barn-storming style that made him the pick of the Hammer House of directorial excellence.

 

Angel Heart 1987 *****

I was still a teenager when I saw Alan Parker’s 1986 genre-bending horror/detective story; just old enough to beat the 18 certificate. The film ran for several months at my local Odeon; I returned over and over again to watch the print turn ragged on the screen. While friends waxed lyrical on Scorsese and Godard, it was Alan Parker’s film that caught my imagination, so to see a restored blu-ray pressed decades later is a welcome opportunity to revisit a well-thumbed, well-loved text.

The story is simple in synopsis but surprising in execution. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a down-at-heel private eye hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to investigate a missing singer by the name of Johnny Favourite. Those unlucky enough to cross Angel’s path end up dead; Angel senses he’s being set up, but it’s only when he travels to New Orleans that the gumshoe begins to realise that supernatural forces are at work, and he’s little more than a pawn in the game.

Michael Seresin’s photography is the first thing to notice here; poor DVD prints haven’t helped the film’s reputation, but this blu-ray looks as good as if not better than the original; it’s hard to think of another film that looks as moist as this, which detailed textures to snow, paper, clothes, sweat and blood. The result is a film that’s vivid and atmospheric, with dream-like interruptions scored to the sound of a beating heart, telling a story with an outrageous twist ending that’s tricky to fully explain in detail.

Based on William Hjortsberg’s book Falling Angel, Parker shifted the action largely from NYC to New Orleans, and also changed the time-period and a few crucial details; elements from the book like the magic show are dropped, despite being remarkably cinematic in their own right. Parker’s use of mirrors, fans and blood is very much his own pictorial style, and while audiences weren’t sure of Angel Heart at the time, it’s clearly a misunderstood work that had a huge influence on Christopher Nolan

Parker’s wry commentary starts by discussing the problems of directing cats; it’s also implied that herding De Niro and Rourke through a number of scenes together wasn’t much easier. De Niro makes something iconic of his devilish character, but it’s Rourke that’s the revelation here. It’s not surprising to hear that Rourke couldn’t act the same scene the same way twice; his work feels spontaneous, and there’s an edge that makes Angel feel both larger than life and vulnerable.

Some of the other extras on this fresh re-issue suggest that Parker was prepared to bend the rules of voodoo in order to get what he wanted from his New Orleans shoot; such comments are interesting, but don’t detract from the film’s power. In the classic notion of drama, Angel’s investigation of his case is a search for himself, and a discovery of an unpleasant truth about human nature. Parker’s film may have been better known for its sex scene than it’s dramatic content at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, Angel Heart is an essential purchase for fans of all the considerable talents involved, and for horror aficionados in general.

Without A Clue 1988 ****

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‘How are things on the sub-continent?’ is a phrase that looms large in my notes for Without A Clue, a Sherlock Holmes spoof from 1988. It’s uttered by Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), an actor hired by Dr Watson (Ben Kingsley) to play the role of the Baker Street detective, a fictional character of his own invention. It’s a line that evokes the casual, avuncular racism of a bygone era, and one of a number of neat touches that make Without A Clue something of a secret delight.

Without A Clue was poorly reviewed and found few takers, and yet it’s a very clever take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Caine and Kingsley relish the challenge of flipping their characters; Holmes is dominant in public, but is cowed and bullied in private. Watson, by contrast, has to maintain a meek façade when solving crimes, but is quick to asset his intellect when the two are left alone together. And there’s a crime to be solved; stolen, or rather switched bank-plates means that the Bank of England have been accidentally issuing forgeries, while the criminals concerned have the ability to make real banknotes. Moriarty (Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman) is, of course, at the heart of the scandal, with Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) less than hot on his trail.

A short but delightful scene with Norman Greenhough (Peter Cook), the real-life publisher of The Strand Magazine, establishes that Without A Clue knows it’s stuff, and it’s also nice to see such Conan Doyle ephemera like the Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance. Without a Clue didn’t offer the sex or anti-authority comedy that was fashionable in the 1980’s, but it’s a minor delight, well performed and with a fresh, charming take on beloved characters.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/without-a-clue/id872645010

Dressed to Kill 1946 ****

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Sherlock Holmes is a character who has lost something in his translation to the modern world; older films do not focus on his prowess as a bare-knuckle boxer, or lead to a climax with sword-fights on top of a mid-construction Tower Bridge. There’s no computer-generated mind-palaces, and his calculations are not visually realised by a slew of animated diagrams. Back in 1946, the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series of Holmes movies was coming to an end, but Dressed to Kill doesn’t show many signs of tiredness. In fact, the action is fast and spruce, packing plenty of action and investigation into a commendably tight 70 minutes. A trio of music boxes are being sold at auction; the owners are separately murdered, but not before Stinky Emery (Edmund Breon) has enlisted the services of Baker Street’s finest to investigate a break-in at his home. Although not listed from a specific Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, there’s an authentic flavour about the action in Dressed to Kill aka Prelude to Murder aka Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code. And it’s refreshing to see a strong female villain in Mrs Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison), very much in the Irene Adler mode. Directors like Roy William Neill brought timeless characters to life with great acting, no-nonsense direction and crisp scripting; the lack of visual jazz makes each of the Rathbone Holmes films a pleasure to watch.

Shaft 2019 ***

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Reports of franchise fatigue affecting the US box office miss one off-putting element; anyone who bought a ticket for Shaft, Isn’t It Romantic? Annihilation or many other titles must have felt sorely ripped-off when they found the film they just shelled out $20 bucks to see if freely available at home on HD. For major studios to cut their losses by selling the foreign rights to their films on Netlix can only create buyers remorse and disaffection with the cinema-going process in general. Of course, Tim Story’s rehash of elements from the past four Shaft films was always going to generate some unhappy customers; the late John Singleton’s 2000 version with Samuel l Jackson was awful, and unfortunately that’s the poisoned well that this 2019 incarnation draws most of it’s mojo from. Jessie T Usher is JJ Shaft, an FBI cyber-crime fighter who joins forces with his dad, and then eventually his grandfather (a spruce Richard Roundtree) to resolve the death of his friend. The gags are laboured, the action undistinguished, the music isn’t the original Shaft theme, and the locations are faked NYC. Roundtree is great, and the final shoot-out is worth the wait, but this version of Shaft feels like something of a con-job all round.

Under The Silver Lake 2018 ****

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Andrew Garfield has struggled to make a name for himself outside of his abortive stab at being Spiderman; it’s unlikely that his let-it-all-hang-out performance as a sex-starved stoner in this comedy/thriller from David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) will change that, but he’s actually pretty good here. Garfield plays conspiracy-theory loving slacker Sam, who bums around his LA apartment until Sarah (Riley Keough) moves in next door. She vanishes, leaving Sam to attempt to track her down while also looking into the case of the mysterious Dog Killer who is murdering local pooches. Sam’s investigation is shambolic, and digs up various bits of sordid ephemera including video games, prostitution rings and underground communities. Characters with names like the Owl Woman and the Homeless King suggest some kind of David Lynch netherworld, and that’s what Under The Silver Lake aims for; sprawling, obscure, obnoxious and deliberately alienating. But if you’re prepared to try something a little off-menu, there’s a lot to enjoy here, notably the creation of dark LA lore of interest to any fans of the city’s Gothic side. Like Southland Tales, it’s likely to gain a cult following, and Mitchell’s film deserves a second chance.This UK DVD release has a Q and A with Garfield, but also two featurettes, Beautiful Specter and What Lies Beneath The Silver Lake which give a tantalising glimpse of the impacted layers the film-makers have created here. On DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK from Aug 26th 2019.

Mindhorn 2017 ****

mindhornSimon Farnaby writes and co-stars in this spoof of television detective’s, specifically BBC’s Bergerac. Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh plays Richard Thorncroft, an actor who has seen better days, mostly a TV tec Mindhorn, a chiselled, eye-patch-sporting playboy who solves cases on the Isle of Man. When a real-life serial killer starts taunting the police and demanding Mindhorn on the case, the actor is forced to join forces with the cops to fluch the maniac out. But Thorncroft, in an Ace in the Hole-style twist, realises that playing the role of Mindhorn might potentially revive his flagging career, and aims to prolong the investigation. Support from Farnaby, Steve Coogan, Russell Tovey and Andrea Riseborough give some indication of the kind of comedy here; while there’s a silliness about the concept, there’s also a generous amount of laughs; adults who enjoyed the Paddington films will find the same level of wit in Farnaby’s script here.