The Cat and the Canary (1939) | Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard are a class act in the creaky comedy chiller
‘Don’t big empty houses scare you?’ ‘Not me, I used to be in vaudeville!’
A slick mix of wisecracking comedy and spooky thrills, the 1939 classic comedy chiller, The Cat and the Canary, turned Bob Hope into a Hollywood star and won Paulette Goddard a 10-year contract with Paramount.
One of the earliest ‘old dark house’ mysteries, first filmed as a silent in 1927 (watch it below), it was tailored to Hope’s characteristic style, which he’d go onto hone in his buddy comedies with Bing Crosby, and gave Goddard the chance to shine as the spirited heroine. Together they play a radio actor and an heiress who turn up at a decrepit old mansion in a mist-shrouded Louisiana swamp for the reading of a will. Secret passages, a portrait with eyes that move, a valuable diamond necklace, and an escaped lunatic keep the couple and a cast of eccentric characters on their toes until the final act, in which Goddard’s spunky ‘canary’ is lured into an underground passage by the shadowy ‘Cat’.
Stylishly staged and filled with a suitably spooky atmosphere, it boasts wonderfully gloomy performances from George Zucco as a stiff lawyer and Gale Sondergaard as the sinister housekeeper. Following this film. Zucco and Sondergaard went on to play the villainous Moriarty and The Spider Woman in Universal’s big-screen Sherlock Holmes adventures opposite Basil Rathbone.
The success of the film led to Hope and Goddard re-teaming for The Ghost Breakers (1940), while John Willard’s classic story was later remade by erotic arthouse director Radley Metzer in 1979. The film was also the model for the Frankie Howerd comedy The House on Nightmare Park in 1970 (see my review here).
THE UK RELEASE
The Cat and the Canary is available on DVD from Fabulous Films in the UK and includes as extras, a trailer and three galleries.
THE 1927 SILENT IN FULL
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) | Hammer’s Gothic horror adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mystery is a flawed gem
Having already adapted Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley’s Gothic horrors Dracula and Frankenstein to the big screen – in blood-dripping colour and laced with a hint of sex, it seemed an obvious choice for Hammer Films to add Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most terrifying Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles, to their stable of English Gothic horrors.
TERROR STALKS THE MOORS
When Baker Street sleuth Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) hears the legend of a ghostly hound from hell that brings death to each generation of the Baskerville family, he agrees to protect the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee). He instructs Dr Watson (André Morell) to head down to gloomy Baskerville Hall, where a series of strange events indicate that there is a plot to kill Sir Henry…
HORROR FILLS THE NIGHT
This handsome, colourful adaptation gave Peter Cushing one of his signature roles, that of the legendary Baker Street detective, which he went to great lengths to provide a truly authentic interpretation. And his Holmes certainly is as ‘new and exciting’ as the trailer proclaimed. But so is Andre Morell’s Dr Watson, who proves himself an intelligent and resourceful wingman to Cushing’s sleuth. Morrell also finally shakes off the ghost of Nigel Bruce’s bumbling fool that cinema audiences knew so well from the classic Universal movies two decades prior.
As the hell-spawned Hound’s intended victim, Christopher Lee – who escapes monster duties this time round – is perfectly cast as the stiff upper-lipped aristocrat, Sir Henry. But apart from showing off his smouldering good looks in an array of smart suits and smoking jackets, he gets to do very little. He does, however, get one memorable scene involving a tarantula. But that terrified expression you see on his face as the critter crawls over his shoulder is very real indeed – for Lee had a genuine fear of spiders. This particular scene also shows just how excellent the film looks on Blu-ray – the close-up on Lee’s sweaty face is so sharp, it feels like 3D.
When the film came out in the UK in May 1959, Hammer heavily promoted it as one of their English Gothic horrors, paying big emphasis on the hound from hell in its adverts. The look and style of the film is certainly quintessential Hammer, thanks to Terence Fisher’s suspenseful direction, Bernard Robinson’s evocative mist-shrouded sets, the rich colour photography, and James Bernard’s rousing music score (some of it nicked from Dracula).
But apart from lots of talk about ‘Evil lurking about’, there’s very little in the way of true horror (well it was an ‘A’ certificate), with the biggest disappointment being the titular hound: which just ends up being a big sloppy great dane (although two were actually used) wearing a mask of rubber and rabbit skin. The Hound of the Baskervilles was certainly not the ‘most-dripping tale ever written’, but it did make a profit at box office. But it wasn’t enough for Hammer to continue making anymore Holmes adventures. As Marcus Hearn says in the accompanying audio commentary, this is a ‘flawed gem’ from the legendary British studio.
THE ARROW BLU-RAY RELEASE
This Arrow Video Blu-ray presentation of the Hammer classic looks and sound terrific. The colours are superb, the print sharp and clean. The HD master was produced by MGM and is presented in its original aspect ratio with mono sound.
• Audio commentary with Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby. Fans will enjoy this as there’s a host of anecdotes and trivia shared by the two leading Hammer experts. Recorded in April 2015.
• Release the Hound! – Making of documentary featuring interviews with Mark Gatiss (very entertaining) and hound mask creator Margaret Robinson, as well as some usual suspects like film historian Kim Newman and writer Denis Meikle. NEW
• André Morell: Best of British – a wonderful featurette looking at the late great actor André Morell, with a touching contribution from his son Jason Morell. NEW
• The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes –1986 documentary on the many incarnations of Conan Doyle’s sleuth, narrated and presented by Christopher Lee.
• Actor’s Notebook: Christopher Lee – Archive interview in which the actor looks back on his role as Sir Henry Baskerville.
• The Hounds of the Baskervilles – two excerpts read by Christopher Lee.
• Original US Theatrical Trailer. Black and white and unrestored.
• Image gallery
• Newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper.
• Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by former Hammer archivist Robert JE Simpson.
Sherlock Holmes (1965) | Douglas Wilmer’s celebrated BBC TV series gets a UK DVD release
Douglas Wilmer gave a career-defining performance as the Baker Street sleuth in the classic 1964-1965 BBC TV series, Sherlock Holmes, which is now getting its first-ever UK DVD release from the BFI. The 4-disc set includes a number of special features, including two reconstructions of lost episodes, five audio commentaries, and an interview with Douglas Wilmer (who turned 95 in January).
Bearing a striking resemblance to the original Sidney Paget illustrations, Douglas Wilmer’s portrayal is possibly the closest to Conan Doyle’s original vision, and by playing him as ‘unsympathetic, vain and dangerous’, he’s widely regarded as ‘the only actor who ever got it right’ – although I do think Peter Cushing was also spot on when he took on the role for 16 stories in 1968. In 2012, Wilmer’s iconic status within the Holmes’ pantheon was cemented when he turned in a cameo appearance in the second series Sherlock story, The Reichenbach Fall, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Conan Doyle’s incumbent sleuth.
The first story in the 1960’s BBC series, The Speckled Band, was originally produced as part of the 1964 drama strand, Detective, but 12 cases followed, beginning in January 1965. Alongside Wilmer, Nigel Stock played Holmes’ loyal companion, Dr John Watson – a role he continued to play alongside Peter Cushing in 1968, while the supporting cast included Peter Madden as Inspector Lestrade and Derek Francis as Mycroft Holmes.
The roll call of guest stars included Peter Wyngarde and Jennie Linden in the dark and disturbing The Illustrious Client; Patrick Wymark and Sheila Keith in the Gothic melodrama The Copper Beeches; Trevor Martin (aka the first stage Dr Who) in the three pipe problem mystery, The Red-Headed League; Anton Rodgers in the opium-tinged The Man with the Twisted Lip; and Joss Ackland and Roger Delgado in the final story, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.
WHAT’S IN THE 4-DISC SET
• All surviving episodes from the 1965 series (in black and white, and in their original broadcast ratio, with Dolby Digital 10.0 mono audio).
• Original 1964 Detective pilot episode The Speckled Band.
• Alternative Spanish audio presentation of The Speckled Band.
• Alternative title sequence for The Illustrious Client.
• The Abbey Grange episode reconstruction, featuring a newly-filmed sequence of Douglas Wilmer reading the first half of the story, followed by all surviving original footage.
• The Bruce-Partington Plans episode reconstruction, using all surviving original footage and original shooting scripts.
• Douglas Wilmer … on Television (2012, 22 min): From his earliest days at RADA and the Old Vic to working at the BBC and his recent cameo in Sherlock, Wilmer looks back at his career and at the character that has won him a place in British TV history, recalling the highs and lows, and also pays homage to his old mate, Nigel Stock.
• Five audio commentaries, with director Peter Sasdy on The Illustrious Client, Douglas Wilmer on The Devil’s Foot and Charles Augustus Milverton, director Peter Cregeen on The Abbey Grange, and actors Trevor Martin and David Andrews on The Red-Headed League.
• Illustrated booklet with full episode guides, articles on Conan Doyle’s sleuth and Douglas Wilmer, and restoration notes.
Available everywhere and online at www.bfi.org.uk/shop