Roy William Neill | 71 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | PG
According to Wikipedia, “David Stuart Davies notes on the film’s DVD audio commentary* that [The Scarlet Claw is] generally considered by critics and fans of the series to be the best of the twelve Holmes films made by Universal.” That’s always a bold kind of assertion to make (it’s never trouble-free to define an entire fandom’s favourite), but I can still believe it’s true: The Scarlet Claw is marvellous.
When looking it up before viewing I was surprised to find it had a spot on the Top 500 Horror Movies (voted by users of IMDb’s horror boards, apparently), where it had a place in the lower 300s. I was surprised — Holmes is a detective series, not one I’d think of nominating for such a list. But there is one arguable exception to that — The Hound of the Baskervilles, of course — and it’s clear that Scarlet Claw draws significant inspiration from that preeminent entry in the Holmes canon. Lists of similarities are available for them that wants them, because I think Scarlet Claw does enough to merit consideration in its own right.
And it really is a horror movie too. There’s not just the elements of occult in the myth of the Canadian town Holmes and Watson find themselves in almost by chance, which you always know will be debunked in a Sherlock Holmes plot, but also the way the production is staged. Indeed, the film’s scariest sequence occurs after it’s revealed that the killings are being committed by a mere human — a properly chilling murder scene, quite out of step with the film’s age and PG certificate.
A lot of this is thanks to director Roy William Neill. On a previous review of mine, Ride the High Country’s Colin noted that Neill “turned out some quality low-budget stuff for Universal. He had a real knack for creating a spooky and mysterious atmosphere that’s evident in his horrors and thrillers.” This film demonstrates that fact more than any Holmes yet. His direction is incredibly atmospheric, from a wonderful mist-covered opening scene, replete with an incessantly tolling bell, to regular instances of shadow-drenched photography afterwards; not to mention various pleasing camera angles and moves.
The story — in which townsfolk believe a mythical beast has returned to murder its residents — presents a well-constructed mystery all round, though as it moves into the second half some of its twists become all too guessable. There simply aren’t enough supporting characters to provide any meaningful sense of having to ponder who the villain might be (because, as I noted, you know it’s not really a beast). There’s also a hefty dose of coincidence that everyone involved, both on screen and off, conveniently ignores.
If we’re looking at the flaws, there’s a return for the painful closing speech from Rathbone, this time a Churchill-quoted ode to the wonder of Canada. Ugh. Still, you half expect it from this series, and it’s very easy to ignore.
The other little niggles may stop the film from being perfect but, like the similarities to The Hound, while they’re certainly there, they’re easy to overlook in the name of a rollicking good horror-mystery-adventure.
The Scarlet Claw merited an honourable mention on my list of The Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.
* I could verify this for myself, but I haven’t, so… ^