The House of Fear (1945)

2014 #11
Roy William Neill | 66 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

The House of FearAdapted very loosely from the early Conan Doyle story The Five Orange Pips, this outing for Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson sees them summoned to Scotland to investigate the suspicious deaths of the members of a club, where each killing is preceded by an ominous postal warning.

Previous commenters on this fine establishment have flagged up The House of Fear as among the best of the Rathbone films, including one declaring it his “outright favourite”. I have to say, I didn’t like it that much. That said, something has given me the impression it’s considerably better than the short story that inspired it; though there’d be disagreement from Doyle, who ranked it among his 12 favourite Holmes adventures, and Mark Campbell of The Pocket Essential Sherlock Holmes, where the story rates 5-out-of-5. Either way, the film version presents an intriguing mystery, with some good moments — including, if you like Watson’s comedy bits, a mercifully not-drawn-out skit with an owl.

However, it felt to me like it wasn’t really going anywhere until Holmes suddenly figured it all out at the end. Certainly he draws on clues encountered along the way, but even then most of those come late on. Detecting by candlelightWhile the club having seven members does mean there’s a fair few suspects, it also means it takes a long time to get through them all being bumped off! It doesn’t sink so low as to be deemed repetitive, but does border it.

Not among my personal favourites of the Rathbone Holmeses, then, but not without its merits.

3 out of 5

Valley of Fear (1983)

2011 #64
Warwick Gilbert, Alex Nicholas & Di Rudder | 48 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Australia / English | U

Valley of FearI don’t recall how exactly I came across these animated Sherlock Holmes adaptations starring the voice of Peter O’Toole as the eponymous detective, or how I came to decide to view all of them, but it’s been almost four years since I reviewed the first… and three years since I reviewed the third. Now, finally, I get to the final episode. Such is the erraticism of using LOVEFiLM. (At least I have an excuse for my dawdling here — my incredibly slow viewing of all the Rathbone/Bruce Holmses is entirely my own tardiness.)

This series started decently for me, with a moderately promising adaptation of The Sign of Four, but then slid gradually downhill to an atrocious version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Valley of Fear isn’t as bad as that, but nor does it represent a massively significant increase in quality.

The negatives of the previous films still remain, primarily the weak ’80s TV animation. It’s not as badly designed as the bright-and-colourful version of Baskervilles, at least. O’Toole’s performance is nothing to write home about either. The story is perhaps the least-well-known of the four Holmes novels, and while it has its moments — mainly in clever deduction, often the best bit of any Holmes tale — this version is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on that fact.

Having quite liked the first of these adaptations that I saw, it’s a shame the other three haven’t lived up even to those expectations (it was only a three-star effort, after all). Ah well.

2 out of 5

Valley of Fear featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2011, which can be read in full here.

Sherlock Holmes (2010)

2010 #45
Rachel Lee Goldenberg | 89 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Sherlock HolmesFrom the company that brought you such pinnacles of cinematic excellence as AVH: Alien vs. Hunter, Snakes on a Train and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus comes the latest in a long line of cheaply-produced blockbuster cash-ins, this time tied to… well, I think you know. (While I’m at it, I encourage you to look at their website — the sheer volume of these ‘mockbusters’ they’ve produced now is almost impressive.)

You wait decades for a new Sherlock Holmes film and then two come along at once. One is the Guy Ritchie-directed Robert Downey Jr-starring genuine blockbuster moneymaker. The other is thankfully not the rumoured Sacha Baron Cohen/Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow/other faintly irritating people (I forget who was involved) comedy vehicle, but instead a direct-to-DVD cash-in from mockbuster kings The Asylum. Yes, I’d rather this version, thanks.

I’ve not seen an Asylum film before, but I hear this is one of their best. It’s not exactly “good” by any reasonable definition, but as “cable TV movie” quality goes I’d say it trumps the dull Case of Evil. And dull this certainly isn’t — sea monsters! dinosaurs! dragons! air battles! If you thought Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes looked disrespectfully blockbusterised, it seems positively Brettian by comparison.

Watson and camp short-arse HolmesBut, in The Asylum’s favour, their Sherlock Holmes doesn’t hide what it is. Yes, it’s called simply Sherlock Holmes rather than Sherlock Holmes and the Implausible CGI Monsters, but at least said monsters are plastered all over the DVD cover (both US and UK). If you see that and still expect something faithful to Conan Doyle, more fool you. That said, at times it’s surprisingly faithful to Doyle’s spirit. There’s some decent-ish investigation and deduction, the story structured like a mystery rather than an action-adventure.

But you can’t escape the dinosaurs, sea monsters and dragons, or the various steampunk elements introduced towards the climax. And so your enjoyment probably depends on your expectations. Some of the acting’s poor — not least Ben Syder’s camp short-arse Holmes, sadly — and the CGI’s weak, looking like a ’90s syndicated TV series. The direction occasionally lacks competence and a couple of action sequences are pointlessly repetitive.

Sherlock Holmes and the Implausible CGI MonstersAnachronisms abound, the best being the first: the film opens in London, 1940, the middle of the Blitz, and the opening shot foregrounds the Millennium Bridge. I don’t think you have to be too familiar with London to know when that was built. Elsewhere we get intercoms on houses, incongruous light switches and period inaccurate telephones, just to mention a couple. It’s shoddy, yes, but almost part of the fun.

But, for all the faults, there are positives. It’s still not “good”, but it is often “quite fun”. Thoroughly daft, certainly, but — provided you don’t demand too much — quite entertaining because of it.

3 out of 5

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern-day re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, starts at 9pm tomorrow on BBC One.

Tomorrow night, my review of the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock (2002)

aka Case of Evil / Sherlock: Case of Evil

2009 #46
Graham Theakston | 89 mins | TV | R

Case of EvilSherlock Holmes is a character so well known in the international psyche that he is open to seemingly endless reinterpretation — a wartime spy in the Rathbone era, his younger self in a Temple of Doom remake, or cryogenically frozen to reawaken in the 22nd Century (no, really). Indeed, this year alone we can expect to see him re-imagined as both a wisecracking martial artist in a period-set action/adventure film from Guy Ritchie, and as a detective in the present day in a new TV series from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. All of which are considerably more exciting than this lame Young Sherlock effort from 2002.

Here, writer Piers Ashworth — who would go on to pen the new St Trinian’s and Goal! III (for which be sure to read the review at The Big Whatsit) — creates a kind of Holmes Begins, showing a young and unknown Sherlock break his first case against renowned criminal Professor Moriarty, gaining a bit of fame before he joins the investigation of a serial killer. Ashworth makes sure to complete the Begins format with introductions for various iconic elements, like the deerstalker (though only in the final scene), the pipe (though, only in the final scene), and even his drug addiction (though Holmes seems to have already been cured of it).

More fundamentally, however, Holmes is recast as a kind of Victorian James Bond, both in terms of his character and the plot structure. It begins with the end of the previous mission (which, GoldenEye-style, will become relevant later), before progressing through various familiar beats, like the villain helpfully explaining his plan and a climactic big shoot-out a la You Only Live Twice or The Spy Who Loved Me, except on a much, much, much smaller scale. To add to the effect, Dr Watson is revealed to be “a bit of an inventor” — a Q in the making? Even Holmes himself is not immune: young, dashing, and womanising. Yes, womanising. He even has a threesome, shot and scored like soft porn, though with a US TV-friendly complete lack of nudity. Or sex. It does feature an unintentionally hilarious striptease though.

The story itself moves at a decent lick early on, complete with some genuine detective work that even, occasionally, displays Holmes’ genius. Most of this (at least, most of it that’s actually relevant to the plot) occurs during a couple of autopsies, which choose not to stint on the gore. (Incidentally, this makes it even easier to believe it was created with US TV in mind. Nudity? Nooo. Gore and violence? Hurrah!) Unfortunately, the longer the film goes on the more it slows and begins to drag, and the mystery-solving is replaced with running around, backstory exposition, and semi-decent sword fights. The best of these is fortunately at the climax, which takes place (amusingly, like Basil the Great Mouse Detective) atop the Palace of Westminster clock tower — or, at least, a poor computer-generated version of it (also like Basil the Great Mouse Detective). To be fair, the interior is a decent-enough set… though quite how the clock faces function when no workings whatsoever are attached to them is a mystery worthy of Holmes. Sherlock was shot in Romania, so such dodgy effects work rears its head any time they wish to depict a London landmark. Thankfully this isn’t often, because every such shot is appallingly realised.

Much the same could be said of the performances. James D’Arcy initially seems miscast as Holmes, but… well, he is — it’s just that everyone else is even worse. Roger Morlidge’s Dr Watson feels like he’s being portrayed by Ricky Gervais — no, worse, like James Corden’s version of Gervais from Horne & Corden — while Vincent D’Onofrio’s accent wavers all over the place and takes his performance with it. In what amounts to a cameo as Mycroft Holmes, Richard E. Grant is dreadful too. I’ve never been much of a fan of his, but this is weak work even by his standards. About the only passable performance among the major characters comes from Nicholas Gecks as Lestrade. There’s nothing exemplary about his role, but by simply doing nothing wrong he fares better than the rest.

Sherlock probably sounds irredeemably awful, and for some it will be (Sherlock Holmes has a threesome for Chrissake!), but despite the numerous flaws it remains largely watchable and even has its moments, particularly for more forgiving non-Sherlockians.

2 out of 5

Sherlock featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2009, which can be read in full here.

What makes a film a film?

What makes a film a film? I don’t mean “as opposed to a book”, or “as opposed to a pile of rubbish”; but rather, “as opposed to a TV special”, or different to a direct-to-DVD movie — indeed, is there a difference?

This is the sort of thing that’s bothered me for a while, mainly thanks to the Radio Times. The Radio Times’ film section frequently features reviews for things they label as “US TVM” — translation: an American TV Movie. Not everything falls into this category. The 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie (the clue’s in the title) was just listed as a TV special, as was the recent one-off episode of 24, Redemption. Why are these different to other feature-length made-for-TV one-off dramas? The former was a British co-production, perhaps, but the latter wasn’t. The latter is part of an on-going series, made between seasons, however. But then, one-off editions of other (older) series have been reviewed as “US TVM”s, so why are they different? It’s not even a hard rule in that instance, as some old series have their feature-length episodes screened as a matter of course among other repeats.

On a different tack, what about Paul Greengrass’ excellent Bloody Sunday, simultaneously screened on Channel 4 and released in cinemas? Or more recently, Ballet Shoes — just part of last year’s Christmas schedule in the UK, but it received a limited late-summer theatrical release in the US. So is that a film, or ‘just’ a TV special? Is a cinema release the key? Well, no — at least as far as the Radio Times are concerned — because Ballet Shoes wouldn’t now feature in their film review section were it repeated, while those other “US TVM”s will continue their circulation. [2015 note: A few years after I wrote this, Ballet Shoes was indeed repeated, and not listed as a film. Whenever Bloody Sunday is on, the Radio Times list it as a film.]

Is length the issue? Clearly not — look at the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmeses, some of which struggle to make the hour mark, a running time that Midsomer Murders or Poirot tops with every new episode.

And all this without even considering direct-to-DVD movies!

Perhaps it’s not a scientific rule-driven process, but just a “feel”? But that’s rubbish too — I’d wager 24: Redemption is at least twice as cinematic as most of the ’80s “US TVM”s awarded a proper film section review. Maybe it’s production method, then? But Redemption was produced as an individual piece, outside of the series’ production — much as a ‘proper’ 24 movie would’ve been, though surely with a smaller budget. So too was the Doctor Who TV movie, and obviously all one-off UK productions are made in a similar vein. And many of them, like Ballet Shoes, are surely just a theatrical release away from being a ‘film’ rather than a one-off TV drama, aren’t they? Perhaps it’s stylistic conventions — production company logos at the start, for example. But that seems a tad arbitrary to me, and plenty of independent films dispense with such.

Or perhaps, in this modern world, IMDb is the decider — whether it has that little “(TV)” after the title or not (it does for Ballet Shoes and 24, but not for Bloody Sunday). But then, why are the people at IMDb — and, we should remember, most of their content is user-generated anyway — any more qualified to decide than you or I?

It’s all down to the individual then, is it? Perhaps. If I declare 24: Redemption a film and review it as a numbered entry in 2008, would anyone care? But would it mean that, ‘morally’, I should go back and review Ballet Shoes as part of 2007? Or last month’s Einstein and Eddington as part of 2008? Or afford any of the countless other feature-length TV specials I’ve seen in the past two years the same treatment?

I don’t have any answers here, just more questions. I’m not going to go back and review Ballet Shoes though. Nor am I going to add Einstein and Eddington, or this Christmas’ The 39 Steps when it comes around. I may well count 24: Redemption, though [I did]. I don’t have Sky, so as far as I’m concerned it may as well be direct-to-DVD, especially in its extended DVD-exclusive form.

And direct-to-DVD movies definitely still count… don’t they?

The Baskerville Curse (1983)

2008 #25
Eddy Graham | 67 mins | DVD | U / G

The Baskerville CursePeter O’Toole is Sherlock Holmes (well, his voice) once again in this animated Conan Doyle adaptation from the ’80s (see also my reviews of two others, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet). Of course, this is an adaptation of that perennially popular Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and as such O’Toole barely features. A shame, as he’s the only half decent thing in this mess.

As I’ve previously expressed, The Hound of the Baskervilles is not my favourite Holmes story, though it has its moments and there have been some enjoyable screen versions. Unfortunately, this pointlessly renamed offering retains all of the original’s faults but loses most of the best bits, despite wasting time on train journeys, telegram writing and pointless flashbacks to things we saw just minutes earlier. The animation is poor, even for a production of this level, with dire character design and a total lack of atmosphere (it opens with jolly music over views of primary-coloured countryside!) There are further flaws, but there’s no point wasting any more time going through them. I can only hope that the final entry in this series, The Valley of Fear, will be closer in quality to the other two instalments.

In retrospect, I’m certain I underrated the 1939 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I’m equally certain that I shall have no such regrets over this lame attempt.

1 out of 5

The Baskerville Curse featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.

A Study in Scarlet (1983)

2007 #97
Ian Mackenzie & Alex Nicholas | 48 mins | DVD | U

A Study in ScarletPeter O’Toole is again the voice of the famous sleuth in this disappointing animated adaptation of the first Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The adaptation is faithful to the original novel’s structure (sadly, as it’s a somewhat bizarre one, and ripe for a more interesting interpretation), but loses any elements pertaining to Holmes and Watson’s first meeting. The animation seems more basic than the other entry in this particular series that I’ve seen, and O’Toole’s performance is flatter. The rest of the cast don’t fare any better. The story itself isn’t a bad one, but after being pleasantly surprised by The Sign of Four, I just found this to be disappointing.

2 out of 5

The Sign of Four (1983)

2007 #83
Ian Mackenzie & Alex Nicholas | 47 mins | DVD | U

The Sign of FourA slightly unusual one to review, this: it’s a 49-minute animated Sherlock Holmes adaptation from the ’80s, one of four in this particular series. But, as best I can tell from IMDb, it’s not specifically TV-based, and it does feature the voice of Peter O’Toole. Vocally he makes for a good Holmes, though the character design could be a little better. I can’t recall the original story well enough to comment on this as an adaptation, but it’s a decent mystery that’s well explained. The animation is not bad; certainly no worse than most kids’ TV animation from the ’80s and ’90s, and better than the flat Flash-animated stuff of today. A solid production.

3 out of 5

Basil the Great Mouse Detective (1986)

The Great Mouse Detective2007 #3
Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener & John Musker | 71 mins | DVD | U / G

A seriously underrated Disney film, though it does appear to have a substantially large cult following based on it being seriously underrated.

If you like your Disneys musical this may be one to avoid, though the couple of songs present are quite decent, but if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan you should definitely catch it.

4 out of 5