Category Archives: Mystery

Gut Reaction: Dark and Stormy Night (2009)

Dark and Stormy NightDirector: Larry Blamire

Writer: Larry Blamire

Cast: Jim Beaver, Jennifer Blaire, Larry Blamire, Bob Burns, Dan Conroy, Robert Deveau, Bruce French, Betty Garrett, Trish Geiger, Brian Howe, Marvin Kaplan, James Karen, Alison Martin, Fay Masterson, Susan McConnell, Andrew Parks, Kevin Quinn, Mark Redfield, Tom Reese, Daniel Roebuck, Christine Romeo, H.M. Wynant

Plot: After the demise of millionaire Sinas Cavinder, an eccentric group of friends, family, rivals, employees, reporters, total strangers, and a dude in a gorilla costume gather for the reading of his will. When the lawyer is murdered in the midst of the reading, the gathered survivors have to solve the crime, or any one of them could be next.

Thoughts: Have you ever gotten a disc from NetFlix with no memory of the movie or any idea why you put it in your queue, let alone how it got close enough to the front to actually make it to your mailbox? When that happens, you pop the disc in just so it doesn’t feel like a waste before you send it back, usually disappointing you in the process. But every so often, you get a movie that delights you so much you wish you could go back in time, figure out who clued you in on the film in the first place, and thank them.

Larry Blamire’s micro-budget motion picture Dark and Stormy Night is exactly this kind of movie. This black-and-white buffet of assorted cheeses is a loving tribute and send-up of old-fashioned murder mysteries, mixing together parts of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Clue with the sort of killers and freaks that made for the richest mocking in the glory days of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Every actor, without exception, delivers their lines with an excess of camp and self-awareness, gleefully hamming up preposterous dialogue and overreacting to the most simple of situations. It’s as if somebody is deliberately putting on the most melodramatic dinner theater production ever made, and that’s what makes it glorious.

The show-stealers here are Daniel Roebuck and Jennifer Blair as competing reporters 8 O’Clock Farraday and Billy Tuesday, respectively. The two of them bounce off each other with energy and vigor, chewing through Python-esque logical leaps that eat up one noir cliché after another. Dan Conroy is funny as hell as hapless cab driver Happy Codburn, who only got drawn into the whole mess because Farraday stiffed him out of 35 cents. Jim Beaver’s Jack Tugdon brings in a sort of faux intensity to the proceedings, pulling in a taste of The Most Dangerous Game with his humorless (and, by result, hysterical) delivery of such lines as “I went to bed… once.”

Blamire drops in plenty of tired clichés and runs with them – Alison Martin as the terrible psychic Mrs. Cupcupboard, who has the audacity to announce “I sense death” while standing over a fresh corpse. The staff includes a butler (Bruce French) who seems to have some skeletons in his closet and a chef (Robert Deveau) who wields his meat cleaver in a particularly disturbing way, spouting out lines that feel like Norman Bates talking to Mother. Blamire even gets into the act himself, playing a stranger whose “car broke down” outside, then immediately asks if he can stay for the reading of the will, which nobody has mentioned to him yet.

As funny as the performances are, it’s Blamire’s script that makes this work. His lines go from painful puns to razor-sharp wordplay without missing a beat, and he takes great joy in using every cliché you can imagine for this sort of “trapped in the mansion” mystery, then deconstructing the hell out of it. I admit I was a little shaky about the film for the first few minutes, when we saw an obvious model car driving up to an obvious model mansion. But when the lights go off and the guests all panic until the frustrated maid (Trish Geiger) turns the switch back on and shows her exasperation when the idiotic guests behave as if she’s performed some sort of miracle, I found myself buying in entirely.

Most importantly, you really get the sense that the cast is having fun. None of them are making a fortune performing in a film released by the Shout! Factory, but all of them take what they’re given and run with it. Half the time when you go to the movies these days you get a film with a blockbuster budget and a bunch of actors walking through their parts, taking the paycheck, clearly having no passion for what they’re doing. Dark and Stormy Night is the opposite of that in every way, and it’s glorious because of it.

Looking up info about this movie for the sake of this review, I notice that Blamire has two other films with most of this same cast, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. Both of those are going to the front of my NetFlix queue right away. And this time, I’ll remember how they got there.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


Sherlock Holmes Week Bonus: Benedict Cumberbatch in “A Study in Pink” (2010)

SherlockDirector: Paul McGuigan

Writer: Steven Moffat, based on the novel A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Lisa McAllister, Mark Gatiss, Rupert Graves, Phil Davies, Una Stubbs, Louie Brealey, Vinette Robinson

Plot: Returning from active duty in Afghanistan, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) is having trouble recovering from a bullet wound, a limp, and post-traumatic stress disorder. His therapist even suggests he begin a blog as a means of coping, but John insists nothing interesting happens to him. While searching for an apartment, an old friend introduces him to consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch). Sherlock quickly deduces a great deal of information about John, leaving the man off-balance, but somehow persuades him to accept a flat with him at 221B Baker Street. John is still acclimating to Sherlock when he is called out to investigate a murder. He invites John to join him, and they find an apparent suicide victim, the fourth such in recent weeks. As Sherlock pieces clues together, John is approached by a Detective Sally Donovan (Vinette Robinson) who warns him to stay away from Sherlock, who she believes to be a psychotic waiting to snap.

John is summoned into a car by a beautiful woman calling herself Anthea (Lisa McAllister). She takes him to a man (Mark Gatiss) who offers John  great deal of money to report on Sherlock’s activities. John refuses and returns to Sherlock, who wants him to send a text to the dead woman’s mobile phone in an effort to trap the killer. The two stake out a restaurant and chase the presumed killer, but instead find an American tourist getting out of a taxicab.

Returning home, Sherlock is approached by Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), using a fake drug bust as an excuse to claim any clues Sherlock may have uncovered. As they bicker, a taxicab arrives for Sherlock, even though he didn’t call for one. The clues assemble in Sherlock’s mind and he accompanies the cab driver (Phil Davies), who he realizes is the killer. The cabbie explains that he’s been employed by a benefactor to play a game with his victims, challenging them to select from two identical pills, one of which is poison. They will then each take a pill, and one will die. Thus far, the cabbie has never lost, and as he is terminally ill, has no fear of the game. His benefactor will give money to his children for each murder he successfully commits. Sherlock makes his choice, but hesitates in taking the pill. In that second, John (who has trailed them) shoots the cabbie from a window across the street. Sherlock tries to get the cabbie to tell him if he made the right choice, then forces him to tell him the name of his benefactor. The cabbie screams “Moriarity!” before he dies.

As the police clean up the crime scene, the man who tried to bribe John appears – it’s Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft, a high-ranking government official. As Sherlock and John walk away, Mycroft orders Anthea to upgrade their surveillance status to grade 3.

Thoughts: This is the pilot episode of the BBC TV series Sherlock, which has turned out six episodes in four years, because showrunner Steven Moffat hates us (like the wait between Doctor Who seasons isn’t bad enough). I’ll use it, however, to stand in for the series as a whole for the sake of discussion. Despite the fact that we’ve only gotten six episodes, nine hours of Sherlock as of this writing, it’s quickly become one of my favorite interpretations of the character. Moffat has taken the basic trappings of Holmes and placed it in modern-day London, showing a Holmes that has no qualms about using modern science and technology as a tool to solve crimes. The show makes frequent – almost constant – use of cell phones and computers, and trading Watson’s career as a magazine writer for a blogger is a really nice touch that allows Moffat to keep up the pretense of Holmes becoming a semi-celebrity even in a world where nobody really pays much attention to magazines anymore.

Cumberbatch and Freeman are virtually flawless as Holmes and Watson. Cumberbatch has a wild-haired, youthful energy that befits his interpretation of Holmes as a man whose brain functions so far ahead of the world around him that he’s desperate for any distraction to escape soul-crushing boredom. Similar to the cell phone example, Moffat and company have found a lot of nice visual tricks to use to demonstrate how Holmes’s brain is piecing together all of the clues that surround him, but which escape the common mind.

Freeman’s Watson, when we first meet him, is a man very much on the brink. He’s been unable to adapt to life outside of the Army, and has a quiet desperation of his own. The most clever bits, however, come when Mycroft diagnoses his ailment: Watson’s therapist believes he’s suffering from PSTD as a result of his war experience. Mycroft, however, realizes that Watson’s feelings of depression aren’t because the war left him scarred, it’s because he misses the excitement. It makes for a fine marriage between Sherlock and John (who call each other by their first names here, unlike most other incarnations), and the two actors have a remarkable chemistry together.

What’s great about the structure of a television show, however, is that it allows us to watch this relationship develop over time. In every other version of Holmes we’ve discussed this week, we picked up their adventures long after Holmes and Watson come together. In fact the version in which the relationship is most central (the Downey/Law movie from 2009), we see a Watson who’s ready to move on from that life. This is the first film version we’ve looked at that takes their relationship from its very beginning as Doyle did with his stories. Again, we’ve only had six episodes, but those six episodes have covered a lot of time for the characters, and there’s been a very believable growth and evolution between the two characters. By the end of episode six, when tragedy strikes, the pain we see is true, and genuine, and deeply affecting to the audience as well.

The show has picked up on most of the major characters from the Holmes mythos – Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson are there from the beginning, Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) made a great appearance in the season two premiere, and Andrew Scott’s Moriarity was a fantastic, believable threat to Holmes. Each episode has taken one of the original Holmes stories as inspiration, but that inspiration is often extremely loose, providing little more than a jump-off point for a much more contemporary story.

And all of that is to the good. Season three is filming right now (or may even be finished, I’m not sure), but as of yet there’s been no announcement from the BBC as to when it’s going to air. If you haven’t watched this show and you enjoy different interpretations of Holmes, you’ve got time to catch up. All six episodes are available streaming from Netflix and on Amazon Prime. You can knock them all out in a weekend marathon. And you’ll thank yourself for it.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 5: Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes 2009Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg & Lionel Wigram, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Robert Maillet, Geraldine James, Kelly Reilly, William Houston, Hans Matheson, Oran Gurel, James Fox

Plot: Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) races through the streets of London. Journeying deep into the underground he finds a woman on an altar, about to be sacrificed in a pagan ritual. He’s almost captured, but Dr. Watson (Jude Law) steps from the shadows and rescues him, telling him Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) is preparing his men to attack. Holmes and Watson disrupt the sacrifice, fighting off the participants and coming face-to-face with the hooded leader of the cult: Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who is arrested.

Three months later Watson is planning his departure from 221B Baker Street, planning to get married soon. Watson insists Holmes meet him and his prospective fiancé Mary (Kelly Reilly) for dinner. Mary, a fan of Holmes’s exploits, has him use his powers of deduction to piece together information about her, ultimately embarrassing her and driving her off. The next day, Blackwood’s scheduled execution day, Watson tells Holmes Blackwood’s last request is an interview with the great detective. Blackwood calls his five murder victims a necessary sacrifice and tells Holmes he underestimates the gravity of coming events. Blackwood’s hanging proceeds as planned, and Watson himself declares him dead.

Holmes is visited by a former acquaintance named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who finds that Holmes has been investigating her illicit criminal activities. She asks him for help hunting down a man named Luke Reordan (Oran Gurel), then meets with a hidden man who hired her to engage Holmes. Holmes and Watson consider the hidden man just as Constable Clark (William Houston) arrives to tell them the late Lord Blackwood has been spotted, alive. They find his tomb has been smashed open, and the coffin contains Luke Reordan, dead, covered in dirt. In Reordan’s home, Holmes finds dead animals that have been preserved and experimented upon in what appears to be an attempt at a magical ritual. They’re attacked and chase one of the assailants to a shipyard. Destroying a ship, the man escapes, and Holmes and Watson are arrested. In the morning Mary bails out Watson – but not Holmes. Holmes’s bail comes later, and he is taken to meet his benefactor, Sir Thomas Rotheram (James Fox), member of a supposedly-benevolent Temple of the Four Orders, who fears Blackwood will use their techniques for something terrible. Holmes deduces almost immediately that Rotheram is Blackwood’s father. That night, Blackwood murders his father in the bath. With the help of Lord Coward (Hans Matheson), who has influence over the police, Blackwood seizes leadership of the Four Orders, planning to wrest control of Britain, then America, then the world.

Holmes and Watson track down Blackwood, but find Irene about to be killed in a slaughterhouse. They save her (as they always do in the movies) in the nick of time. Before they can leave, the slaughterhouse explodes. The police arrive and Clark, finding Holmes in the wreckage, warns him that there’s a warrant for his arrest, and urges him to flee. Holmes compares Reordan’s rituals with Blackwood’s crimes to determine his final target: Parliament. In an action sequence that takes them across, underneath, and above London, the trio face down Blackwood and his men. Holmes and Irene wind up on the incomplete bridge over the Thames when Blackwood arrives, shoving her from the bridge. The two duel and Holmes explains how Blackwood carried out his various feats just before the villain falls and hangs from a chain. Holmes goes to Irene, safe on a platform below, and she tells him her employer is a professor named Moriarty who forced her into going along with his scheme. He arrests her for her assorted crimes, but admits he’ll miss her.

Later, as Watson moves the last of his possessions to his new home with Mary, Clark tells them of a murdered police officer, a crime Holmes attributes to the mysterious Moriarity, who stole a piece of Blackwood’s machine. Donning his hat, Holmes declares the case re-opened.

Thoughts: This is without a doubt the most unique interpretation of Holmes we’ve yet encountered in this experiment. The first four films, even the ones that aren’t very good, adhered pretty closely to the formula Arthur Conan Doyle created in the original stories. This time, though, director Guy Ritchie has turned up the action quotient considerably. The film is very fast-moving, and frequently shifts into a sort of slow motion sequence in which Holmes plans out the next several seconds, then executes his plan. It’s a neat little trick that works well to demonstrate the sort of analytical mind we’re looking at here, allowing the audience a rare glance into the internal life of Holmes, something that most creators (even Doyle, for the most part) have always been careful to avoid. In truth, with most versions of Holmes it probably would have been a mistake to do such a thing, but in this version, it fits very well.

The Holmes/Watson dynamic is the core of this movie in a way that we haven’t seen before. While their friendship has always been the most significant relationship in Holmes’s life, in this case it’s almost essential to the tone of the story. Ritchie plays it for comedy, showing them as real brothers – snarky, insufferable brothers, sometimes at each other’s throat but always willing to fight and bleed for the other. Even the bits where Holmes seems trying to deliberately sabotage Watson’s romance with Mary don’t feel too far-fetched… it comes across as a man who feels his more sincere connection slipping away from him, and for once the great mind is completely unable to deal with it. In some ways, Mary even comes across as an interloper. She’s the one monkeying with the long-established bond (even though this is the first film in this particular incarnation) between the two characters, and there’s a temptation to resent her for it. This is overcome, fortunately, when Mary and Holmes meet in the hospital, standing over the injured Watson, and she implores the detective to do whatever he needs to do to solve the case and save the man they both love from further danger.

The small moments between them, consequently, work very well. Holmes constantly makes coy remarks about Watson being unhappy with retiring from investigation. He bribes a “fortune teller” to predict a miserable life with Mary, brings a corpse right under Watson’s nose to examine… Very often we see Holmes as someone unable to admit any real human connection, unwilling to let it show how deeply he values Watson’s assistance and, even more importantly, his companionship. This isn’t that Holmes at all. Although he dresses up his actions by pretending he’s doing it for Watson’s own good, because Watson would never be satisfied without him, it’s plain from the outset that Downey’s Holmes needs Law’s Watson more than the other way around.

The fighting, much more than the other Holmes films, is central to the film. It’s energetic, well-presented, and exciting. Even the parts that are clearly CGI – such as the slightly too-perfect destruction of the shipyard – work perfectly well as an action sequence.

Downey’s Holmes has the requisite pomposity, but also a sort of dashing charm other interpretations of the character often lack. While Billy Wilder chose to cast a Holmes in a way that left his associations with the fairer sex in doubt, this film makes it clear from the beginning that Holmes’s lack of experience with women comes from the fact that there’s only one who has ever truly fascinated him: Irene Adler. Jude Law’s Watson is younger and more active than most other versions, and much more likely to demonstrate the sort of exasperation any of us would probably feel having to associate with a Sherlock Holmes on a regular basis.  He plays the character really well, a convincing proper British gentleman constantly trying to deal with and defend a very improper one.

Rachel McAdams rounds out the main cast as Irene Adler – sly, clever, and alluring without being over-sexualized. It’s easy to believe she’s someone with a sharp enough brain to engage even the great Sherlock Holmes. Unlike Mary, when she joins with Holmes and Watson she fits in very well. There’s no feeling like she’s disrupting things – she actually seems to belong. Watson is amused that there’s actually a woman who can keep up with Holmes, Irene is pleased to have an ally in antagonizing the great detective. The three of them together are even more fun to watch than just Downey and Law.

Eddie Marsan’s Inspector Lestrade is a bit of a wild card. In the many, many interpretations of Holmes over the years, we’ve seen Lestrade as everything from a willing ally to the detective to a frustrated police officer who only barely tolerates his presence. This version leans closer to the latter, and Marsan plays him well. At the same time, though, he doesn’t let his personal dislike of Holmes blind him to facts or obvious conclusions, which makes him a more reasonable and believable version of the character than many. When he arrests Holmes, we believe it. When we learn that he helped Holmes to escape just minutes later, we believe that as well.

Like The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire, this film attempts an all-new story with the classic characters. Unlike that weak film, however, this one draws in lots of small bits from the Doyle canon. Adler and Moriarity are frequently used in Holmes adaptations, even though they play only small roles in the original stories. Here, they fill the roles the story requires, while still allowing room to grow into different directions. Mary, also, is a character plucked from the Doyle canon, and her role in the story here is close enough to the original purpose to feel natural. The whole thing comes across as fresh, exciting, and engaging. It’s almost a surprise – when a franchise veers so far from the source material it could be easy to grow angry about it, but instead we get something that’s fun to watch.

If there’s one thing missing from this movie, it’s the mystery. Holmes knows from the outset that Blackwood is his enemy, and instead of trying to find the perpetrator of a crime he’s instead trying to find the evidence to explain how he’s doing what he’s doing, then stop him from carrying out what can only be termed a terrorist attack. It’s a “howdunit” rather than a “whodunit.” It’s a legitimate form of mystery (virtually every episode of Columbo operated on a similar principle), but it does diminish Holmes just a bit, to have a clear adversary in his great battle of wits.

All in all, though, the film is remarkably fun. I don’t know if I’d be quite as happy if there weren’t more traditional versions of Holmes available, though. While Downey and Law’s film is a blast, I like having a Holmes that works well as a detective first and an action hero second. That in mind, how about a Sherlock Holmes Week Bonus, friends? It’s not a movie (technically speaking), but to my way of thinking, it’s one of the best interpretations of Sherlock Holmes ever put to the screen, and if you come back tomorrow we’ll talk all about it… Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC television series Sherlock.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 4: Matt Frewer in The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire (2002)

Case of the Whitechapel VampireDirector: Rodney Gibbons

Writer: Rodney Gibbons, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Matt Frewer, Kenneth Welsh, Maria Bertrand, Julian Casey, Norris Domingue, Isabel Dos Santos, John Dunn-Hill, Shawn Lawrence, Kathleen McAuliffe, Danny Blanco Hall, Neville Edwards, Tom Rack, Michel Perron

Plot: The week after a strange murder in an abbey, Sherlock Holmes (Matt Frewer) and Dr. Watson (Kenneth Welsh) are engaged in a debate on the existence of an afterlife. Holmes is sent a message from the Whitechapel Abbey informing him that there are fears that the murder was the work of a vampire, something Holmes dismisses as unscientific nonsense. At the Abbey, Brother Marstoke (Shawn Lawrence) gives them a tour, telling them of a legend of a demon that manifests itself as a vampire bat. Following a failed attempt to exterminate a colony of bats, a series of murders have brothers of the abbey. There have even been mild tremors from time to time, something Holmes experiences himself. The first murder came with a message written in blood that convinces the Brother that a vampire is responsible, but Holmes recognizes a different modus operandi – that of the still-at-large serial killer Jack the Ripper.

Although Holmes continues to play the skeptic, Watson is at least open to the possibility of a supernatural explanation behind their latest case. Holmes questions Dr. Chagas (Neville Edwards), a scientist who was studying the bats before Marstoke had many of them killed, and who has a bitter anger against the monk. While Holmes returns from his visit with Chagas, the killer strikes again, murdering a monk and attacking a nun, but he seems to be frightened off by the light glinting from her crucifix.

Holmes speaks to Inspector Attley Jones (Michel Perron), who has arrested Chagas, but as Holmes was with him only minutes before the last murder happened, he is no longer convinced of Chagas’s guilt, even though his gloves are covered with blood. As Holmes and Jones argue, Chagas escapes. Holmes finds that others in the Abbey have a grudge against Marstoke, including Brother Abel (Tom Rack), who sees Marstoke’s fascination with vampires and demonology to be sacrilegious. Holmes is attacked by a robed figure who tries to shove him in front of a speeding horse. Holmes escapes, but so does his attacker.

Watson calls the people of the Abbey together with a message from Holmes: he has been arrested, and he now believes that there is a demonic influence upon the Abbey. Brother Marstoke, blaming himself for bringing evil to the church, swears to leave in the morning. As he goes, alone, to pray that evening, he is approached by the robed killer. The killer is surprised to find Holmes instead, and the two grapple for Holmes’s gun. Although the killer gets the upper hand, the police arrive just as another tremor hits. A statue topples over and crushes the killer. Holmes unmasks the body to reveal Brother Abel.

Watson later explains that the tremors were actually because the Abbey’s foundation has been weakened by nearby expansion of the London underground to Whitechapel. Holmes explains that when Jones found the blood on Chagas’s gloves was actually bat blood and not human, he realized he was innocent and the three men set the trap for Abel. Holmes then reveals the several small clues from throughout the film that pointed to Abel, and Chagas provides the motivation – Abel had been stricken by a disease he blamed Marstoke for bringing to the chapel. The case closed, Watson asks his friend if Holmes has reconsidered his stance on the supernatural, considering the tremor’s remarkably timely rescue. Holmes, of course, will have none of that.

Thoughts: You know you’re in for a treat when the very beginning of a movie is a title card proclaiming “The film is based on the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which is in the public domain, but it has not been authorized by any owner of any rights in the works of the author.” Even though it should say “which are in the public domain,” it still gives you this warm, fuzzy feeling of confidence, which is matched only a second later when the next card reminds you that you’re watching a Hallmark Presentation. Ah, Sherlock, what are you in for this time?

Let’s be clear here – we are past the time when “made for TV” or “direct to DVD” was automatic code for “cheap and poorly-made”. Some television networks have made excellent motion pictures, some really good films are made specifically for retail-only release, and the evolution of digital media will probably lead to even more quality entertainment produced in such a fashion. This film, however, was made in 2002, when “made for TV” still had a cheap feeling to it. The sets and costuming are all perfectly good, but there’s a weak musical score that sounds like it was whipped up on a synthesizer bought from Best Buy and the cinematography has that sort of… well, for lack of a better term, “TV” feel to it. You probably know what I mean – it’s an undefinable quality that allows you, at a glance, to tell if the film you’re watching was shot on a budget or not. None of that is what really makes this film weak, though. The biggest problem is the pace. The story feels like it wants to be a TV show rather than a movie… it’s slow, it unreels at a tempo that’s a bit frustrating. The writer seems to be under the impression that it’s okay to leave things dangling because he can always pick them up next week, then has to rush in the last five minutes when he realizes that isn’t possible. Even though this was the fourth (and final) Hallmark Holmes movie starring Frewer, you’d want a film of this nature to feel like it can stand on its own, which it never really does. The movie is only 88 minutes long, but may be the longest 88-minute movie I’ve ever seen.

Generally speaking, I like Matt Frewer as an actor. He may be best known as a Max Headroom (if you’re a child of the 80s – if you were born later you likely don’t know him at all), but he’s done good turns in things like The Stand and, more recently, a moving performance as a cancer patient in 50/50. However, he’s really ill-suited to Holmes. Frewer is surrounded by a cast of British actors, or at least actors who can do a passable British accent, which makes his overdone, over-enunciated and over-wrought dialect stand out almost painfully. It’s like when Madonna tried to pretend she was British for a while – she thought it made her sound sophisticated, while instead we looked at her with a mixture of bemusement and pity. Frewer does a lot of things well – he’s strange, quirky, and slightly pompous in a way that fits the character of Holmes. But it’s really, really hard to get over the goofy attempt at an accent.

Kenneth Walsh does a better job as Watson. Although significantly older than Holmes, with that he has an air of competence and dignity that befits the character. What he lacks, however, is a sense of fun. Nigel Bruce may have been a little goofy, but he at least seemed to enjoy the role. Colin Blakely was excellent. Walsh is merely competent, and that’s pretty much the closest thing to an insult you can say without actually saying something negative about an actor.

I actually like the attempt to do something new with Holmes here. Although Doyle wrote some 56 short stories and four novels starring Holmes, it seems there are just a few in usual rotation for adaptations (The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of Four, and a sort of an amalgamation of the relatively few Moriarity stories). In truth, not all of them would work that well in film, and considering how many other writers have played with Holmes since Doyle’s passing, telling an all-new tale with the detective doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I even like the idea of having him try to investigate a supernatural mystery. The movie doesn’t go so far as to confirm the existence of vampires in this universe, and there is nothing out-of-context or anachronistic about having people afraid of such a creature. It’s a way to have a little fun with a familiar character, placing him in a different arena than he’s used to.

The end of the movie goes for the classic “parlor room scene,” where Holmes explains just how he deduced the killer’s identity. It feels a bit clunky, though, a bit perfunctory. What’s more, it’s sort of irrelevant at that point. Even though Holmes knew it was Abel behind the mask of the killer at that point, it doesn’t really matter. It could have literally been anybody in the chapel that took the bait and then got caught when the tremor knocked over the statue… it’s a “whodunit” where the “who” is largely an afterthought, and that’s a weak story in any case.

The other three Hallmark Holmes movies were all actually based on Doyle’s stories, including adaptations of Baskervilles and The Sign of Four, and it’s possible that those are structured better than this stab at doing something different. And since the DVD set I’ve got has all but one of those films on it, maybe I’ll even give the others a go some time. But not now, not until the memory of better Holmes fades and the urge to give Matt Frewer another chance rises again. As for now, I think I need to turn to a Holmes that does the story different, but does it better nevertheless.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 3: Robert Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Private Life of Sherlock HolmesDirector: Billy Wilder

Writer: I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder, based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Tamara Toumanova, Clive Revill, Irene Handl, Mollie Maureen, Stanley Holloway

Plot: Many years after the death of Dr. John Watson (Colin Blakely), a lockbox is opened containing previously unrevealed tales of his adventures with the great Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) – tales too sensitive, or perhaps too personal, to share with the general public as he published their adventures during Holmes’s life. This film presents us with two such tales.

In the first, Holmes berates Watson for the romantic nature of his published tales – making him out to seem taller, more quirky and more capable than he really is (the last charge Watson vehemently disagrees with). What’s more, he’s growing bored – the criminal class has become too unimaginative for his tastes.  Holmes is turning more and more to a cocaine solution to distract himself. Concerned, Watson convinces Holmes to accompany him to a performance of Swan Lake. Holmes is invited backstage to meet the show’s star, Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who has a proposal – she wishes to conceive a child with him, hoping to combine her physical perfection with Holmes’s flawless mind. Unwilling to participate, Holmes tries to find a delicate way out of the situation, claiming to be a hemophiliac, claiming that English men are terrible lovers… Petrova is not swayed until Holmes implies that he and Watson are more “involved” than the Doctor’s published stories reveal.  Although Holmes slips from the ballerina’s grasp, Watson is enraged when he discovers the rumor. Holmes convinces Watson his reputation as a ladies’ man will protect him, but Watson is stunned when he realizes Holmes has no such protection – he has virtually no track record with women at all.

As Watson ponders his friend, a cabbie arrives with a Belgian woman named Gabrielle (Genevieve Page). Watson puts her to bed, diagnosing her with temporary amnesia, and is determined to help her. Holmes agrees, but only to get rid of her as soon as possible. The woman awakes, mistaking Holmes for her missing husband, Emil. He plays along, hoping to uncover clues. In the morning, she has regained her senses and begs the detective for help finding her husband. The investigation leads them to a message from Holmes’s brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), who asks them to abandon their search for Gabrielle, in the name of national security. Instead, Holmes takes her to Scotland, where he believes the solution to the mystery lies.

Holmes follows the clues to a cemetery, an anonymous man found in the river is being buried. They search the coffin to find Gabrielle’s husband, Emil, while Watson makes a very different discovery – the Loch Ness Monster. On the lake they see the creature and set out to find it, instead encountering Mycroft in an experimental submarine, its periscope disguised with a monster head. Mycroft reveals that the real Gabrielle Valladon is dead and the woman they travel with is a German spy, sent to use Holmes’s keen mind to help hunt down the missing Emil and steal the submersible from the British government. Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) arrives to inspect the submersible. Initially impressed, when she realizes it is intended as a warship, she declares it “unsportsmanlike” and orders it destroyed.

Holmes returns to Gabrielle – really Ilsa Von Hoffmanstal, and uses her to send a signal to her German friends to lure them into a trap. Mycroft will obey the Queen’s command to destroy the ship, but takes the German spies with it. Holmes, meanwhile, arranges for Ilsa to be sent back to Germany, traded for a captured British spy, instead of being sent to jail.

Some time later, Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft with painful news – Ilsa was captured spying in Japan and executed. Holmes is struck silent for a moment before asking Watson for his cocaine for the first time in months. The great detective locks himself away, while Watson picks up his pen and begins to write.

Thoughts: This film has a rather odd pedigree. Originally conceived and shot as a 165-minute “road show” picture intended to tour the country and play special engagements, United Artists suffered a series of flops that led to them forcing Billy Wilder to cut it down to 125 minutes for a standard theatrical run. Fortunately, the series of short stories in the film made it easy to cut, but there are two whole episodes and a framing sequence that were excised completely. Some chunks have been restored on the film’s DVD release, but to date a complete original print has never been discovered.

I fear my synopsis doesn’t quite get across the tone of this movie. Although it deals with some serious ideas, such as Holmes’s cocaine addiction, the script itself is actually quite funny. An early scene during the ballet, for example, contains a perfectly-written and timed scene in which Watson relates the number of men who have committed suicide out of love for the prima ballerina. (I swear, that’s funnier than it sounds.) Watson’s delight at being left alone with a set of Russian-speaking ballerinas is also really amusing. Unlike the first two films in this project, this is a Watson I can get behind. He’s lighthearted, he’s unrelentingly male in his behavior, but he never comes across as goofy or incompetent, and that makes him my favorite Watson to date.

Robert Stephens’s Holmes isn’t quite as iconic as Basil Rathbone (who gets a bit of a nod in this film, as Stephens laments the fact that he has to wear a seersucker hat and matching coat because the public now expects it thanks to the illustrations published with Watson’s stories). His performance, nevertheless, is exemplary. He comes across as very clever, but a trifle less eccentric than Rathbone or Lee, which well befits the conceit that Watson has always exaggerated Holmes in his writing.

I’m not sure what the missing segments of this film are about, but the ones we get here fit together nicely, with an undercurrent of doubt regarding Holmes’s sexuality being the connecting thread. There could be no doubt that Billy Wilder, creator of classics like Some Like it Hot, would be perfect for this material. Although in the canon Holmes fiction the detective never has any real romantic connections, it always seems clear that this stems from a distrust of women. This movie brings that up at the beginning, but allows it to dangle as a sort of question mark. Is that the real reason Holmes has remained alone for so long? Gabrielle complicates things in a very pleasant way, giving us hints that Holmes’s interest in her case (despite the fact that he believes her to be a married woman) is more than simply professional without ever knocking us over the head with his attraction to the point where there can be no doubt.

By the end, the ambiguity is somewhat sponged away. It seems clear that Holmes allows his affection for the woman he called Gabrielle to arrange the freedom of a dangerous enemy spy. It’s a small but very humanizing gesture on Holmes’s part. The look on Stephens’s face as she rides away, signaling “auf Wiedersehen” with her umbrella, truly sells the storyline – there’s a bit of satisfaction mingled in with just a hint of regret.  When he reads Mycroft’s letter, the face shifts again to severe – but contained – agony.

For a while on Loch Ness the film seems like it’s going to veer a bit too far into silly territory, particularly with Watson’s determination to hunt down the Loch Ness Monster and the cheesy way the legendary beast manifests itself. When we discover the truth, though, those qualms are sponged away – the idea of Mycroft using the legend of the creature as a distraction is really quite brilliant and builds the character well. In fact, Christopher Lee acquits himself very well as Holmes in this movie, far better than he comes off as the detective himself in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace.

Without a doubt, this is my favorite of the Holmes movies I’ve taken in this week so far. It will be interesting to see how future adventures with the detective really measure up.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 2: Christopher Lee in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)

Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace 1962Director: Terence Fisher

Writer: Curt Siodmak, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Christopher Lee, Hans Söhnker, Hans Nielsen, Senta Berger, Ivan Desny, Wolfgang Lukschy, Leon Askin, Edith Schultze-Westrum, Thorley Walters

Plot: A new case has come to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Christopher Lee and Thorley Walters, respectively): the return of arch-nemesis Professor Moriarity (Hans Söhnker). The battle begins when a man turns up murdered on Holmes’s doorstep, causing a clash with Scotland Yard’s Inspector Cooper (Hans Nielsen), who is unconvinced that Moriarity is in fact the criminal genius Holmes claims him to be. If that wasn’t bad enough, Moriarity is scheduled to be knighted. Holmes deduces the dying man was directing them to a local pub, where they overhear Moriarity plotting with a henchman. Watson accidentally alerts Moriarity to their presence, and the two leave quickly. Holmes has heard enough though – Moriarity has as good as confessed to a pair of murders related to his current scheme, but Holmes still doesn’t know what the Professor is plotting.

Going through the newspaper, Holmes believes Moriarity’s next target will involve a necklace of Cleopatra owned by one Peter Blackburn (Wolfgang Lukschy). They arrive at Blackburn’s home to find him murdered, his face destroyed by a shotgun blast and his wedding ring now missing. As they investigate, trying to avoid Inspector Cooper, Holmes finds a patch of freshly turned earth. Cooper suspects Blackburn’s wife Ellen (Senta Berger) and her lover, Paul King (Ivan Desny), a theory he grows more certain of when he finds clothes buried in the fresh Earth. Ellen confesses that, earlier, Peter himself killed a prowler, then switched his clothes with the intruder to fake his own death. She leads him to the real Blackburn, hiding in the cellar, but instead find the man’s corpse, having scratched “M-O-R” into a crate before he died.

Holmes disguises himself to sneak into Moriarity’s home, finding the necklace amongst a series of deadly traps. Moriarity turns up to visit Cooper just moments after Holmes presents the necklace as evidence. Moriarity, of course, has an alibi, claiming the necklace was stolen years ago and he’s pleased to see it being returned to its rightful owner. Despite this, Holmes is convinced the Professor will make another attempt on the necklace. Moriarity, however, approaches Holmes alone and tries to offer him a partnership, which Holmes turns down flat. Moriarity instead plans to take action as the necklace is auctioned off – he is summoned as an “archeological expert” to verify the authenticity of the necklace. As he leaves, Holmes informs Moriarity that several of the thieves involved in the cast have been captured… and he expects the professor will join them soon.

Thoughts: Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace was a German film, but filmed in English. Why the filmmakers felt the need to come in and re-dub the English speaking actors with a separate English audio track is beyond me, but the sort of Godzilla quality it gives to the voices is only the first problem with this bizarre attempt at adapting one of Doyle’s later stories. The writing feels very off here. An early scene in which Holmes and Watson discuss the relative merits of the London Times newspaper feels half like an advertisement for the paper and half like a practice for the sort of bizarre logical leaps that would be a trademark of the Adam West Batman television series a few years later. Holmes, in fact, talks so much about how trustworthy the Times is that I wound up checking on Wikipedia to see if they helped subsidize the production of the film. (As far as I can tell, they didn’t.)

Christopher Lee is our star, which makes it even more perplexing why they would bother to re-dub the voices in this film. Lee’s voice is absolutely phenomenal, and he seems to be putting in a valiant effort as Holmes. The occasions where he disguises himself are great – even as we watch him putting on a fake mustache and makeup, it would be very easy to forget we’re looking at Holmes in disguise. If anything, the real tragedy of this film is that Lee could make a fine Holmes (he would play the great Detective two more times, both in the 90s, in films I haven’t seen but now dearly wish to), if only he were given something good to play with. As it is, even the scene where he’s searching Moriarity’s home, rummaging around a mummy and nearly being bitten by a (presumably) deadly snake is head-shakingly boring. And honestly, there are few worse things for a movie to be… even a bad film can be memorable and fun in certain ways, but if a movie is boring there’s really nothing that can be done for it.

While Lee seems to be trying to play Holmes straight (at least as far as I can tell with the poor voice dubbing), Thorley Walters’s Watson is a different story. The scene where he hangs around in the pub while Holmes investigates is positively disturbing. We see him approached by a barmaid (the film never outright says she’s a prostitute, but it may as well give her a sign) who starts feeding him a sob story about her sick mother. Watson, of course, being a doctor, starts to offer to perform an operation on the woman free of charge. At this point, it’s like watching one of your buddies talking to a girl who you can tell is only interested in him because he’s got an expensive-looking car and she clearly is hoping she’ll shower him with gifts – you’re stuck burying your head in your face and gritting your teeth because you know warning your buddy won’t do any good. What’s worse, this goes nowhere. It never comes back up, we never see the woman again, we just get a couple of minutes of Watson as an addlepated horndog presumably because the director couldn’t think of any other way to pass the time for the 100 seconds Christopher Lee was off-camera looking for a way to eavesdrop on Moriarity.

Hans Söhnker as Moriarity seems to be in a similar predicament as Lee. His performance seems perfectly adequate, and he’s certainly got the right look for an aging mastermind of evil. (If Mr. Söhnker or anyone from his estate happens to be reading this, I mean it as a compliment.) He is betrayed not by the actor, but by a script that has him posture and preen but never actually do much that seems particularly menacing. The end is particularly disappointing. After Holmes turns down Moriarity’s offer of partnership, it’s easy to get excited. “All right, the die has been cast, the gauntlet has been thrown, time for a face off!” But no, instead we get a civil conversation at the auction during which the two adversaries might as well be winking at each other, each saying, “Ah, I’ll get you next time, you old rascal, you.”

Hans Nielsen as Inspector Cooper, again like Lee’s Holmes, isn’t given much to work with here. While there’s nothing technically wrong with the performance, the character itself seems completely absurd in the context of this world. The story is (extremely) loosely based on the final full-length Holmes novel by Doyle, The Valley of Fear, and as such it is main very clear this is not Holmes’s first time working with Scotland Yard. The relationship seems to be solid and based on a lot of backstory and mutual respect. That said, it is patently ridiculous to imagine a police inspector who doesn’t listen to Sherlock Freaking Holmes when he shows up and points out an arch-criminal. Cooper’s skepticism seems completely irrational, like Scully constantly refusing to believe in the supernatural despite nine seasons of X-Files cases that prove it exists.

Adding to the bizarre choices that make up this movie is a weird jazz score. No doubt we’re listening to the very sort of music that was popular in 1962, but it feels grossly out of place in this period mystery. Instead of creating atmosphere, it wrenches you out of the film and you start looking around for a saxophone quartet. Admittedly, this may just be a pet peeve of mine – I never really like movies where they use anachronistic music in the soundtrack. To be frank, the only director I’ve ever seen pull off contemporary music in a period piece is Quentin Tarantino, and that’s mainly because his films go so far into the realm of the absurd that it doesn’t really seem that out of place after all.

I wish there were more to recommend this movie, but there simply isn’t. It’s a weak, weak attempt at telling a Holmes story. The story is weak, the villain is weak, the mystery is practically nonexistent. (Instead of being the deductive genius we know he is it basically boils down to “I know Moriarity is behind this because he’s Moriarity and currently alive, so who else could it be?”) The best thing about any of this is that there’s so much Holmes out there it will be easy to find something better and cleanse my mental palette.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 1: Basil Rathbone in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Hound of the Baskervilles 1939Director: Sidney Lanfield

Writer: Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Basil Rathbone, Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Barlowe Borland, Beryl Mercer, Morton Lowry, Ralph Forbes, Mary Gordon

Plot: Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) concludes the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville was caused by heart failure. Many people in town are outraged by the diagnosis – they believe he was murdered. His young heir Henry (Richard Greene) is summoned to take his place as head of Baskerville Hall. The news reaches the ears of the great detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his comrade, Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce). Mortimer calls on Holmes and tells him of a legend of a terrible hound that has slaughtered members of the Baskerville family for over 200 years as punishment for the bad behavior of their patriarch, Hugo (Ralph Forbes).

Henry arrives in England, but is threatened within minutes by a note tied to a rock and thrown through his carriage window. Mortimer and Henry go to Holmes for help, and the detective saves them when a man in a hansom cab points a gun at them. They later question the cabby, only to find his passenger used Holmes’s name.

Holmes sends Watson to accompany Henry back to Baskerville Hall, and that night the two of them chase a prowler across the grounds. They begin to suspect the butler, Barryman (John Carradine) of using the hound legend to hide the murder. Watson meets Henry’s neighbor, John Stapleton (Morton Lowry), who warns him about the deadly bogs, which killed a pony just days ago. Henry is saved from falling into the same bog by John’s stepsister, Beryl (Wendy Barrie), and the two grow infatuated with one another. The group has dinner with another neighbor, Frankland (Barlowe Borland), who has a predilection towards bringing lawsuits against his neighbors – and who is planning a body snatching suit against Stapleton for excavating a skeleton that had been there for hundreds of years. Mortimer proposes a séance to contact the late Sir Charles and ask him the truth about his death, but the séance is interrupted by the incessant howling of the “hounds” outside.

The next day, Henry asks Beryl to marry him. The happy moment is broken when first Watson arrives, then a strange old peddler who tries to sell them harmonicas and whistles. Watson is later sent a message, which he traces to the peddler hiding in a cave in the bogs. The peddler turns out to be Holmes in disguise – he wanted to watch the proceedings anonymously. As they walk back to the castle, they see an enormous hound chase a man off a cliff. The dead man turns out to be an escaped murderer wearing Henry’s clothes. Holmes deduces the man was killed because the hound caught Henry’s sent – Henry was the true target. Homes discloses the truth – the convict was Barryman’s brother-in-law, whom his wife had given shelter, food, and Henry’s old clothing. Satisfied that the murderer is gone, Henry is glad to move on with his plans for a wedding celebration.

As Holmes and Watson take a train back to London, Holmes tells Watson he thinks the real killer is still at large, and they will loop back and catch him in the act of attempting to murder Henry. That night, Henry chooses to walk home from the Stapletons’ alone, across the bog, an act that is only forgivable in that it is 1889 and he’s probably never seen a scary movie. As he leaves, Stapleton fetches a shoe stolen from Henry earlier and gives its scent to a hound he’s keeping in the bog. Holmes and Watson chase after the hound’s howls as it attacks Henry. They kill the dog and Watson takes the injured Henry back to the house, while Holmes searches the bog. Stapleton traps Holmes, then returns to the house and tells Watson Holmes is waiting for him. Alone with Henry, he tries to poison him, but Holmes arrives and stops it. He reveals Stapleton is a distant cousin and, if Henry dies, will be heir to Baskerville Hall. Although Henry escapes into the bog, Holmes says he’s placed constables along the roads. Confidant he will be apprehended, Holmes declares the case closed.

Thoughts: Sherlock Holmes has been played by dozens, maybe hundreds of actors over the years. He’s one of the most iconic characters ever created, one of the greatest icons of British literature… hell, his name has become a synonym for a genius. And even in 1939, when this film was released, Basil Rathbone was hardly the first person to play the detective. Yet somehow it’s his performance, in this film and the 13 others he would make, that would cling to the public conscious and shape the perception of Holmes for decades.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was not the first Holmes story written by Doyle, and Ernest Pascal and Sidney Lanfield don’t waste any time pretending it is. From the moment we see Barrymore and Bruce it’s as if we’re looking in on characters we’ve watched dozens of times. There’s a cursory attempt at establishing the characters in the form of Holmes challenging Watson to deduce information about Dr. Mortimer based only on his walking-stick. (Bruce’s Watson bumbles through his deduction – more about that later.) In many films, this would be somewhat annoying, it would feel like an unfair assumption on the part of the filmmakers… but somehow, this movie pulls it off. Trying to establish Sherlock Holmes, especially this Sherlock Holmes, feels utterly unnecessary. Everybody already knows who he is and what he’s like, so giving that establishment a perfunctory moment before moving on with the story feels justifiable. However, that does raise a question: as this is the film that created that iconic vision of Holmes, would it have been acceptable in 1939, before that version was created? Evidently, the audiences of 1939 didn’t seem to mind, as this Holmes was utterly embraced, but looking back on it from my perspective I’m forced to ask if I would have been satisfied with the way Holmes and Watson were introduced if they weren’t already such well-known characters.

At any rate, there’s no denying the iconic nature of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. Although many of the traits he displays were described in the original stories, it’s his iconic image we cling to: the robe-wearing, violin-playing, pipe-smoking figure that paces back and forth in his study while pondering a case. When someone thinks of an iconic Holmes, the image invariably is Basil Rathbone wearing the seersucker hat – which Doyle never included in the original stories. There’s a power to Rathbone’s performance. From the first moments he commands the screen and draws you in, and his masquerade as the peddler is really perfect. The way he dances through his deductions remains the standard for how it is done, and even modern interpretations like the Robert Downey Jr. movies or Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance on television are a reaction to the way Rathbone carried it off. You can’t try to subvert expectations that don’t already exist, after all.

As enamored as I am of Rathbone’s Holmes, I’m less happy with Nigel Bruce’s Watson. Bruce gives a perfectly good performance, mind you, and the role brings some much-needed lightness to the rather serious story, but his Watson is a bit of a goof. Early on, when Holmes establishes his deductive skills by analyzing Mortimer’s cane, he first has Watson take a go at it. Watson, of course, should never be portrayed as being as capable as Holmes (the entire point of the character is for the audience to have a viewpoint that’s closer to their level than Holmes’s nearly-superhuman intellect could provide), but at the same time, he shouldn’t come across as incompetent either. There are times in this movie (and in the later films Rathbone and Bruce made together) where Bruce’s Watson treads dangerously close to or even crosses that line. Comic relief is one thing, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of such a fine character. To be fair, though, Watson does have an immediate distrust of Stapleton, so there’s at least a hint of intuition there.

This was the first time I’ve actually seen this movie, and I’m amazed at how neatly it establishes the whodunit formula that we’ve seen thousands of times since then. We start with an initial crime, then a series of other events that are building to a big one. We meet the characters and encounter several red herrings along the way: Frankland, Barryman, and even Mortimer for a brief moment when Holmes notices a dog’s tooth-marks on his cane. The one thing that goes against formula, and delightfully so, is the end. I’m so used to the Scooby Doo ending, where the criminal is captured and unmasked in full view of everybody, that it’s legitimately surprising when we see Stapleton preparing to kill Henry before that last murder is committed. These days, no doubt, his face would be kept in shadows until the last moment, probably the one where he tries to poison Henry. It’s actually rather refreshing.

The mood and atmosphere of this film is perfect – gloomy, foggy. The dog works well too. I’m not sure exactly how they pulled off the attacks… the first one looks like stop-motion, but the later (even from a distance) looks like Henry is wrestling a real dog. Whatever the case, the visuals are impressive enough and enjoyable even 75 years later.

This is a fun film that’s got me anxious to watch more of Basil Rathbone’s Holmes, but not quite yet. After all, this is an Icons week, and that means tomorrow it’ll be somebody else’s turn.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

The Christmas Special Day 23: A Scooby-Doo! Christmas (2004)

scooby-doo-christmasDirector: Scott Jeralds

Writer: Jonathan Collier & James Krieg

Cast: Mindy Cohn, Grey DeLisle, Casey Kasem, Kathy Kinney, Frank Welker

Plot: A group of kids find an enormous snowman in the woods. When they try to take its nose, it comes to life, removes its head, and hurls it at them, making them run away in a panic. Nearby, the gang in the Mystery Machine is on their way to Mill’s Corner to spend Christmas at a condo owned by Daphne’s (Grey DeLisle) uncle. The bridge to the condo is out, forcing them to detour through the town of Winterhollow, where they meet the kids fleeing from the Headless Snowman, who also startles Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker). When they walk into the local diner, a man called Old Jeb is raving about the Headless Snowman who has been terrorizing the town for years. Sheriff Perkins (Kathy Kinney) calms him down and tells the gang there’s no way to get to Mill’s Corner that night with the bridge out. The gang checks into an inn, which is full to bursting with people who have had their homes damaged by the Snowman. The innkeeper, Asa, tells them the town doesn’t celebrate Christmas anymore due to the snowman… some of the children have never even seen a Christmas tree.

Everyone is summoned outside when a loud noise signals an attack by the snowman. There they find a boy named Tommy telling the Sheriff the snowman startled him and smashed his chimney, ripping open a wall in his house. Fred (Welker again) tries to comfort the boy, promising they’ll try to save Christmas. As the gang searches, the Snowman chases them all into a tiny shed, when they send plunging down the side of the mountain and hurtling through the air before smashing to safety. Asa calls a professor from Mill’s Corner to help, and Velma (Mindy Cohn) takes note that Asa’s business seems to benefit greatly from the snowman. Professor Higginson tells them the story an old prospector called Blackjack Brody who froze to death hiding gold bricks he stole from a local man, and that his ghost is sending the snowman to destroy the older homes in Winterhollow searching for his gold. Velma brings the gang to Jeb’s house, expecting the ghost to come there next. They hide when the Snowman appears and starts tearing apart the walls. A sneeze alerts him to our heroes and chase resumes via the classic horror movie technique of the musical montage. Eventually, Scooby and Shaggy lure it away and Sheriff Perkins arrives, claiming to have followed a set of mysterious footprints. Fred, Daphne and Velma go off to set a trap for the monster, but it attacks Scooby and Shaggy instead. They lead it into a series of heat lamps the others set up, melting the snow and revealing a robotic core being piloted by Professor Higginson. Velma reveals that Higginson is a descendant of the man Blackjack Brody stole his gold from in the first place, and he’s been searching for the gold he believes is rightfully his. Remembering how heavy the bricks in the smashed chimneys were, Velma finds the truth – Brody painted the gold and it was used to build the houses in the town. Tommy gives the shivering Higginson his scarf to warm him up, and he realizes the error of his ways. As the gold is rightfully his, he donates it to the town to help them rebuild. The gang sets up a Christmas tree – Winterhollow’s first in years – and everyone gathers around to watch it glow.

Thoughts: This is pretty atypical for a Christmas special, but a perfectly normal episode of Scooby-Doo. The formula is time-honored and well-worn for these characters. Like virtually every episode of the assorted cartoons, a “monster” shows up terrorizing people for reasons that are dubious, but usually somehow financially motivated. The gang investigates three or four suspects, all but one of which are red herrings. They catch the monster, Velma unmasks him and explains how she knew it was really him. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’m told some of the more recent Scooby-Doo cartoons actually try to mix it up by having real monsters, but I haven’t seen any of those… in fact, with a 2004 air date, this is the most recent visit with the original Scooby Gang I’ve ever seen. I do, however, have to give the makers of this cartoon credit for managing to tell a story with a Christmas feel without restoring to many (if any) of the typical Christmas tropes. Don’t misunderstand – I love those tropes, those tropes are great. But I’ve been watching these specials for weeks now, and one can’t help but appreciate the change of pace.

The atypical part comes in at the very end, when Higginson repents instead of being carted off shouting that he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those rotten kids. It’s a Christmas special, so I can accept the villain who repents at the end – that’s what Christmas is all about, after all. But the way the people of the town are so willing to forgive is nothing short of supernatural. This is the man who has terrorized their town, destroyed their homes, and stolen Christmas itself from an entire generation of children, and they’re ready to forgive him even before he offers to use the gold to help them fix their houses. Ladies and gentlemen, either Winterhollow is the most forgiving town on this or any other planet, or the good Professor had some sort of mind-control apparatus that the gang somehow missed while they were hopped up on Scooby Snacks.

Come to think of it, it’s not like he even really needs the gold. The man has the money to either purchase or develop and build a robotic upside-down top that has the ability to animate and control snow, which it somehow endows with superhuman strength sufficient to rip apart a brick… freaking… wall. If you can do that, what do you need hundred-year-old gold for? Market it! The possibilities for a Vegas stage show alone are staggering!

It’s not the strongest mystery, but then again, Scooby-Doo ain’t exactly Sherlock Holmes. I pegged the professor as our culprit even before he arrived for one simple reason: he told Asa he was coming into town from Mill’s Crossing – the same town the gang was unable to reach because the bridge was out. When he walked through the door I nodded to myself and said, “Yep, he was there all the time.” Startlingly, though, when Velma is doing her Reveal Sequence, this nugget of information is never mentioned. Deleted scene? Serendipitous screw-up? Who knows? I’m just going to take it as further evidence that I’m smarter than most cartoon characters, with the obvious exceptions of Simon from the Chipmunks, Brainy Smurf, and Snarf.

This is a relatively recent cartoon, particularly when you look at the rich history Scooby and the gang enjoy, but they still manage to work in most of the classic bits. My favorite scene is, indeed, the musical montage, when the gang tries to outwit the monster. They even usually succeed, at least for a few seconds. Scooby and Shaggy douse him in syrup and almost have one monster sno-cone, the others start singing Christmas carols and he temporarily forgets he’s a demonic hellbeast and offers them hot chocolate… This may not be a laugh-a-minute show like some of the other Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but when it’s on, it truly has some of the funniest tropes in the cartoon kingdom.

Like I said back when we discussed A Flintstones Christmas, it’s a shame I couldn’t work in more Hanna-Barbera into this countdown. There are dozens of cartoons spread out amongst their various franchises that just fill you with the Christmas spirit. Unfortunately, almost all of them fall into one of the three categories that I disqualified from this project: they were run as part of the regular series, they’re too long and therefore count as a TV movie rather than a TV special, or they’re a take on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – such as one of my favorite Yuletide adventures with the Scooby gang, “A Nutcracker Scoob.” But fear not, friends. Reel to Reel is a long-term project. There’s always next year.