In the Shadow of Rathbone: Charlton Heston in The Crucifer of Blood

holmes-basil-rathboneCasting Charlton Heston as Sherlock Holmes might seem like a great way to make a terrible film. As it turns out, it’s fun to watch this Hollywood legend, not especially known for his versatile acting, take on the role. What left me with an unpleasant feeling after watching The Crucifer of Blood was the dissonance between the story and its canonical source — and the dissonance between the ages of story’s romantic leads.

Other than that, this film provides viewers with a chance to see a good Holmes stage play — at home.

Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Of course, a reviewer must first address the obvious question: Heston as Holmes? Yes, it’s odd — but it’s not a hansom cab wreck. I never forgot I was watching Charlton Heston, and I did feel an irrepressible urge to shout lines such as “Get your sticking paws off my dashed, dirty cape!” or “The murderer is PEOPLE! PEEEEOPLLLLE!” Nonetheless, Heston does a fairly descent job at trying to play Holmes. There’s little he can do about his familiar, resonant voice, and he’s clearly no master of accents. But he does manage to occasionally utter an English vowel sound instead of an American one and to soften an “r” here and there.

Heston as HolmesIn fact, at one point, Heston’s performance is impressively not Hestonian (and I very much hope his voice wasn’t dubbed for this). When watching Holmes movies, many fans keep an eye out for the scene that comes about halfway through and that introduces a character with a curiously large head, pronounced facial hair, or a glaring hunch-and-hobble. That character often turns out to be Holmes in disguise. As such, I’m really not spoiling things too much to reveal that that happens here. Even if the ruse is caught right away, though, one can admire how Heston might have made it work onstage — with the advantage of considerable distance between actors and audience.

And, indeed, The Crucifer of Blood was a stage play, written by Paul Giovanni, before it was this film. The stagey feel remains in the long scenes played in confined sets, recorded with routine camerawork. Watching Heston is a bit like watching a community theater production of that play: regardless of how well he does, it’s tough to forget that the man playing Holmes is really, say, your dentist.

Watching Watson

Richard Johnson as WatsonRichard Johnson does a fine job of playing Dr. Watson, though the character has a few wisps of the Nigel Bruce bumbler. The old soldier forgets he’s carrying around a pistol in his hand, for instance, and becomes boyishly giddy when Holmes compliments his actions. That’s kind of disappointing, but this Watson grows downright disturbing in another respect. Johnson and Heston were both well into their 60s in 1991, when this movie was made, and no amount of hair dye can change that. When Watson gets mushy with their client — played by Susannah Harker in her mid-20s — well, yes, their kissing scene is unsettling. It also implies volumes about Watson’s character (or lack thereof).

That’s a casting issue. In terms of the script, early on, Holmes admits he didn’t know Watson had an alcoholic brother. By the conclusion, though, we’re supposed to believe that the great detective would be lost without his dear companion. So how well do these men really know each other? It might have been an interesting dynamic to explore, but director/screenwriter Fraser C. Heston shoves it aside.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

Wait a second. Fraser C. Heston? Yes, the director and screenwriter of The Crucifer of Blood is Charlton Heston’s son. He wrote the film script, and Giovanni wrote the play on which it’s based . . . but who wrote the novel that started it all?

According to the opening and closing credits — no one! Arthur Conan Doyle is never mentioned, not even as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. This is particularly disrespectful considering the story itself is a blatant reworking of Doyle’s The Sign of the Four, right down to the naming of Jonathan Small and Tonga. Granted, other key names were changed. Major John Shoto becomes Alistair Ross, Captain Arthur Morstan becomes Neville St. Claire, and importantly, Mary Morstan becomes Irene St. Claire. Yes. Irene. Get it? Given the wink at that other famous Irene in the Holmes ‘verse, maybe this one isn’t quite the damsel in distress she appears to be, hmm? Certainly, she’s not the woman in the novel who becomes Watson’s wife — if only due to the age difference.

Renaming characters -- and a boat -- with names from other Holmes stories becomes The Crucifer of Blood's source of play. Or, perhaps, confusion.

Renaming characters — and a boat — with names from other Holmes stories becomes a source of play — and some confusion — in The Crucifer of Blood.

For viewers who know Doyle’s works, then, the mystery becomes less about who’s willing to commit murder to gain the jewels and more about why names have been borrowed from other canonical tales. Is this is a way to let fans of the original novel know that the solution is has been changed, too?

Even if it is, I suspect that viewers who don’t know The Sign of the Four can better enjoy the film. After all, the mystery all by itself is a pretty good one (though not quite as grand and horrific as what’s promised in Watson’s introduction). Still, I think the film falls short for any viewer in trying to interweave this commendable mystery with a unbelievable threat to the partnership of Holmes and Watson. Again, the casting undercuts the love triangle here. We really don’t see Irene Ad — er, uhm — St. Claire as the woman worthy of breaking up Watson’s more gentlemanly marriage.

As I suggest above, perhaps the best way to watch The Crucifer of Blood is as a production of the play, specifically, a community theater production of it. Sometimes, the familiarity of the actor supersedes the performance. Sometimes, the casting depends more on who the director can get than on who’s right for the part. Watching with these factors in mind might help one enjoy the show.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

Another Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mystery FOR FREE!

Over at my Vera Van Slyke site, I posted another free ghostly mystery featuring my favorite ghost hunter. You can find a link to .pdf, .epub, and .mobi (Kindle) copies of it here.

Harry Escott, Vera Van Slyke's mentor in ghost hunting

Harry Escott, Vera Van Slyke’s mentor in ghost hunting

Occasionally, I’m contacted regarding Vera, thanks to this and the newer site. Not long ago, a very kind (but very private) person sent me a photograph of Harry Escott. Escott was Vera’s mentor in the field of Occultism, and you’ll find two of his earliest adventures under 1855 on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.

Vera once explained to my great-grandaunt that Escott became sorry for having shared those cases with writer Fitz-James O’Brien. Going public about believing in ghosts — and, well, smoking opium — only damaged Escott’s reputation. This, it seems, explains why the professional journalist Vera Van Slyke never chronicled her own adventures.

Thank goodness her assistant — my great-grandaunt — did!

My Interview at the Big Séance Podcast!

Patrick Keller has a very interesting blog and podcast that explores just about all facets of the paranormal — even the investigations of a certain quirky woman named Vera Van Slyke. You can hear my talk with him about my favorite ghost-hunter from the early 1900s by clicking here.

While you’re at his website, wander around. You’re likely to become ensnared!  In a good way, I mean.

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In the Shadow of Rathbone: Richard Roxburgh in The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)

holmes-basil-rathboneEvery decade or so, film makers like to take the Hound for another walk around the moor.

This 2002 television movie offers a very moody adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. As with almost any filmed version of the canonical works, some changes are made. Some are clever. Some come off as mistakes.

This walk” has some clever additions — but also at least one very disappointing change to the Sherlock Holmes we’ve come to admire.

Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow

Richard Roxburgh was a curious choice to play the great detective in terms of physicality. The casting certainly steps out of the shadow of Basil Rathbone, since the light-haired Roxburgh isn’t lanky or tall. Somewhere, I read a viewer’s comment lamenting that Richard E. Grant — who plays another prominent character in the film — didn’t play Holmes. There’s something to that, not just in terms of how we’ve been trained to expect Holmes to look — but also in terms of how we expect him to behave. Grant might’ve brought a twitchier, off-beat quality to the performance.

Richard RoxburghIn contrast, Roxburgh’s Holmes is subdued, almost bland. This Holmes doesn’t have any fun at all even once the game’s afoot! No sudden rushes of insight. No dazzlingly accelerated clue-reading.  Yes, a touch of arrogance — but only a touch. This seems to be a Holmes deliberately brought down a few pegs intellectually. In fact, screenwriter Allan Cubitt imported the discussion of Holmes’ strengths and weaknesses from A Study in Scarlet, presumably to make Holmes less superhero and more man.

That said, Roxburgh gives the character a consistency and believability that works well for this diluted solution of Sherlock.

Watching Watson

Ian HartIan Hart similarly brings a believability — and lack of distinctiveness — to Watson. Again, he plays the part as written: a capable and curious bloke, not dim, not bumbling — in fact, not at all the comic relief guy. At times, he’s exasperated by Holmes, but that passes quickly. There’s a surge of outrage toward the end, but I never got a strong sense of Watson in terms of being a doctor or Holmes’ sidekick in crime-fighting. He’s handy with a pistol, but there’s little about his military past — or his having any past at all.

We get a quick insight into Watson’s friendship with Holmes. Their relationship seems shaky, but the ramifications of that are never explored. Holmes can still count on Watson to save him at the last minute. I’m just not sure why Watson bothers to do so.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

This might seem as if I have a pretty negative view of the film, and that’s not so. It is weak in terms of the characterization of our lead duo. However, it has strengths in creating a Gothic mood, in adding depth to the criminal, and in playing with the rational-versus-supernatural theme — all very nice takes on Doyle’s famous novel.

Perhaps, the lack of fun or humor in either Holmes or Watson was intended to maintain the film’s somber, dread-laden atmosphere, and it helps to remember that The Hound of the Baskervilles is as much a work of Gothic horror as it is of criminal mystery. The visuals of the film especially stand out as part of this with credit going to director David Attwood and cinematographer James Welland. Some shots are quite beautiful in a creepy way. As such, the film jives nicely with Doyle’s story.

There’s a change, though, to the fate of Beryl Stapleton (a stock damsel-in-distress well played by Neve McIntosh). However, this adds to the insidiousness of the criminal and sparks a dramatic crescendo. Furthermore, a smart way to reinforce Doyle’s contrast between superstition and skepticism is the séance scene that’s not in the novel.Seane SceneNonetheless, one deviation from Doyle that certainly hurts the film is its depiction of Holmes’ drug habit. In keeping with what I’ve come to call the Compulsive Holmes tradition, this detective is an addict, not the recreational user of the original stories. (Of course, those stories did portray Holmes’ use of dope to alleviate his boredom between cases as very dangerous indeed.) Here, Holmes shoots up even when he’s on a case, and the only purpose I can glean for it is to make viewers wonder if he’s clear-headed enough to protect the client and solve the case.

My best explanation of why this doesn’t work is this: Sherlock Holmes doesn’t need Kryptonite. He’s not Superman; he’s Batman! We’re fascinated by him because, while he is a superhero, he’s also a human being. We know he’ll triumph in the end — we expect that — but he has sufficient human foibles, and we know his triumph will come with struggle enough to make the effort interesting. Especially in a case such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, his powers will be so tasked that we don’t need to see the hand of the screenwriter making things even more difficult for him.

Other than that — and, well, the goofy-looking, computer-generated hound — this film is perfect for rainy-night watching.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.