Friday, December 18, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: The House of Fear (1945)

The House of Fear (or Sherlock Holmes: The House of Fear as it is sometimes known) was the tenth of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies (and the eighth to be made by Universal). It’s based (very loosely indeed) on Conan Doyle’s story The Five Orange Pips. It was made in 1944 and released the following year.

It seems that someone may be murdering the members of the Good Comrades Club. This is a club of well-to-do and moderately distinguished retired bachelors. Two of the seven members received envelopes containing orange pips. The first envelope contained seven pips; the second contained six. Soon afterwards both men were killed, apparently in accidents. Sherlock Holmes is not so sure these gentlemen really met their deaths accidentally. He is particularly interested in the case when he learns that one of the club members is Dr Simon Merrivale, who a few years earlier had been acquitted of murder. Also of interest is that the members of the club are heavily insured, with the beneficiaries being the surviving members. Holmes and Watson set off for the house, on the wild west coast of Scotland,  in which the Good Comrades share their comfortable bachelor existence.

Holmes and Watson may have arrived just in time - another member of the club has received a fatal envelope, this time containing five orange pips. They are however unable to prevent several more murders. It is Dr Watson who will discover the vital clue. He might not understand its full significance but he certainly realises its importance, and almost pays for his discovery with his life.

Roy Chanslor’s screenplay has very little to do with Conan Doyle’s story but it is thoroughly diverting, with secret passageways, a suggestion of a haunted house and a family curse. There’s also a definite affinity to Old Dark House movies and even a slight similarity to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Rathbone and Bruce are both in fine form. Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade shares the comic relief duties with Nigel Bruce but fortunately the comic elements are not overdone. There is plenty of amusement but the focus is on the mystery, and on the gothic possibilities of a large old house in an isolated setting.

The gothic sensibility is very strong indeed in this movie. Gothic atmosphere was something that Universal could be relied on to do supremely well in those days and director Roy William Neill pulls out all the stops. We get plenty of slightly unusual camera setups and a smattering of Dutch angles. Given that the story itself is rather gothic in tone these techniques do not come across as cheap gimmickry - they genuinely do enhance the atmosphere. This really is a very stylish movie by B-movie standards.

As is the case with the rest of the Rathbone/Bruce movies production values are high. The house and the remote location are used skillfully. This might be a B-movie but it’s a classy and very professionally made B-movie.

By this time Universal had (very wisely) decided to abandon the idea of bringing Holmes up-to-date and having him involved in World War 2 espionage plots. The time period in which The House of Fear is set is left deliberately vague. Apart from a brief appearance of a motor car it could be the 1890s, but it could still very well be the 1920s or even late Edwardian times. While the Universal Holmes movies dealing with World War 2 have their virtues the Great Detective really never seemed quite at home in the 1940s. The House of Fear feels more like a real Sherlock Holmes adventure.

The DVD transfer (in Optimum’s Region 2 Sherlock Holmes Definitive Collection boxed set) is extremely good indeed. There are a few extras as well, including fairly informative production notes courtesy of Richard Valley.

The House of Fear is by no means the best of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies but it’s an above-average entry in the cycle and it provides wonderful entertainment. Highly recommended.

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