Ever feel like you’re… hounded… by something from your past? Hehe, yeah, I’m the worst. At any rate, everyone’s afraid of something, even the world’s greatest detective, which is at the very heart of Sherlock Series Two’s second episode, “The Hounds of Baskerville,” a retooling of the Conan Doyle story, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Like the source material, this episode is the most outwardly horror-inspired of any of the master sleuth’s adventures, placing Sherlock and John in mortal danger from a giant, bloodthirsty hound. Or does it? The mystery of the episode is not as twisty or convoluted as “A Scandal in Belgravia” had been, but it works wonderfully as a character piece, as both of our leads deal with fear of the unknown and the unreliable.
Last week I said that writing Irene Adler was completely in Steven Moffat’s wheelhouse and must have been a dream come true for him; the same can be said this week for Mark Gatiss’ take on Sherlock Holmes’ supernatural horror story. Gatiss is a massive fan of horror films, specifically Hammer horror, and this episode really allows him to bring that to fruition. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” deals with a family supposedly cursed by massive, demonic canine and it’s up to Sherlock and Watson to break the curse, i.e. figure out what’s really going on. “Hound” stands as the only Sherlock Holmes adventure produced by Hammer Films, with Peter Cushing as Holmes, Andre Morell as Watson, and Christopher Lee as Henry Baskerville, heir to the family curse. Surely this had a huge impact on Gatiss as the episode has a sufficiently gothic feel as it delves into science as an answer for the seemingly supernatural.
This update changes things a bit. Here, Baskerville is no longer the surname of a cursed family, but a top secret military science base tucked away in the country town of Dartmoor. The young man is now Henry Knight (Being Human’s Russell Tovey). who saw his father torn apart by a red-eyed monster, which he calls a “hound,” when he was a child and whose story about the monster has caused the tourism in the small community to quadruple. Henry is drawing ever-closer to true madness, as he’s haunted by this hound despite Sherlock attempting to prove that it does not exist. The fun irony of Tovey playing a character menaced by an enormous, otherworldly dog should not be lost on TV fans.
The episode begins with Sherlock bored to tears and having a massive nicotine fit, since they haven’t had a decent case in ages. It gets so bad that he takes on the case of a little girl’s missing, glowing rabbit, Bluebell. Luckily, Henry Knight comes to him with his heartfelt story about the ghostly dog which tore apart his father nearly 20 years prior. Sherlock is generally unimpressed until Henry says the word “Hound,” which then sparks him to agree to take the case. This sequence is a lot of fun, as Gatiss has the Henry character say everything one would hear in a horror movie setup with Sherlock being totally insusceptible to it. Sherlock has absolutely no time for emotion, being a sociopath and all.
In Dartmoor, Sherlock and John talk to some locals about the legendary creature, most of whom think it’s great for business. Using a government badge Sherlock “borrowed” from Mycroft, the two go to Baskerville to get to the bottom of what the facility does, finding out they have their hand in genetic experimentation, which could very likely create something like the dog Henry has seen. While there, the pair meets a very jovial virologist named Dr. Frankland, a fan of John’s blog, who is incredibly eager to help. They also happen upon Dr. Stapleton, a geneticist who is the mother of the girl who lost Bluebell. Some definitely fishy stuff is happening at Baskerville. Henry, thanks to the help of his psychiatrist, is remembering words like “Liberty” and “In,” but does not know yet what they mean.
The turning point in the episode comes when John and Sherlock accompany Henry to the same hollow that was the scene of Mr. Knight’s grisly death 20 years earlier. It’s very foggy, but both Henry and Sherlock see and hear something, a large something with big, red eyes. In the aftermath, Sherlock very nearly has a nervous breakdown. We see him, for the first time, truly afraid, not of the thing he saw, but the fact that he can’t possibly have seen what he saw, yet he did. John tries to comfort Sherlock, which is of course met with bile, leading to John leaving in a huff. Fear is a side of the always-smug Holmes we never get to see, and it’s unsettling to everyone involved. If Sherlock Holmes is afraid, what chance does anyone else have? It is this alone that leads Sherlock to discovering what the real cause of the problem is.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman again prove they’re a wonderful onscreen team. At various points in the episode we get to see them working together to obtain answers and arguing like an old married couple. Oh, yes, it wouldn’t be an episode of Sherlock without homoeroticism. I think I’ve put my finger on something: pretty obviously, Sherlock and the Doctor are very similar characters in their methods, fast talking, problem solving, etc., but the inherent difference is that while the Doctor is basically a nice, friendly guy, Sherlock is a dick. They’re both children, but whereas the Doctor is usually an exuberant, joyful child, Sherlock is the brat. It was very obvious, but I basically just realized it with this episode. Cumberbatch’s performance specifically brought that out in this story, with the way he reacts to every situation like a spoiled, annoying bastard. He’s really good.
Tovey delivers a chilling and sad, if shrieking, performance as the poor, young Henry on the edge of psychotic break. It’s through him that we see most of the horror, and he gives the role the gravitas it needs to be effective. The rest of the guest cast is serviceable, with Amelia Bullmore playing Dr. Stapleton, a character who really does little more than deliver exposition, Sasha Behar as Dr. Mortimer, Henry’s therapist, and Clive Mantle as Dr. Frankland, a character who knows more than he’s letting on. They all serve the purpose for which they are intended and perform them quite well. This isn’t really the kind of story that needs particularly deep side characters, unlike last week’s, but the actors are all very good.
Once again, Paul McGuigan’s direction is wonderful, but much different from episode one. He really seems to be enjoying the gothic horror atmosphere of the story and dwells in the spookiness with glee. It can’t hurt that a lot of this story was filmed on location in South Wales and Dartmoor, with eerie, craggy landscape that’s perfect for this story. The “creature” is very well handled by McGuigan and, while it would be tempting, he doesn’t give in to overusing it, relying more on sound effects, shadows, and camera movements. It’s great that in this kind of show, a director can go from doing an action thriller to a straight horror film from one episode to the next, and it’s a real testament to his talent that he can adapt so well.
The Hounds of Baskerville is a truly excellent second episode for the series and a great standalone story in total. Last series’ second episode, The Blind Banker, was fine but was a bit dull and unmemorable, but this one will certainly stand up over time as one people come back to again and again. Mark Gatiss proves again that he writes Sherlock as well if not better than Steven Moffat, though the same cannot be said for Doctor Who. The very last scene of the episode sets up the third story, Steve Thompson’s The Reichenbach Fall, and it looks to be one hell of a finale to the all-too-short season.