Released 31 March 1939, the 20th Century Fox adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (published August 1901–April 1902) is widely regarded as one of the best of the many film versions. This was the dozenth time the story was brought to the silver screen (ninth if one counts the four-part 1914 German serial as one).
This, the third sound version of the tale, was the first of fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock and Watson, respectively. Since the studio wasn’t sure how well people would receive a Sherlock Holmes film, they gave top billing to matinée idol Richard Greene (Sir Henry Baskerville).
The film is also notable as one of the first Sherlock Holmes films to feature an authentic Victorian setting. All previous known screen adaptations updated their settings to contemporary times. Unfortunately, after Universal Studios acquired the rights in 1942, the stories were moved to the current era and became little more than loose adaptations.
The murderous mystery starts when Sir Charles Baskerville runs away from a demonic hound in terror and drops dead of a supposed heart attack on the moor. He’s pursued by someone who looks like a loonybin escapee. After Sir Charles deceases himself, the madman steals his pocketwatch and runs away.
Sir Charles’s friend Dr. James Mortimer testifies before authorities that this was a heart attack, without any evidence of assault. This pleases all the locals except curmudgeonly conspiracy theorist Mr. Frankland, who’s convinced Sir Charles was murdered.
Dr. Mortimer visits Sherlock and Watson prior to Sir Henry’s arrival in London, very worried about what might befall Sir Henry at Baskerville Hall. He confesses there’s a family curse, and reads an old story about Sir Hugo Baskerville to prove it. Ever since that ill-fated patriarch met his end in 1650, all Baskervilles have been killed by demonic hounds.
Sherlock thinks this is a load of superstitious nonsense, but Dr. Mortimer continues with the bold claim that Sir Charles was murdered. He didn’t voice these suspicions at the medical inquiry because he was afraid of the consequences. Though Sir Charles technically did die of heart failure, his face was contorted in terror. There were also the footprints of a huge hound and a second person nearby.
Sir Henry insists on going to Baskerville Hall despite the warning, though not before several suspicious happenings in London. One of his new boots goes missing when he leaves it outside his hotel door for buffing, and then someone in a carriage tries to shoot him at night. Back at the hotel, Henry’s boot reappears, but now another boot is missing.
None of this deters Sir Henry from claiming his ancestral estate, not even the ransom note that’s thrown through his carriage window. To keep an eye on the situation, Watson accompanies him. Sherlock claims he’s too busy to assist in the investigation.
The moor is alive with creepiness and mysterious events, each more spine-chilling than the last—strange disappearing lights, eerie howling, fog, quicksand, rocks, odd characters, people falling to their deaths. Throughout it all, Sir Henry maintains his composure and doesn’t seem cognizant of the danger he may be in.
Predictably, Sir Henry falls in instalove with the first young woman he meets, Beryl Stapleton (Wendy Barrie), the stepsister of his neighbour Jack. In the blink of an eye, they’re engaged.
The longer Sir Henry stays at Baskerville Hall, the creepier and more menacing the situation becomes, and everyone seems like a suspect. The plot thickens when Sherlock reveals himself to Watson and says he’s been in the area the whole time.
Based on his investigation, Sherlock believes murder is about to be committed, but he’s not sure who either the victim or murderer will be. Solving this terrifying mystery before another body turns up will be a very dangerous game.
And all the while, that mysterious howling stalks the moor.