[Note: This review involves some spoilers.]
In the Asylum’s latest monster mash (preceding the upcoming Mega Piranha), Sherlock Holmes pits his deductive skills against a slew of monsters, mostly large ones. There is, of course, an evil genius behind them. If that statement alone doesn’t pique your interest, don’t bother reading on.
First, some background observations. Filmmakers and writers alike seem rather fond of taking classic naturalistic (more-or-less) franchises and cross-pollinating them with fantasy tropes. Recent examples have been particularly outré — and commercially successful, even if artistically they often leave a bit to be desired. Look at the not-altogether surprising way the Jane Austen/Seth Grahame-Smith collaboration Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was embraced by readers — a hybrid novel that was a huge bestseller and is now supposedly being turned into a film.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories — hugely popular at the time of their publication and well beyond — have been a target of this sort of artistic hybridization for some time. A while ago I read the anthology The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade Books), which features stories written by major authors in which the iconic consulting detective must deal with cases that are rather more fantastical than had been recorded previously by Holmes’ official biographer, good friend Dr Watson: Holmes vs aliens, ghosts, demons, even dinosaurs. Most of them are excellent reads; some are stunningly good. But how valid is it?
While the original stories sometimes presented bizarre and apparently supernatural scenarios, Holmes’ rationalist approach inevitably resulted in uncovering the less-fantastic realities that lay behind them. Good examples are the oft-filmed “The Hound of the Baskervilles” with its supposedly supernatural curse, and “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (which was filmed in Hammeresque fashion as “The Last Vampire” in the superlative Jeremy Brett TV series of the 1990s). Many would argue that being rational lies at the heart of Holmes’ very identity.
Paradoxically, the hybridization process works pretty well in the case of Holmes. The apparent blasphemy that lies behind the posthumous addition of the fantastic to the rationalist Holmes mythos is somewhat justified by three factors. Firstly, there’s Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s espousal of spiritualism, along with his rather naive propensity to take up dubious causes, such as that of the notorious “Cottingley Fairies”. Secondly, Conan Doyle’s other major “franchise” writing, the Professor Challenger stories (The Lost World, The Poison Belt, The Land of Mist, “The Disintegration Machine” and “When the World Screamed”) had a strong fantastical quality, being science fiction or supernatural in theme — so that if such elements had sneaked into Doyle’s own Holmes stories it wouldn’t have been all that surprising. Thirdly, the fact that Holmes is called upon specifically to look into cases that appear to defy logic and are exceedingly baffling lays the groundwork for the stories to offer actual rather than apparent supra-natural solutions. After all, one of Holmes’ most famous sayings is “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. This cries out for a fantastical re-interpretation.
Holmes, of course, has had a long, and remarkably strong, history of appearances on TV and on film. Recently, two movies with the title “Sherlock Holmes” have been released — one a mega-blockbuster directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey, Jr. as a hyperactive Holmes, and the other the aforementioned low-budget effort from The Asylum. Both, in their own ways, stretch the parameters of the Holmes mythos, and, though not equal in profile, both do a decent job of staying true to the Holmes universe — more or less.
While the Guy Ritchie film can be seen as the most unorthodox, it is only stylistically that it deviates in any serious way from the norm of the original stories. Other apparent “changes” to Holmes can pretty well all be justified in terms of facts derived from Doyle’s work (yes, Holmes was a boxer and had studied an Asian martial art). Sure, Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes doesn’t act or dress much like Basil Rathbone’s version, being inordinately hyperactive and scruffy in appearance, but in fact Rathbone’s always immaculately dressed detective introduced a few of the now-accepted iconic Holmes elements without much textual justification (such as the deer-stalker hat and magnifying glass). His Holmes isn’t any more “authoritative” than Downey Jr’s, though it helped establish the post-Doyle norm.
In the Asylum film, on the other hand, Holmes himself and the way he acts is closer to this norm, as portrayed by Ben Syder, and it’s the fantastic elements that can be seen as controversial. Sherlock Holmes (US-2010; dir. Rachel Goldenberg) has Holmes and Watson (Gareth David-Lloyd) pitted against a giant octopus, a bipedal, T-Rex type dinosaur (somewhat smaller than the real thing — though recent paleontological discoveries have coincidentally revealed such a beast to have existed), a fire-breathing dragon and a sort of Victorian-period Iron Man (Dominic Keating). [This latter fact is ironic, as it allows the film to be seen as playing off both of Robert Downey Jr’s two recent blockbuster franchises at the same time!] Given that it eventually offers a non-supernatural, pseudo-scientific explanation for its “anomalies”, The Asylum’s Sherlock Holmes is almost traditional in approach — though the addition of a slightly divergent family history and a sibling who isn’t Mycroft may worry purists.
To get maximum enjoyment from the film, it’s probably best not to think about it too much — the logistics behind some of the depicted events really don’t make a lot of sense. Sure, there’s a plot that hangs together more-or-less and a script by Paul Bales that works well, scene-by-scene — but if you dig back into the whys and wherefores there’s plenty to make you mutter ironically to yourself “Right! As if.” every now and then. Never mind. If you’re into the sort of monstrous genre silliness that features in the Asylum’s previous, rather successful foray into giant monsterdom, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (US-2009; dir. Ace Hannah), then Sherlock Holmes‘ absurd undercurrents aren’t going to worry you much at all.
More significantly, what you’ll get when you watch this Holmes at work is a strong dose of good, entertaining B-flick fantasy adventure. If it’s the fact that the fantasy is dressed up in a cloak of science fictional “real-world” logic (in steam-punk mode) that makes you question the more unlikely aspects, it’s easy enough to ignore the fact and just enjoy the spectacle. I mean, a giant octopus in classic ship-assault overdrive, a T-Rex loose in Victorian London’s backstreets (doing a prehistoric re-interpretation of Jack the Ripper), and a dragon busy fire-bombing the city in anticipation of the Blitz are all things calculated to warm the hearts of exploitation-film geeks everywhere.
What’s more, director Rachel Goldenberg has effectively made the jump from the production to the direction side of things, delivering a relatively tight, well-directed film that knows what we want to see and gives it to us consistently, or at least as consistently as the budget allows. The film is not static, and apart from one fairly pointless and over-emphasised scene where Watson is put in danger by climbing a precarious cliff-face it is well paced. The CGI monsters are scattered throughout the proceedings with due regard to audience patience levels — and they’re not bad at all in mid-budget terms. The mechanical dragon in particular is a beauty, even if the fight with it could have been spiced up significantly given an injection of funds.
Of course, the film isn’t perfect. Ben Syder is competent enough, but his depiction of Holmes lacks presence, especially in contrast to Gareth David-Lloyd, who creates a much stronger Watson than Syder’s slightly diminutive Holmes. David-Lloyd’s experience in the BBC series Torchwood certainly shows, and much of the professional conviction that this Asylum production displays comes down to his presence in it. While not a mega-star David-Lloyd can project his personality onto the screen and is well-enough thought of at present to give the film an air of being well above average in the cinematic pecking order, marketing-wise. It’s a lesson that The Asylum and other small production companies making low-budget genre movies should note — there’s value in spending a bit of money to get at least one actor on aboard who has contemporary credibility. Here, Dominic Keating (of Star Trek: Enterprise fame) gives similar value as the human villain.
Filmed on location in Wales, with a competent UK supporting cast and ready-made sets, Goldenberg’s Sherlock Holmes may not reach to the pinnacle of the Conan Doyle filmic canon, but it should be welcomed as a curious offshoot by Holmes aficionados and by the rest of its genre audience as a quirky and enjoyable evening’s entertainment.