Is That A Monster, Holmes?

sherlock_largeSherlock Holmes (US-2010; dir. Rachel Goldenberg)

[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.

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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.

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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.

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8 Responses to Is That A Monster, Holmes?

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  2. Chris Well says:

    You know, they had me for much of the ride — I was on board for the giant monsters, I was on board for the steampunk, I was even (mostly) tolerant of Snyder’s mousey, almost invisible portrayal of Holmes. These are all part of the deal when watching a crazy low-budget mash-up like this.

    But there were these two small points that ruined the film for me — because they were both stupid, pointless, avoidable, and would not have cost a penny to do correctly:

    1) The thing about the non-Mycroft brother. (“Mycroft is the bad guy” would have been BRILLIANT. “This third brother that we’re introducing but at least we took one sentence to explain him” would have been GOOD (maybe GREAT). But to spend a movie talking about an unnamed brother who has to be Mycroft … and then it turns out to be this stranger … seriously? This is the big plot twist?)

    2) Oh, wait — and the big twist at the end: “Why did he call you Robert?” What was THAT all about? What does it even MEAN? Did they forgot to shoot a real ending, so they just sat the two guys at the table and told them to make up something?

    Stupid, stupid, stupid.

    Aside from those two complaints, though, I largely agree with your review. Everything else about the film was solid (or solid as should be expected).

  3. Robert Hood says:

    Actually I totally agree with you as regards the invention of the “other” brother. At first I thought it was going to be Mycroft — and it sort of makes sense — a Mycroft who has felt betrayed and neglected — and has used his brilliance (something well established in the Holmes books) in the creation of this rather extreme and ornate form of revenge. Maybe they thought making Mycroft a villain would be the more offensive option to fans. And, yes, I forgot to mention the “Robert” thing. I noticed the brother calling Holmes that during events and thus the conversation with Watson at the end is meant to explain it. But I still don’t see why it’s there. There doesn’t seem to be a point to it, does there? Actually I will be interviewing Rachel Goldenberg, the director, soon (I hope), so I’ll ask about that.

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  5. Hanne says:

    I have the general feeling here again that this film can’t count on much enthusiasm. I can understand that, it’s complete out of the original concept. But friendship and love are very well performed!
    As for that name “Robert”, first I was completely lost. But now I see it clear I can’t help it finding it a funny thing. And the thing is that we can’t agree it’s right but we also can’t be sure it’s wrong since the canon doesn’t mention other names or the number of names our detective has.
    As for their looks then, compared with Gareth David Lloyd as watson, Ben Syder might look a bit to young and…innocent. But in every case, he also has charism, just like Sherlock Holmes has.

  6. Hanne says:

    And again, Ben Syder’s Sherlock Holmes is undervalued! And the Sherlock Holmes acted by Robert Downey Jr is always the best and perfect etc while it is actually completely against the original canon! In fact, Syder’s performance is less “authentic” as Guy Richie would call his own Holmes, but it’s more true.

  7. Robert Hood says:

    Thanks for coming on board and commenting, Hanne. I may have undervalued Ben Syder’s Holmes in your view of Holmes, but I don’t believe I totally dismissed him (or the film) as you seem to imply. Syder did a good job, it seems to me. I simply didn’t find him a very strong presence. He was a bit too mild, both physically and in character, lacking intensity, and his performance tended to be dominated (for me) by David-Lloyd’s. I actually liked this film, as I believe I indicated several times, and thought it an effective addition to the Holmes tradition.
    As for Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes, as a long-time Holmes reader and viewer I can’t agree with you that it is “completely against the canon”. It pushes the canon, but I can’t see it as violating it (well, not much anyway). It comes over for me as a perfectly valid interpretation, no more deviant from the stories themselves than the interpretations of many others, including (as I say) many people’s “perfect Holmes”, Basil Rathbone — though in a different direction. I certainly don’t find Downey Jr’s Holmes less “true” than Rathbone’s or Syder’s.
    Meanwhile if we’re talking “best and perfect” Holmes, for me absolutely no one beats Jeremy Brett.
    On your previous remarks regarding the name “Robert”, did you read my interview with the director, Rachel Goldenberg? If not, check it out here: http://roberthood.net/blog/index.php/2010/05/29/the-case-of-the-steampunk-holmes-an-interview-with-rachel-goldenberg/

  8. Hanne says:

    Indeed, Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock has never been surpassed 🙂 !!! But here Granada Series also deserves a big part of the honour 🙂 But it’s a fact that it actually are the producers etc we have to blame of course, not the actors who have only to obey them. But Robert Downey Jr (would have been nice to see him here in the role of “Robert Sherlock Holmes” :D!) and Ben Syder are both great in there role!
    Maybe Syder’s performance seems overshadowed by David-Lloyd’s only because he’s a starter and the latter is, as far as I see on internet, known better by the public since he has already a longer career. and he ‘s a older too. And I agree completely that Syder’s Holmes is a bit to mild and soft, but I get that impression mostly only by his voice 🙂 Nobody who can help THAT

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