A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 429 – The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire

The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire – May 3rd, 2011

I feel I must explain this movie and our purchase of it. A coworker of mine told me recently that her husband had purchased a large lot of DVDs from someone on ebay and had gone through them to weed out the ones he wanted from the ones he didn’t. She told me she’d get me the list of ones he was getting rid of. So our list has expanded by 25 titles tonight and this is one of them. I couldn’t pass it up. We got some classics we didn’t have yet and some cheese we thought would be fun. But we also got this. I mean, a non-canonical Sherlock Holmes story starring Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer as Holmes? How could I not grab it? So here we are.

This was, as might be expected, made for television. And as an aside, the previews on the disc were so fantastic we immediately added two thoroughly cheesetastic looking movies to our to-buy list. But I was saying this was made for television, and it shows. There are obvious commercial breaks peppered in at regular intervals and we’re definitely not looking at a theatrical feature. If the recent Robert Downey Jr. movie is Sherlock Holmes action and Young Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes junior, then this is definitely Sherlock Holmes lite. And well, so long as one expects that then there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. I’m not about to condemn non-canonical Holmes adventures, seeing as we own the two mentioned above and I quite like them both. But one has to go into something like this expecting that it’s just not going to be up to the standard of Doyle’s original stories.

I grew up watching the Jeremy Brett Holmes series and I admit, Brett will always be my Holmes, but I’m willing to entertain the idea of Matt Frewer in the role. He’s one of the key reasons I picked this out and added it to our collection. Because I’m far more familiar with Frewer as Max Headroom or that time traveling dude on Star Trek: TNG. But it turns out that he’s done four different Sherlock Holmes television movies. From what I can tell, the writing and directing team are the same and all for have Kenneth Walsh playing Watson, but the other three are all at least based on actual Holmes stories. This one? Apparently they decided to just go it alone. Very strange, and now I’m curious about the others because to be honest, I rather liked Frewer in the role.

Okay, so the accent dips towards the foppish every so often, but the mannerisms and attitude are nicely done for the most part. And he seems to have had some fun with the part, enjoying playing Holmes, who might not have figured it all out from the outset but certainly knows more than anyone else and revels in it. I also enjoyed Walsh as Watson, who is not only a staunch supporter of Holmes but who is given a bit to do here, questioning people and keeping watch. He’s not a baffled fool rushing to keep up with Holmes. He’s cheering him on the whole way. That’s my preferred dynamic between the two.

So I liked the lead performances, but I have to say I wasn’t terrifically thrilled with the plot. It revolves around a series of murders taking place at the abbey in Whitechapel. Monks have been found dead with two puncture marks in their necks, messages in written in blood found nearby. The monks and nuns at the abbey believe it’s the work of a vampire that’s followed some of them back from a mission in Guiana (British Guiana, I assume, now just Guyana). There are reports of bats in the abbey and a strange cloaked figure with the face of a demon. The residents of the abbey are divided amongst themselves, some believing it’s due to a curse Brother Marstoke has brought down upon the abbey. Others believe the source doesn’t matter and the residents need to stand together against it. Of course everyone but Holmes seems to believe there’s a supernatural source.

There are several suspects: Brother Marstoke himself; Dr. Chagas, a naturalist who studies vampire bats and who has quarrelled with Brother Marstoke; Brother Caulder, who wants Marstoke to leave; and Hector, the son of the abbey caretaker. And really, Holmes makes it clear he thinks it could be anyone in the abbey. There’s a lot of bickering and in-fighting going on amongst the abbey residents. The people of Whitechapel are nervous about the killings, wondering if they’ll start to target regular people, not just the monks and nuns. And okay, I’m fine with it all from there. Of course Holmes is skeptical. That’s his thing. Though I was interested to note just how vehemently the writer here had Holmes state his agnosticism, which I’d always assumed but never really bothered to dig enough to confirm. Skepticism is one thing. Proclaimed agnosticism in the Victorian era is another.

My problem here is that while the ending makes sense, the movie doesn’t give us much of a chance to follow its logic to the conclusion. Sure, when the villain dies and we pull his mask off it’s someone we know, but we knew it would be. And the reasoning isn’t really foreshadowed quite well enough for me. I said at the beginning “Oh hey, it could be him. Huh, or him. I guess it depends on the misdirection, but do I trust this movie to bother with misdirection?” And I guess it did. Unfortunately, it misdirected right past its own plot. The villain was both too obvious and not obvious enough. Ah well.

Overall, I’d have to say I had fun watching this. If it had been Frewer’s only attempt at Holmes I’d have felt bad, since he clearly had fun with it and I would have wanted him to have a better chance with a tighter plot. But then he’s done The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of Four and an adaptation of A Scandal in Bohemia. And now I’d very much like to get those and watch them, because while this wasn’t a big budget attempt, or as detailed as the Jeremy Brett series, it was fun.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire

May 3, 2011

The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire

Through a contact at Amanda’s work we have acquired a number of new movies for our collection and thereby delayed the end of our movie a day project. One of these new acquisitions is this made-for TV Sherlock Holmes movie from Hallmark Entertainment. Now when I think of Hallmark made-for-TV movies I think of sappy programs aimed at bored housewives, but apparently (if the fantastically cheesy movies previewed before the feature on this DVD are any indication) they also have a penchant for making the kind of inexpensive cinematic drivel that never fails to amuse me. I mean, look at these previews! Patrick Stewart and Kyle McLaughlin in Mysterious Island (with the most fake looking CGI mantis I have ever seen) and Peter Fonda, Luke Perry and Tia Carrere in Supernova. These are my kind of cheese!

This movie doesn’t actually fit quite into that mold. It is a non-canonical Holmes story with a fun title card at the start of the film explaining that Holmes is in the public domain and nobody with any connection to Arthur Conan Doyle had anything to do with this movie. Indeed the Holmes of this movie is less based on the books and short stories and more based on the pop culture representation of Holmes through the years. He has the iconic cap and pipe (a less preposterous pipe than the large bowled one often depicted in such films.) But it’s clearly not meant to be satirical. Holmes doesn’t use a magnifying glass or say “The game is afoot!” There has been an attempt made here to create a period-accurate representation of Sherlock Holmes, albeit within the restrictions of a made-for-TV movie with a clearly limited budget.

The story being told here is about Holmes and Watson being summoned to Whitechapel to uncover the truth behind a string of grisly murders that appear to have been perpetrated by a vampire. The victims (as we discover in a lengthy and somewhat clumsy expository narration with pantomime enactments of the crimes) have all been found with puncture marks on their necks. We are told a rambling story about how a group of monks while on mission in South America eradicated a number of vampire bats that they feared were causing a sickness in the locals. This is when they started to get picked off one by one – even after they had returned to England. There are a number of suspects of course. There’s the disgruntled scientist who was studying the bats when the monks came along and started killing them off. There are several monks who all seems to have some friction between them. There’s Spanish accented housekeeper and her son who came back from South America with the monks. Or, of course, it could be an actual vampire (a notion that Holmes scoffs at.)

There’s a definite formulaic paint-by-numbers feel to this movie. It has the supernatural premise. It has the variety of suspects. It has various bits of misdirection and further murders. It has a very Scooby-Doo bit at the end when Holmes literally unmasks the killer. And it has a denouement where Holmes explains to everybody how he solved the case. Everything about the movie has a very comfortable and familiar feeling of familiarity. Even so there are a couple things that I was startled by which raised the movie up a couple notches from being a wholly derivative and unnecessary work.

One aspect I quite liked was Matt Frewer’s depiction of Holmes. I’ve always liked Frewer (I was a huge fan of Max Hedroom back in the day – both the movie and the short lived series) and his angular, gaunt face is perfect for Holmes. He’s actually quite entertaining to watch in the role with his hauty airs and his clear mental superiority. A person’s favorite Holmes is like their favorite Bond – influenced by what era they grew up in and their first exposure to the character. Jeremy Brett will always be Holmes in my heart of hearts, but I have to admit that I really liked Frewer’s take on the character too. So, too, did the producers of this movie apparently, since this is the second of four Holmes movies he did with this writing and directing team. (The other three movies are all based on Doyle’s works much mroe directly – which makes this particular movie somewhat odd.)

Another odd thing about the way Holmes is portrayed here is that he’s very much a politically correct Holmes for the nineties. There’s an entire side plot about the doctor who was studying the bats that the monks destroyed. He’s Scotland Yard’s prime suspect, and, oh, yeah, he’s black. There’s a kind of undertone of racism to the whole film, and Holmes is depicted as the right-thinking man who doesn’t let the color of Dr. Chagas’ skin influence his logic. I appreciate that in a nineties made-for-TV movie this was a popular attitude for a character to have, and it sort of makes sense that a man dedicated to pure logic and deduction would react in just this way, but it feels strange in a Sherlock Holmes movie. My memories of Doyle’s original works are that the foreigners and outsiders were usually actually quite sinister. The natives from Africa or from Watson’s time in Afganistan, and not to forget the sinister Mormons from America. Doyle’s work was firmly rooted in the penny dreadfuls of the time and has a sensationalist and nationalist feel to it. It’s just odd to see his most iconic character behaving with such clearly modern sensibilities.

Not that I mind. This is Holmes as he should be – at his most noble and clever. He’s a distillation of the idea of Holmes and not necessarily a strictly accurate representation of the character from the stories. This movie was pleasantly innocuous. Not bad, but not particularly ambitious. It’s the sort of movie you could safely tune in to as you surf between channels and not feel you’ve missed anything crucial. I did appreciate that a couple of the clues Holmes used to unravel the case were actually evident for viewers to pick up on, which is not always the case with Sherlock Holmes – either in movie or written form. This is a comfortable and simple movie – not necessarily one O would have sought out to buy, but not one that irritated me either. I do think that after watching this I will seek out Matt Frewer’s other Holmes movies though because I think I would enjoy seeing him in the role some more.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment