With Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes” about to hit the big screen, DVD shelves are rife with re-releases of previous movies and TV shows featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective. There are many, but MPI Home Video has four double-feature sets worth owning, all featuring the team of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.
The two men are among the most iconic actors for the roles, having appeared in 14 Holmes films for 20th Century Fox and Universal. “The House and Fear” and “The Pearl of Death” come from the later Universal period. As was par for the course for the studio of that golden era, they’re classy, black-and-white efforts that may be just barely over an hour, but provide a lot of old-fashioned entertainment, with mood and atmosphere to burn.
For Holmes newbies, these two films are good starting points, as they contain elements of horror “ brief and tame, but elements nonetheless. From 1945, “The House of Fear” hews to the “old dark house” subgenre, with Holmes and Watson traveling to Scotland to investigate the string of deaths of elderly rich white dudes (are there any other kind?) after receiving orange seeds in the mail. The movie may be older than you, but I bet you can’t guess its twist.
In 1944’s “The Pearl of Death,” they’re on the hunt for a serial killer known as “The Hoxton Creeper,” whose victims lie amid smashed statues. This may be a bit of a spoiler, but ol’ Creeper is played by Rondo Hatton, the tall character actor with the unfortunate, disfigured face. It’s a small part, played mostly in shadows, but he makes quite the impression, and resurrected the role for two more Universal films, sans Holmes.
Neither movie is by-the-book faithful to Doyle’s original stories, but both are firmly rooted in his spirit. That’s helped secure their reputation over the decades with purists, as has the fact they’re simply so well-done. MPI’s disc comes not with special features, but you’re getting two movies for the price of one, which is special in and of itself.