Let’s face it: one of the most celebrated and ubiquitous fictional characters is Sherlock Holmes. From Basil Rathbone to Peter Cushing to Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch there have been plenty of incarnations of the iconic sleuth. It seems apparent that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved creation is ensured to live on forever—although Doyle himself did get sick of him. Holmes, the brilliant detective with the keen eye and cold demeanor, shall never die.
Obviously people are familiar with Robert Downey, Jr. (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) most recently donning the inverness and hunting cap. It has divided many. Downey is good, but it is more a zany action movie than true Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie’s (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) prowess does lie in that rough and tumble style, but perhaps purists should not be so readily distraught by Holmes’ recent treatment. Sherlock Holmes as an entertainment institution has been the subject of much overwrought gimmick and disfigurement for years.
Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot and The Apartment) directed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in 1970. It was a fun but slightly loopy film (midgets and submarines abound). George C. Scott played a man who thought he was Sherlock Holmes in The Might Be Giants (1971). Gene Wilder farced the whole thing with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother in 1975. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) teamed Holmes up with Sigmund Freud and focused more on his cocaine habits. Murder By Decree (1979) has him face off against Jack the Ripper (odd, H. G. Wells had to stop Jack the Ripper that same year in Time After Time…odder that Mary Steenburgen would fall in love with a wayward time-traveler (Wells) in this movie and then again with the Doc (with whom she shares an affinity for Jules Verne) in Back to the Future III). And don’t forget Buster Keaton‘s Sherlock, Jr. (1924). And what of a certain Jack Russell terrier and PBS denizen?
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), directed by Barry Levinson (Good Morning, Vietnam), written by Chris Columbus (Home Alone), and produced by Steven Spielberg (Jaws) and Industrial Light & Magic, is a peculiar sort of travesty. On the one hand it is a nostalgic cult flick with some interesting special effects and a pseudo-Indiana Jones type feel set in Victorian England, but it is pretty sloppy on most other accounts. It doesn’t feel like it was written by someone who read a lot of Sherlock Holmes, but rather someone who understood the basic elements: mystery, a pipe, Watson, Lestrade, magnifying glass, etc. but it is far more a product of its own time. Since it is the 80s the main characters are kids and the mood is dark and grim. To it’s credit, although the plot is fairly simple, it is more enjoyable than a lot of kids-solving-the-mystery type movies of that era. Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985) was still better though.
The players. Nicholas Rowe plays a pretty solid young Sherlock Holmes (he would later appear in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). The movie’s first big blunder is making Watson an idiot. This is the classic Sherlock Holmes movie misstep. The film is narrated by the great Michael Hordern as an older Dr. Watson and Brian Cox’s son, Alan Cox, plays the young dopey Watson. Far too many adaptations mishandle Watson. He is not supposed to be a bumbling oaf. He is meant to be an asset and compliment to Sherlock. For the new British series I thought Martin Freeman was excellent (although he does have the added benefit of smarter writing). The rest of the cast of Young Sherlock Holmes is suitable but they are all essentially playing archetypes and don’t get much room to play.
Holmes and Watson meet in your typical British boarding school. When a series of bizarre deaths start occurring Holmes takes an interest and when his childlike elfin nimrod mentor uncharacteristically commits suicide and then Holmes gets expelled for cheating (he was framed by some douchebag, don’t worry), there’s nothing for it but to solve the mystery. The game is afoot.
The chases, action, and Temple of Doom-esque touches don’t always align with strict Doyle sensibilities, but they keep the movie going. A cockamamie Egyptian cult is kidnapping young girls and sacrificing them by wrapping them up like mummies and then dumping acid on them out of a plastic cow face…and the mystery is about why random old guys are committing suicide. I know, right. The whole virgin sacrifice thing is sort of mentioned but it’s so tacked on you might miss it. The mystery Holmes is really trying to solve is the mystery of the dead old guys. They blew it.
Why is there always paraffin wax in these movies and why is it the paraffin wax can only come from one place…that is different in every movie?
So why watch this dated, lurching, misinformed cult oddity? It’s light and kind of fun and you can turn your brain off to watch it, but the real reason is the wild special effects. The real gimmick for this Sherlock Holmes is not “oh, look how young the characters are,” but rather “what the heck was that? Did a roasted Cornish game hen just come to life and attack that dude’s face?” The Egyptian cult in this movie has blow darts that shoot poisonous thorns that make the victim experience nightmarish hallucinations until they ultimately kill themselves. Weird plot device, I know, but I’ll be darned if this film didn’t give me nightmares when I was a kid. Let’s do some thorn, man.
Spooky things comes to life and terrify people and it is pretty scary, especially since it’s using those weird 80s special effects. The hallucinations vary in how interesting/frightening they are but they are easily what makes any bit of this movie memorable. A young Pixar even helped out with this movie in the creation of a CG stained-glass knight. If memory serves there are six hallucination sequences and the one that gives me the weirdest feeling is still the jubilant anthropomorphic pastries forcing themselves into the victim’s mouth with giddy abandon. It’s like a Happy Meal commercial from hell.
All in all Young Sherlock Holmes is a pretty harmless non-canon entry. Treat it more as a dated special effects feature that uses Sherlock Holmes as a backdrop and you should stave off any aneurysm. It’s not great, but it’s not a total failure and as a strange, forgotten 80s movie it’s kind of fun. Flying machines, pyramids, murder, cults, and hellish hallucinogenics. Have fun.