Jeremy BrettMaurice DenhamKeith BarronRoy Marsden
The Last Vampyre
Adapted from: The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire
Included in: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
Medium: TV
Date: 27 January 1993
Originally published in: 1924
Director: Tim Sullivan
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Jeremy Paul
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: UK
Actor: Jeremy Brett, Edward Hardwicke, Roy Marsden, Keith Barron, Yolanda Vazquez, Maurice Denham, Richard Dempsey, Juliet Aubrey, Jason Hetherington, Elizabeth Spriggs, Peter Geddis, Kate Lansbury, Maria Redmond, Freddie Jones, Hilary Mason
Format: 102 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Jeremy Brett >>
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 10 February 2009
It's my favourite of the three feature-length episodes from Series 3, but that doesn't mean you'll like it. On the contrary, I'm sure many people hated it as much as I did The Master Blackmailer and The Eligible Bachelor, but my secret weapon here is that I like horror. I'd have loved to see Sherlock vs. Dracula, which hasn't yet been done on screen although I know of three such novels. They're by Loren Estleman, Stephen Seitz and David Stuart Davies. Anyway, back to the episode.
If you're a Sherlock Holmes traditionalist, you'll hate this with a passion. The problem is that the first and larger half of the episode is about investigating a vampire. Yes, a real vampire. Well, there's a chance that he is, at any rate. He doesn't go around biting necks, but clearly there's something supernatural in the air and eventually Holmes starts speculating about psychic energy absorption. This poses problems for the audience:
(a) "You must be joking." This film looks like the rest of the series, i.e. gorgeous to the point of flawlessness. No production expense has been spared. The realism is seamless, yet for once that's a massive problem. No one in the world could see even twenty seconds of this episode and consider even for a moment that we might be being expected to believe in vampires. If they'd wanted that, they should have camped it up a bit. Bleed some Hammer into the cinematography. If you're one of the many who'd snort at vampires and roll your eyes, you'll find this to be a Sherlock Holmes story with no crime and nothing to investigate until the darned thing's almost finished.
(b) Even for a vampire fan, it's far from clear how to watch it. On first viewing I saw all this as nothing more than an aesthetic. It didn't occur even to me to take it seriously. This was enjoyable, but it's a rather post-modern approach to the text and I can't pretend it's something that would apply to most viewers. However when thinking it over afterwards, I realised to my astonishment that the film might have been trying to imply that its vampire was real. This notion so completely overturned every assumption I'd been making that I watched it again... but disappointingly, on this level it doesn't really work.
The problem lies in the shorter second half, a loose adaptation of The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. That's a straightforward detective tale. It has clues, logical inferences and the usual Holmesian gubbins. Of course it's also dripping with enough atmosphere to give the illusion of continuity. It has all the trappings. It has all the trappings. This is what all the audience would have been waiting for, assuming you'd been foolish enough to want to watch a Sherlock Holmes story. However if like me you're trying to take it literally, you'll discover that all the preceding ambiguities get stamped on. The clues I'd been following came to nothing. In the end, it's clear that Holmes did indeed catch the right man and that Stockton had been in his coffin all along. He's visible underneath Ferguson even when the latter gets struck from behind, for instance. They could easily have maintained the ambiguity, but didn't. For me, that was jarring.
So what's the evidence for Stockton being undead? Is he this "energy vampire", or even an actual bloodsucker? Well, he's certainly no Dracula. He goes out in the day, eats normal food and can handle crosses and garlic. However...
1. His ancestors were believed to be vampires when they lived around here 100 years ago. "These recorded deaths, Holmes. So many of them, so young. An influenza epidemic, perhaps." The episode begins with a pregnant woman being taken into the church with blood on her neck, while people are described as disappearing or being found with their throats cut. Admittedly they also died and were buried, but that needn't be much of a handicap. Returning to the present day, we see that Stockton keeps hanging around this woman's grave from 1782 and leaving red roses on it.
2. His habits and background are what you'd expect from an immortal. He's spent a lot of time abroad, speaks foreign languages and will talk about death, religion and the nature of the soul. "In his philosophy, death was life." He speaks of places where children were sacrificed and it's remarked that he's never seen in church. He also dresses and looks the part.
3. The supernatural is shown to exist. Watson talks of seeing a ghost while serving in the army in India, while Holmes has an even weirder experience with Stockton at the ruined manor. We see Stockton in agony, as if he's resisting some terrible urge, and he starts talking of a secret he can't tell a living soul. "Mistress Death. She is with us, insatiable. Keep her away from me!" Suddenly we then have a J-horror moment and see Mistress Death! No, really. Holmes doesn't believe the evidence of his own eyes, but on returning later sees another hallucination at the same spot. I've no idea what the filmmakers were trying to do there, but it's weird.
4. There are deaths, which we're perhaps meant to take as coincidence. Half a dozen village girls have been struck down with what might be influenza, one of whom later has a hysterical episode saying something tried to strangle her. That's the neck. More directly he gives the impression of having caused the blacksmith's bloody death with a glance, while a baby dies after he's touched it.
5. There's a suggestion that he has mental powers. People have extreme reactions to his presence, while certain editing decisions would seem to be suggesting a mental link with the boy Jack (his Renfield) and at one early point even Holmes himself. No, seriously. Isn't that a telepathic message at the 27 minute mark? Ferguson says that he mesmerises people and it's certainly true that the ladies come back from a drive with him in an abnormal state of sensuousness. This kind of paranormal ability is discussed by Holmes and Watson as if it were perfectly commonplace. It also suggests in the books in his cottage that this kind of energy vampire might be able to pass on its abilities to a successor after death, which would presumably be the missing link that brought together the story's two halves into a whole.
That's a lot of evidence. The film's doing everything to make us take its silly notion seriously. The problem is that no matter how convincingly it argues, most of the audience are still going to dismiss all that as self-evident hogwash as they wait for the second half to begin. So what about the other stuff?
Keith Barron plays Ferguson, a man with a fiery Peruvian wife and the world's biggest cock for a son. The latter is the script's equivalent of Renfield, but you'll simply think of him as The Cock. Trust me. He's played rather well by Richard Dempsey, a child actor best known as Peter in the BBC's 1980s Narnia adaptations. The actress playing the wife isn't as good as the one playing her maid, but they're both watchable in their England-hating roles. There's also Elizabeth Spriggs tucked away in a minor role as the housekeeper.
One regret for me is that these aren't Hammer horror actors. The only cast member who'd been in one is Maurice Denham as the vicar, having previously done Countess Dracula (1971). Oddly enough the two films are also linked by scriptwriter Jeremy Paul. Admittedly Keith Barron was in something called Nothing But The Night (1973) starring Lee and Cushing, but by all accounts it sounds as if that's been rightly forgotten.
The vampire himself is played by Roy Marsden, who ironically looks less vampire-like than Jeremy Brett. The man looks like death. He's this sickly bloated predator with the most ghastly colour to his face in some scenes and not even enough energy at the end to run up some stairs convincingly. That was a creepy unintended resonance. Obviously he's not at his full powers, with his line about the Giant Rat of Sumatra making less impression than Nigel Bruce's in the Basil Rathbone movies!
This film puts a lot of obstacles in the way of its audience. The most obvious is that you'll have to get past there not being a crime to investigate until almost the end. If you don't count the throwaway line about the violin lessons, then Holmes's first inference is at 1 hour 26 minutes. Eight minutes later, he's solved the whole thing. Like I said, there's not much detective work here. At the end of the day, Holmes and Watson achieve nothing. This is also bleaker than the original, with a gratuitously downbeat ending that made it a less entertaining rewatch than it might have been otherwise.
Nonetheless it's a lively cast with at one point a bit of near-perversion thrown in for laughs, even if a couple of the actors (Watson, Mrs Ferguson) aren't as memorable as they might have been. They also have a lot of fun with the vampire stuff. I enjoyed that. It's interesting to discover that opening a coffin carries far more emotional charge in this kind of realistic setting, while by extension I can't remember a better-looking staking scene. No, really. That was a little shocking. This film has almost nothing in common with Conan Doyle's original story, but at least it's taking the opportunity to create something new. Even the title change is significant, if you think about it.