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observation notes: Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic character Sherlock Holmes has been on screen since the days of classic serials right up until the modern era, but never like this. Written by Asylum partner and acclaimed 2010 Moby Dick scribe Paul Bales, the film opens in 1940 amidst the German blitz of London. An aging "Professor" Watson is on the verge of death, and wants to commit to history the true secret of Sherlock Holmes and how he saved London from unspeakable (until now), unimaginable destruction. Cue the flashback.

It's 1882, and in the English Channel a clipper ship carrying precious cargo finds itself under siege from a large, tentacled creature. Not the typical start to a Sherlock Holmes story, but that's part of the brilliance of this script. While the creature-context may seem out of place for a detective story, it isn't out of place for the source author. Doyle, after all, also wrote creature fantasies, the most recognizable among them being "The Lost World," which has been the basis for no less than half a dozen films, including the second Jurassic Park and a certain Asylum monkey movie.

But back to the actual story: ashore, Holmes (Ben Syder) appears to a younger Watson (Gareth David-Lloyd) mid-autopsy to announce their summons to investigate the attack on the clipper ship. Holmes' acumen is quickly illustrated when he frees up Watson's afternoon by visually surmising all evidence any autopsy would have revealed. So let's see...smug, off-handed, unintentionally-condescending intelligence? Check.

So off go the original dynamic duo to a hospital where the lone survivor of the kraken attack, a midshipman with more than a quarter century before the mast, is emerging from his coma just as Holmes and Watson arrive. Nice touch here: when Watson bends to examine the midshipman, the tentacle-look to his stethoscope visibly freaks out the sailor. This is followed by his account of the attack, the what of it all, which Watson is quick to skeptically dismiss as shock manifesting as delusion. Holmes, of course, finds something in the midshipman's story worth believing, and so the investigation continues.

It's here another neat twist of plot first manifests itself: seems Holmes has an older brother he hasn't seen for seven years who's reported to be back on the London scene, and something about an embarrassment of some sort that resulted in said brother's full-paralysis. But this is just a quick hit, and the story moves on...

In London's seedy East End (Whitechapel-area, Jack the Ripper's hunting grounds), a young, naive virgin goes to visit a lady of the evening - appropriately named "Mrs. Pinchcock" - but this illicit tryst is unfortunately interrupted by the appearance of a ravenous dinosaur. Yep, that's right, you read me correctly: a dinosaur (at this point, my half-asleep wife muttered from the couch, "Wait, why is there a dinosaur?" Why, indeed, my love? Because The Asylum has learned a secret long known to purveyors of the fantastic: everything gets more interesting when a dinosaur enters the scene. Think about it, any movie you can name - Battlefield Earth, Annie Hall, Chariots of Fire; as great as they are, they'd be better with even one dinosaur thrown in for good measure. You know I'm right.)

So, just to catch you up, there's now a kraken and a dinosaur, and we're maybe half an hour in at this point. Awesome? Check.

Back to the bickering co-dependency of Holmes and Watson over breakfast and the morning newspaper. The story of the devoured virgin is there, and naturally captures Holmes' attention. The two take the customary perambulation for thought, which itself is interrupted by a hysterical and hysterically-high-pitched old man screaming nonsense about a monster in the woods. But it isn't nonsense, oh no. Cue dinosaur chase.

No spoiler to say our protagonists survive this scene, and it only fuels Holmes further, so he retreats to his experiments while Watson is called to see a patient, a wheelchair-bound man (Dominic Keating, a sort of British Jurgen Prochnow) attended by a beautiful young woman, his "niece." He requires medication for his many painful ailments, including the potent narcotic morphine. Watson is hesitant but eventually concedes, due in part to a shine he takes to the girl. He starts to make evening plans with her but Holmes cock-blocks him with an invitation to the East End to further investigate the findings of his analysis of the boy-monster(dinosaur) murder. 

Our characters all now firmly in place, the rest is spoilers.

Okay, so that's a lot of plot, but believe me when I say my assessment doesn't do justice to the tightly-crafted twists and turns and melding of myth and literature this script accomplishes. Ultimately, I found this to be a thrilling film that hit on a cerebral, adrenal and even comical level. 

One of the ways Sherlock shines and sets itself apart from other Asylum films was its lavish style, courtesy of the eye of director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. Each scene was replete with hue, texture and ambiance melding together to form a sepia-style, Burton-esque fantasy London, opulent in its steampunk-design that melds the worlds of Doyle, Jules Verne, and the recent filmography of Robert Downey Jr. into the perfect setting for an intelligent, action-packed sci-fi spectacle comparable in enjoyability - to me, at least - to its Hollywood tie-in. Aiding this effect are assured performances, atmospheric locations, accurate and fashionable costumes - I'd dress like either of these guys any day of the week, but I'm odd - astounding art direction, intense, well-designed and believable FX and a pulse-racing score. The script was inventive, respective, labyrinthine and familiarly comfortable, and easily the most engaging Asylum script of the year, with the possible exception of another Bales' project, a certain aforementioned whale movie. Goldenberg's direction was intense, exhilarating, ambitious and as such successful. Sherlock is the second film Goldenberg has directed for The Asylum, the first being Sunday School Musical. Her next project is the Asylum-family venture 1st Furry Valentine.

As for the performances, Ben Syder - for whom this is the only credit listed on IMDB - plays the famed sleuth as dismissively deadpan and admirably foppish, as though a brilliance such as his was to its bearer a frightful bore. David-Lloyd as Watson is the perfect counterpart to this, placidly skeptical and pointlessly loyal, a true sidekick.

Overall, and I know I'll get comments like I did when I made a similar declaration about Monster/Cloverfield, but I enjoyed this film more than I did the recent Hollywood version; for all their reinvention of the character, Ritchie and Downey turned him into a sort of lampoon of himself, too self-awaredly self-destructive and reckless for the legacy's own good - he's not a Victorian Indiana Jones, after all, but that's what Hollywood would have him. The Asylum's character feels just right, a balance of tradition and innovation that maintains the integrity of Doyle's hero. Syder may not have the swagger or smarm of Downey, but Sherlock Holmes isn't about swagger - he isn't a Victorian Shaft, either - he's about acumen, subtlety, and in those regards, Syder triumphs. A truly unique Sherlock Holmes experience awaits here, oddly appropriate for its liberties, and all-in-all, just plain entertaining.

What more can you ask for?


  1. Good assessment, although I think you're not giving enough credit to the film's more fantastical, pulp-influenced, steampunk elements as a major factor in making Sherlock Holmes stand apart from many other Asylum releases as an exceptionally enjoyable, engrossing, and entertaining ride. Just my opinion, anyway. I also thought it was great the way the Asylum folks didn't get bogged down in staying slavish to the source texts and, instead of trying to fit this adventure into the pre-established canon, instead decided to forge their own original canon (or, at least, their own original, totally unique, utterly radical offshoot of the canon).
    Also, there's a fucking dinosaur! Brilliant!

  2. I thought it stunk. Bad acting, poor script. story line that was sloppy and desperate, director appeared to have added fill time- spinning camera to give weak impression of action. This film was a mess. If there are any of the Doyle family left they should sue for incompetence all around. Too bad they could not renew their copyrights. The result is trash like this. AVOID at all costs... make that at
    ANY cost. Bill Richardson Middleton, Wisconsin.