April 5, 2018


Starring John Neville, Donald Houston, John Fraser, Anthony Quayle, Barbara Windsor, Adrienne Corri, Frank Finlay, Judi Dench, Robert Morley. Directed by James Hill. (1965/95 min).

A Study in Terror is one of many films over the years that plopped Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective into an original story. In this one, the world's most famous detective is on the hunt for the world's most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, a concept so obvious that it's surprising Doyle never thought of it himself.

With hindsight, it was inevitable these two would hook up someday...if not by Doyle's pen, then by numerous creative opportunists who saw the conceptual potential that apparently escaped him. Holmes has squared off against Jack the Ripper several times over the years, in movies, novels and even video games. A Study in Terror may not have done it best, but it did do it first.

Following several violent murders (three in the film's first 15 minutes!), Holmes (John Neville) receives a package containing a surgical kit with one scalpel conspicuously missing. He learns it belonged to Michael Osborne, the ostracized eldest son of an aristocratic family who disappeared two years ago. As the murder spree continues, Holmes and Dr. Watson (Donald Houston) follow clues in hopes of discovering the identity of Jack the Ripper.

"Get the hell out of my chair."
Along the way, we're thrown lots of suspects, though the killer's identity ultimately isn't all that surprising. There's plenty of congenial banter between Holmes & Watson, the latter of whom is constantly - and comically - flabbergasted by Holmes' deductive skills (you'd think he'd be used to it by now). Neville is fine in the lead role, though he doesn't put any kind of memorable stamp on the character. In fact, the movie is mostly free of creative aspirations beyond its unique concept, content to move from point A to B with minimal fuss or flair.

Still, A Study in Terror is a lot of fun. It's fast moving and competently-acted by a reliable cast of recognizable Brits (including a very young Judy Dench in a supporting role). Perhaps taking a cue from the Hammer Films popular at the time, the movie also throws in welcome bits of humor, a dash of titillation and a few scenes of jarring violence (for the 60s, anyway). It may not be an artistic milestone, but I think Doyle would have been pleased.


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