When I was a kid, I was a fan of horror movies. They don’t quite have the same appeal these days, but I did have an affinity for some of the old Hammer Horror movies. There was something wonderfully macabre about them, with their crushed velvet drapes and satin lined capes! Sherlock Holmes takes place in the very real world away from monsters and vampires and all the things that supernaturally go bump in the night. So imagine my delight when one episode does dive into a macabre story that calls back to my childhood, evoking those same feelings as the Hammer horror movies! I know it’s down to the director and camera crew getting things just right: a twisted zoom in here with a touch of creepy music there, but The Devil’s Foot is a magical story and one I am delighted they brought to life so effectively. While there is nothing supernatural about it, it has all the makings of a great horror story. The reality is that it’s no different than any other of Watson’s chronicled adventures in that murder is the order of the day, but the cinematography really brings this one to another level.
The episode opens with a break-in, but after that, we get to the real crime… The game is a foot alright!
While Holmes is on sabbatical in the country, a local vicar comes calling. It seems one of the neighbors has died a horrible death and her two brothers have been driven totally insane. The inspector on the case finds nothing amiss but is taken by a wave of vertigo when he approaches the fireplace. Later, the one intact brother, Mortimer, turns up dead with the same symptoms as his sister. Holmes has his work cut out for him.
Mortimer Tregennis mistimed his crime. Thinking his neighbor, Dr. Sterndale, would be back in Africa, he used a poisonous root to kill his family. His sister Brenda was closest to the fireplace, where the root was burned, so she died, but her two brothers went utterly mad instead. This also explains the inspectors slight turn the next day before the housekeeper had opened the windows. Sherlock realizes that Dr. Sterndale has come back home upon learning of the death of Brenda Tregennis; but without his luggage which Holmes finds suggestive. He pieces together that Sterndale was in love with Brenda.
Holmes: “I followed you!”
Sterndale: “I saw no one!”
Holmes: “That is what you may expect to see when I follow you!”
Sterndale also turns out to be the owner of the house that was broken into at the start of the episode. He had showed the root to Mortimer and knows exactly who committed the crime. The root, The Devils Foot, was obtained on his journeys to Africa, and can kill or lead to madness if inhaled while burning. Holmes puts it to the test, nearly killing himself and Watson in the process.
Brenda and her 3 brothers were playing cards before the whole thing happened. With the weather turning bad, Brenda offered to let Mortimer stay but his two brothers still held a grudge for a wrong thought long in the past. Mortimer, upset by the event, uses the root to end the war between them. Sterndale, realizing who broke into his house, and why, then uses some of the remaining root to kill Mortimer.
Holmes: “I have never loved. But if I did, and if the woman I had loved had met with such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion-hunter has done. Wouldn’t you?”
Holmes yet again lets the killer go. In this case, he feels Sterndale did the wrong thing for the right reasons. I can’t argue with it and actually love that we have a hero who can think for himself. I guess I’m chaotic good, in fantasy terms… But in researching this episode, I learned of another hero in our midst… Jeremy Brett himself. It seems Brett had learned this series was popular with children. Afraid that he was giving them the wrong message, he obtained permission from the Doyle estate to have Holmes ditch his cocaine addiction. He walks out to the beach and, in perhaps a less than safe way, buries the syringe in the sand.
A diabolically good episode. The use of negative lighting, blood, and the flashbacks to Moriarty while Holmes undergoes the terrifying ordeal of inhaling the Devil’s Foot makes this a visual wonder. Coupled with the madness portrayed by the actors, this story can keep you up at night. Well worth pursuing this one just to experience it for yourselves! ML