My favourite film aged 12: Young Sherlock Holmes

An exceptional protagonist, his daft mate and a gutsy girl go on an adventure in a supernatural public school ... A proto-Potter it may be, but this trippy origin story was a queasy tween delight

If I had to boil down my love of film to the most basic ingredients, they would probably be fun and escapism. They were definitely the only factors in play when I was 12. The prospect of the former kept me rushing off to the cinema for such 80s Gesamtkunstwerks as Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach (even with funster-in-chief Steve Guttenberg on furlough this time). The latter meant lapping up anything with the slightest whiff of “adventure”, which you could broadly define as: exotic locales, villains of the dastardly stripe, the kind of traps you can’t buy in B&Q, a hint of romance, and some end-goal booty (the pre-hip-hop kind). All things firmly beyond my 12-year-old ken in suburban Hull – but not beyond my imagination.

Unfortunately, Indiana Jones, the Frank Sinatra of adventure, only cracked the bullwhip every so often, which left me hunting in the meantime for alternatives. Matinee Tarzans exempted, my broad policy at the time was that old films = total boring crap. So I stupidly deprived myself of 1930s swashbucklers, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the other classics that had inspired Spielberg. Instead, everything adventure-flavoured seemed to come with Spielberg’s hallmark: he shepherded The Goonies, that prepubescent Indiana Jones-a-like, into being. But I preferred another Amblin film drawing from the same cobwebbed well: Young Sherlock Holmes.

Alan Cox and Nicholas Rowe.
Odd-couple origin story ... Alan Cox and Nicholas Rowe. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount Pictures

On the surface, it was because of the story’s Englishness and other familiar hooks. An origin story before the term was current, it explains the genesis of the deerstalker, the pipe, the odd-couple friendship between boarding-school pupils Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) and Watson (Alan Cox), and “the game is afoot”. An aloof but genius individualist hellbent on uncovering the truth definitely struck a chord with this swotty 12-year-old.

But I think the real reason Young Sherlock Holmes intrigued me was a grotesque streak that Indiana Jones reserved for the face-melting money shot. The budding detective is called to investigate a series of strange deaths following violent hallucinations; he later finds out that sinister hooded Egyptian cultists are stalking their victims through Victorian London with poisoned blowdarts. Something about the reality-bending effects – poultry dishes coming alive to attack diners, wrought iron hat racks strangulating people – got me. That queasy sense of being on psychologically unsure footing was too fascinating not to return to.

I’ve hardly given the film a second thought since the 1980s. Looking it up shows my 12-year-old self’s complete indifference to cinephile stuff: it turns out it was directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man) – who knew! Watching it again is a rummage in a Proustian toybox. I couldn’t have consciously told you about the hallucination scenes beforehand, but I can anticipate what happens in them beat-by-beat. Watson being stormed by a Lilliputian army of walking cream buns has stuck in my mind especially well. Oddly, the most impressive moment is the one I didn’t remember: the attack of the stained-glass knight, the first CGI character on film (animated by one John Lasseter, who would go on to direct Toy Story). It is genuinely uncanny and menacing.

Looking at Young Sherlock Holmes more coldly after 30 years, I can see why it flickered out at the box office, despite being prime tween-nip. The Rame-Tep cultist sequences are a diluted Temple of Doom knock-off. The plotting doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, designed to establish the fact of Holmes’s cleverness rather than actually being clever itself. Rowe is a good match for the twiggy silhouette, but well … a little wan. He doesn’t quite stamp us with the authority of Holmes’s genius.

The sequel that is set up in the post-credits sequence – a Moriarty tease – never happened. I once got on a plane to Turkey without knowing the exact destination, but a life of adventure hasn’t quite panned out as anticipated. But maybe something from Young Sherlock Holmes did endure. One last footnote: its screenwriter was Chris Columbus, more lately of Harry Potter directing fame. The similarities between both are incredibly striking, not just the public-school setting, but the dynamics of the central character triangle. A protagonist with exceptional talents, a dunderheaded best friend and a gutsy girl along for the ride is almost an exact match (though Cox’s Watson physically resembles Harry Potter more).

It seems like an obvious dry run for the all-conquering young adult dreadnought that followed 16 years later – though I was too old to have much interest by then. Thankfully, the My Little Colonialist vibe that tinged so much boy’s own stuff (try rewatching Temple of Doom now) was gone by the early 2000s – and, in fact, with Hermione no longer a simple love interest, this sort of territory was no longer solely boy’s own. Even escapism benefits from growing up.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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