A British horror film made in the first half of the 1960s that tried to cash in on Greek mythology ends up being a bit hit and miss, despite having some interesting credentials. Mark Fraser revisits a work which, while in no way objectionable, still requires a little patience.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Movie buffs with a penchant for Hammer Film Productions’ late fifties/early sixties output should easily enjoy Terence Fisher’s 1964 opus The Gorgon given it contains plenty of the studio’s stock-in-trademarks from this era
For a start it boasts two of Hammer’s favourite leads – Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – who, in this instance, play the villain and hero respectively, with the latter providing what could arguably be one of the most eccentric performances of his career.
The film also contains some sumptuous cinematography (which this time is not the work of regular studio cameraman Jack Asher, but Canadian Michael Reed), a number of interesting and atmospheric gothic sets (by Bernard Robinson), great costumes (Rosemary Burrows), an eerie score (James Bernard) as well as a satisfying dose of over-the-top make-up (Roy Ashton).
Additionally, the movie has all of the plot elements of a Hammer movie from this period. Aside from a haunted castle and associated curse, there is also a variation of the sinister doctor (Cushing) and his attractive assistant (Barbara Shelly) as well as a murder mystery that involves the supernatural.
When all cobbled together, this should have been quite a fun horror romp – and to some extent it is.
But for those who are sticklers for details – plot or otherwise – the film doesn’t quite come up to scratch.
Written by John Gilling (and based on an original story by J Llewellyn Devine), The Gorgon plays its hand far too soon to maintain any prolonged sense of the mysterious – especially during its final act. Furthermore, by its closing moments, it has been more interesting as a treatise on small town politics than as a bona fide chiller.
This is not to say the movie makes any sweeping statements about society in general; nor is there a shortage of horror clichés. It is, though, more of a melodrama than a straight out scare fest and, because of this, its best moments are when the characters are at their most argumentative.
Set in the presumably German village of Vandorf circa 1910 (a town which seems small, but is big enough to have its own medical institute), The Gorgon starts out in typical Hammer fashion when a young unmarried couple – the artist Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst) and his girlfriend-model Sascha (Toni Gilpin) – are found dead in the forest following a lovers’ tiff, during which Sascha reveals she is pregnant.
Although the murderous perpetrator is not shown, a piece of written exposition at the start of the movie explains that one of the three Gorgons from ancient Greece, Magaera*, had fled to the area at the turn of the century after her sisters Stheno and Medusa were killed. Not surprisingly, it is believed she is living in the ominous Castle Borski which overlooks the rural hamlet.
Thus the stage is set rather expeditiously as the key clues are quickly provided. First, Sascha is turned to stone (while Bruno hangs himself), suggesting the possibility (assuming things were “normal”) of a murder-suicide. Second, it is the latest in a series of seven unsolved murders which have occurred in the district over five years wherein the victims have been “Gorgonised” (that is, petrified in rock – a term thrown into the script with a complete straight face) on a night of the full moon. Third, it turns out there has been a cover-up regarding the aforementioned homicides amongst the town’s authorities (namely the medical fraternity as represented by Cushing’s Dr Namaroff and local police chief Inspector Kanof, who is played by one time Dr Who Patrick Troughton).
While Namaroff lies through his teeth at a kangaroo coronial enquiry into the latest murders (“Her death was undoubtedly the result of violence. I observed deep abrasions around the head and there were indentations in the skull that may have been caused by some metal instrument,” he tells the coroner [Joseph O’Conor]), Bruno’s father – visiting literature professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe) – sees things differently as he tries to clear his son’s “good name”.
“I have read about the unsolved Vandorf murders – I have also listened to the evidence and opinions given in this court,” he tells the enquiry.
“In my opinion everything I have heard has been generated by fear; evidence so obviously circumstantial, prejudiced and contrived, making one innocent man the scapegoat.”
Later, when he goes to visit his ex-university pal Namaroff at the medical institute, Heitz further suggests the explanation for Bruno and Sascha’s deaths “lies in the past” involving “some horrible occurance which has been supressed” – and possibly connected to Magaera.
“For the people of Vandorf this thing, or whatever it is, is real; something they cannot mention because they dare not,” Heitz grimly observes.
Up until this point it’s a case of so far so good, with plenty of potentially scary stuff to move proceedings along. It is also around here, however, that The Gorgon gets a bit loose and starts losing a little of its initial momentum.
For instance, despite being fully aware of the Gorgon curse, Heitz is stupidly lured to the castle by Magaera’s eerie singing and is Gorgonised, the process being drawn out long enough for him to stumble back to Bruno’s house and write a three-and-a-half page letter to his other son Paul (Richard Pascoe), in which he again refers to “this terrible thing stalking amongst the people of Vandorf” which has created “a conspiracy of silence and fear”.
Upon arriving at the village, Paul also finds Namaroff evasive. He does, however, receive some advice from the doctor’s assistant (and object of desire) Carla Hoffman (Shelley), who not only warns him about the Gorgon, but claims it “has also been known to enter this house”. Later on this definitely turns out to be true, when the young man is almost turned to stone by the hideous creature.
After Paul’s stint in hospital (during which he and Carla start falling in love), Professor Karl Miester (Lee) from Leipzig University turns up to help. A friend of the Heitz family, the no-nonsense Miester is particularly keen to get to the bottom of this mystery – so much so that he not only has the audacity to verbally threaten Kanof, but also burglarises Namaroff’s office in his search for further clues.
Meanwhile, Namaroff asks hospital heavy Ratoff (Jack Watson) to follow Carla as the full moon is approaching, suggesting her life will be in danger. Why? Well, by this time, things are becoming a little obvious – although on this particular night she doesn’t transform into a Gorgon, but instead goes to the local cemetery where she finds Paul digging up his father’s grave and uncovering the petrified corpse.
Although the evidence for a cover-up is now irrefutable, the young man doesn’t really act upon it. Instead it is up to the forceful Miester to string the pieces together for him and, ultimately, purge humankind of the Gorgon curse. If anything, this performance shows what Lee would have been like if he had played Van Helsing rather than Dracula.
As indicated above, there a few holes in The Gorgon’s narrative which make it mildly frustrating.
For a start, if the denizens of Vandorf knew of the curse, then why did poor Sascha decide to go running off after Bruno by herself through the forest on the night of the full moon? Surely as a local (her father – Alister Williamson – is the town’s inn keeper), she would have been a little more mindful of the dangers involved with this. (And, in relation to this, it is suggested in the script that Bruno is something of an itinerant who “comes every year to Vandorf and rents the place” – a comment which is somewhat contradicted by his house’s set design.)
Secondly, why does Carla react with such surprise and horror at seeing Sascha’s Gorganised body for the first time when it’s obvious she has seen this sort of thing before? Furthermore, why does she question’s Namaroff’s deceitful testimony at the colonial enquiry when she too would be fully aware of his role in the cover up?
Thirdly, it seems that the full moon comes around pretty quickly in this neck of the woods. And, in relation to this, why have there been only seven murders in five years when, over the same period, there have been at least 60 full moons? Surely the body count should have been a bit higher after all this time.
Finally, why does Namaroff and Heitz refer to the Gorgon legend as being 2000 years old when – by 1910 – it would have only been around for some 1200 years? (One of the Gorgon’s first appearances in ancient Greek literature was in Homer’s epic narrative The Odyssey, which was written around late 700 AD; it was the Greek poet Hesoid who later increased the number of them to three. Another point to make here is that it was the Sirens, not the Gorgons, who lured men – like the elder Heitz – to their deaths through song.)
Regardless of all these petty gripes, The Gorgon is a classic-looking gothic Hammer film from a time when the English studio was at its peak.
And, despite some silly dialogue and misfired plot twists, the movie does have its moments – particularly when Cushing and Lee are in the picture.
Indeed, one of The Gorgon’s best, and possibly most gruesome, scenes is when Namaroff is performing an autopsy on the deceased crazy patient Martha (Joyce Hemson), whose behaviour earlier in the picture briefly suggests she may be the supernatural culprit.
After removing the brain from the poor woman’s skull and putting it in a jar, he matter-of-factly tells Carla: “It never ceases to amaze me why the most noble work of God – the human brain – is the most revolting to the human eye.”
It’s classic Cushing – and it shows why, after all these years, he has remained unrivalled as Dr Frankenstein.
*In Greek mythology she’s known as Euryale. A reasonable explanation for the name change is provided in one of the interviews featured in The Gorgon’s Blu-ray extras.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed The Gorgon on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films. The Gorgon was released as part of the HAMMER VOLUME ONE: FEAR WARNING! limited edition Blu-ray box set on Oct 30, 2017.