Director Terence Fisher redeemed himself after the fiasco of The Phantom of the Opera with this gothic romance featuring a predatory woman with looks that kill. Featuring Hammer Films lurid use of Technicolor, it chooses to bring chills rather than scares compared to prior releases by the studio. Tragic love, severe calcification, and an ensemble cast combine to deliver the goods in this mostly forgotten movie.
Having bombed spectacularly with a remake of The Phantom of the Opera two years before, Terence Fisher was on the outs with Hammer Films. Fortunately for him and for horror fans, he was given another chance with a new property to direct. Stepping away from remaking old classic monster movies, Hammer took a risk by reviving a monster from Greek myth as the star villain. While the results looked silly even by the standards of the time, the rest of the movie almost made up for it.
Like many a Hammer intro, a matte painting of a castle on a hill opens the movie while serving as a backdrop for the title credits and a short crawl defining the setting. It is a strangely comforting indication that we’ll be getting one of their typical stories set in the 1800s filled with lavish sets, lovely women, and fiendish villainy.
Well, once the scroll finishes the story goes straight for the middle part, at least.
The tradition of pretty actresses in diaphanous white gowns is not present, however. Instead we are presented with a topless girl modeling for an artist. Though tastefully shot from the back, the scene and nude sketches pinned to the walls serve as foreshadowing of the studio putting out more prurient content in later films.
Special attention should be called toward the theater poster hanging prominently on one wall. It features a woman with hair like coiling snakes…
Vacationing artist Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst) is clearly enjoying sketching the raven tressed local girl. In fact, he’s been enjoying her company a little too much and there are serious consequences. Those consequences wind up with both venturing into the night shrouded forest under a baleful full moon.
Wandering off into dark forests during full moons never works out well in these kinds of stories, so you won’t be surprised that things do not work out between the two. Oddly prominent is a shot of a small Christian shrine nailed to a tree. You will see it again.
Eerie wordless singing drifts through the air and Sascha (Toni Gilpin) spies something horrible. How do we know it’s horrible? She screams a lot, then collapses with a group of strange marks on her forehead. Anything that causes instant severe acne has to be horrible, in my opinion.
Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley) enters the picture to take up the now vacant lead female role. An elegant beauty, Carla is the chief nurse at the town of Vandorf’s medical institution and assistant to Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing). Right off the bat the doctor radiates an aura hinting that he is not to be trusted. Compounding the impression is an exchange with the local inspector, Kanof (Patrick Troughton sans recorder and TARDIS) revealing that they are covering up the nature of the deaths occurring in the area.
Of course, how could anyone explain to the public how the victims have turned into stone? Caught between a rock and hard place they would have to keep it all secret.
Feel free to wince at my terrible pun. I certainly did.
A new protagonist enters the picture in the form of Bruno’s very angry father, Professor Heitz (Michael Goodcliffe). Possessing a sharp wit and a sharper tongue, the bereaved man suffers fools poorly and there is no shortage of them in Vandorf.
Our new protagonist quickly demonstrates the most effective ways to not win friends and influence enemies during some very tense scenes. One of the better lines in the movie comes from Heitz during a verbal duel with Namaroff over the possibility that the Greek myth of the Gorgon sisters might have some basis in truth. With the local doctor advocating scientific method, the professor retorts, “I believe in everything the human brain cannot disprove.”
That right there is the basis for suspension of disbelief that enables fantastical stories to be enjoyed. Alas for this movie, there will be a glaring problem involving this in a bit.
Dramatic arguments over what constitutes scientific method aside, putting pressure on the local authorities backfires rather spectacularly for the aggressive outsider. Welcome he is not, so Heitz decides he’d better inform his other son of the situation.
The cast just keeps expanding, so two more characters are introduced via the device of a telegram from the embattled professor. Employed by Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee), Paul Heitz (Richard Pasco) gives the impression of being a beta male surrounded by alphas in his life.
Back in the countryside, Castle Borski fills the haunted house quota for the film. One of Hammer’s great assets were the miniature builders who along with the matte painters brought spooky countryside castles alive on screen in so many of the studio’s motion pictures. I particularly enjoyed the night shot captured above right.
Lured there by the strange wordless singing, Professor Heitz finds it in an oddly unlooted state of decay. Again Hammer’s luscious set designs make an intriguing backdrop for supernatural evil doings with this location featuring strangely eroded statues.
Unfortunately, this is where the movie blows a great deal of the tension it is has generated thanks to a far too early reveal of the mystery monster. It would be forgivable if the snake tressed gorgon lived up to the studio’s normally excellent makeup effects, however this is really poor even accounting for early 1960’s technology.
So much for our second supposed protagonist. Time to reset the plot and repeat events with some variations to make the script look less lazy.
Okay, I promise Paul will be our protagonist for the film after two false starts. Apparently all the Heitz men had to have their turn in the spotlight. Don’t ask me why.
So Paul steps into the “annoy the locals” shoes so recently vacated and immediately falls head over heels for Carla. Showing a lot of interest in return, the woman finds herself fending off the pawings of her jealous boss who is getting creepier by the minute.
In fact, almost all the locals are getting weirder with standout Ratoff (Jack Watson) showing psychopathic tendencies normally not desirable in an orderly at a hospital. Other than Carla, everyone seems hostile toward Paul.
Maybe it is because he’s such a chick magnet. Hardly anytime passes before Meagara the Gorgon (Prudence Hyman) shows an interest in the young man. I really don’t get it. Are they that hard up for men in Vandorf that wimpy upper class dweebs are considered a catch?
Things happen. Romance inexplicably arises. Weird behavior abounds. Yeah, that sums up what happens rather concisely.
And… another protagonist shows up as well. Sorry about that, I was wrong to promise Paul was our final lead.
Professor Meinster arrives like a force of nature in the sleepy town and shakes things up with his intimidating presence. Not one for patience, his threats bear immediate fruit that is not at all to Paul’s taste. Arrogant and determined, Meinster is the first competent hero in the story.
Sadly, we’ve had to wait until the final third of the movie for him.
It isn’t long until all the secrets are revealed… at great cost to everyone.
At times the movie unspools more like a stage play than a motion picture which may not go over well with modern audiences. Running at less than an hour and a half, it somehow packs a great deal of exposition while feeling slow despite the short length.
Constant changeovers in the lead hero is somewhat problematic too, since the audience never gets to fully bond with someone to relate to. Just when you are used to one of the Heitz men, he’s replaced. Carla is deliberately written as something of a cypher, so expect no help there.
That said, Fisher got back into the gothic horror groove he needed to with this movie. Darkly atmospheric and filled with uniformly good acting performances, it is the perfect kind of movie to catch late at night on a cable channel. Of course, that’s exactly how I first saw it.
Beautifully lensed, it is a tour de force of filming night scenes and Michael Reed employed some very creative angles in composing his shots. I can only hope the screen captures convey just how lovely the movie is.
Not rated, The Gorgon would be solidly PG-13 by today’s standards. Risque art pinned to the cottage walls contributes the most to this along with a bit of gore in the finale. Parental guidance is definitely suggested and I don’t recommend it for children.
It could have been much a better movie and instead is one of the more obscure horror flicks put out by Hammer Films. In the end, I can only recommend it to fans of Hammer Films, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing. Oh and insomniacs looking to kill time late at night, of course.
My copy of The Gorgon is the first film on Disc 2 of the Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films DVD set issued by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Despite sharing the disc with another movie, the picture quality is excellent. Featuring a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the colors are vibrant and the contrast is simply fantastic for a DVD of an older film. Natural grain is present while the focus is sharp, so kudos need to be given to the engineers who worked on the conversion process.
Audio consists of only a Dolby Digital Monaural English track and English subtitles. Like the picture quality, the soundtrack is clean and clear.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which gives away almost the entire movie. If you thought modern trailers are bad in that regard, this one could allow you to skip the movie entirely.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
Only when writing this review did I realize that just about every character was stalking another in the story. Carla stalks Paul. Namaroff stalks Carla. Ratoff stalks Carla and then Paul. Meagara stalks all sorts of people. The town of Vandorf is filled with stalkers!
I liked the scene where Carla reveals an imperious side, commanding from the throne in the abandoned castle with a previously hidden haughtiness. Besotted with her, Paul is far too dense to pick up on what’s going on with her. His kiss does snap her out of it, though.
Meinster’s break in is another quality moment. It captured the nervousness and tension inherent in a normally law abiding type committing a crime. Lee really went to town with this heroic role.
Watching Lee and Cushing go at it as adversaries was always fun, but having them reverse their normal roles of good and bad made this ten times more entertaining. If their performances could be compared to the settings on an audio amplifier, they took this scene to eleven.
Cushing put a lot into his performance, conveying a man who broke all the rules he normally observed out of love and then emotionally breaking down in the process. Convinced he’s doing what he must in order to protect Carla, Namaroff becomes a tragic villain by the end.
The finale makes up for the dearth of action in the movie all in one go. A swashbuckling fight between Carla’s would be suitors is as energetic as any Hammer Films presented.
Ah Meagara. Your rubber snakes have to be one of the worst fright wigs in cinema history. They didn’t so much writhe as just spasm making them something to laugh at rather than be scared of.
I’d be as horrified as Namaroff if a gal with that bad a makeup job got up close and personal. Even Tammy Faye Baker’s troweled on cosmetics looked better than this.
Man, Hammer’s normally excellent make up artists totally botched this.
Paul dies so pathetically I was incapable of feeling sorry for the man. What an idiot he turned out to be.
Again the fake snakes looked terrible and the fake head even worse. After masterful effects a decade earlier, how Hammer went this far downhill I don’t understand. Perhaps it was a rushed production.
Oh yeah, Carla was Meagara. Surprise!
Actually, the whole thing of her being possessed by the spirit of the gorgon was a real cop out given the amnesia storyline. It would have been far more compelling for her to have always been the gorgon trying to become human again instead.
The ending is quite a downer befitting a Greek tragedy. The only main character to survive is Meinster and frankly the only one who deserved to. Tis a pity the heroic professor wasn’t in more of the story.