The Gorgon

Movie Information

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Gorgon Thursday, June 10, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville. Hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Richard Pasco, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe
Rated: NR

Back in their day, the Hammer horror films were considered to be quite graphic and bloody. Today, they seem positively restrained, but don’t sell the studio at its best short—and Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) is definitely Hammer at its best. Premise-wise you mightn’t think so, but somehow transporting a monster from Greek mythology to Germany circa 1900 actually works. Of course, realism isn’t exactly a staple of horror, nor is it a staple of Hammer, with its theatricality, its fairy-tale aura and its use of color that evokes the Pre-Raphaelite painters. These latter elements, however, can create a potent mix of sinister creepiness, as they do here, especially with the presence of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

In terms of its mythology, The Gorgon is one of the studio’s more unusual films—and one that, on the surface at least, appears to owe little to the old Universal product. Well, that idea holds up for at least part of the film. When it suddenly transpires that the title horror is actually embodied in a human form and only transforms into her snake-topped self during the full moon, it’s obvious that the old stuff was only lurking in the shadows. Still, the film is unique in creating cinema’s only were-gorgon. There’s something to be said for that on its own merits.

The story—bereft of its unusual monster—is reasonably standard. A young—and apparently rather Bohemian artist (he’s sketching her topless, after all)—Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst) has a row with his inconveniently pregnant model/girlfriend (Toni Gilpin). He goes off to tell her father that he won’t evade his “responsibilities,” and she runs off into the night, falling prey to—something. Since the distraught young man has either hanged himself or been hanged (more likely), the authorities opt for the explanation that he killed her and then committed suicide. This appears to sit better with them than admitting that yet another citizen of Vandorf has been turned to stone. I guess that does look awkward on the police report.

However, Bruno’s father, Jules (Michael Goodliffe), isn’t buying it and comes to find out the truth for himself. What he finds instead is the gorgon—and the same fate as the girl, but he manages to write a letter to his other son, Paul (Richard Pasco), who, after his own brush with the creature, calls in his old friend Professor Meister (Christopher Lee) to help. The sinister head of the local medical institution, Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing), obviously knows more than he is telling, and his pretty assistant, Carla (Barbara Shelley), has her suspicions. All this leads to the inevitable showdown with the monster in her lair, a ruined castle.

Several things are remarkable about the film—including Christopher Lee’s performance, which is probably the most interesting and human one in his entire Hammer career, and as is often the case, is accomplished with relatively little screen time. This may also be the most atmospheric film of Terence Fisher’s career, and that’s saying something. Here, the Pre-Raphaelite sensibility truly serves the story. And, for once, he manages to create a film that isn’t over-lit in its darker scenes. It’s also a surprisingly somber film, which is less strange when you consider that it’s ultimately a tale of doomed love that plays out like a tragedy dressed up as a horror picture.

In other ways, The Gorgon is very much a Hammer film—complete with its Cockney-accented German peasants and its thundering (but very effective) James Bernard musical score. If you know Hammer, you know what this means in terms of screaming lunatics, stubborn officials, busty women, shock cuts—and the occasional close-up of some internal organ just for show. These things in themselves give the Hammer oeuvre a certain naive charm, but don’t keep them from telling an involving story.

What’s usually cited as the film’s biggest problem (even by Christopher Lee) is the gorgon herself (Prudence Hyman). It isn’t that she’s not horrific. She’s certainly that, especially when seen in shadow and shadowy close-up. The problem is a technical one, which is to say that the business of a head covered in writhing snakes was somewhat beyond the 1964 technical level. To say they aren’t realistic—to the degree that the realism of something we’ve never actually seen can be judged—is probably something of an understatement, but that doesn’t keep the image from being strangely unsettling. Try it for yourself and see what I mean.

Starting at 7:40 “The Invisible Circle,” chapter five of the thrilling Bela Lugosi serial The Return of Chandu (1934) will play, followed by the Betty Boop cartoon I Heard, so get there early.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

15 thoughts on “The Gorgon

  1. Dionysis

    “Christopher Lee’s performance, which is probably the most interesting and human one in his entire Hammer career”

    I agree; Lee’s performance (in Hammer films) is probably only matched by his turn in another title, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (where he also played the ‘good guy’ for a change). And it was definitely one of Terence Fisher’s better directorial efforts.

  2. Ken Hanke

    probably only matched by his turn in another title, ‘The Devil Rides Out’

    Maybe. I suspect a case can be made, but I never can fairly assess the performance because I find the film almost unwatchably cheesy. At least it gives him something to do, which so often these films offer him little other than to be a presence.

  3. Dionysis

    ” I find the film almost unwatchably cheesy”

    Yeah, but it does have a cool looking goat/devil at the end.

  4. Chip Kaufmann

    The final appearance of the Gorgon was not so much a limited technical problem as it was a financial one. Plans to use a wig with live garden snakes were scrapped as too expensive. Later producer Anthony Nelson Keys said that he wished he had spent the extra money but, as in the case of NIGHT OF THE DEMON, how realistic the Gorgon looks is not the point of the film.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Plans to use a wig with live garden snakes were scrapped as too expensive.

    Not on my head. Actually, this sounds like an idea doomed to grotesque failure to me, but since it wasn’t tried we’ll never know.

    as in the case of NIGHT OF THE DEMON, how realistic the Gorgon looks is not the point of the film

    The Demon generally looks just fine, though. It’s the Karswell rag doll that looks hokey. Still, the comparison is apt enough and realism is hardly the point. Anyway, the Gorgon may not look real (like anyone knows?), but she’s still creepy as hell.

  6. Good to see that you chose a Hammer picture that features three of the key players (Fisher, Lee and Cushing). If it had a Jimmy Sangster script, it would be quintessential.

  7. Ken Hanke

    If it had a Jimmy Sangster script, it would be quintessential

    A really debatable point to me. The Sangster scripted Hammers are among the ones I like least (Brides of Dracula to one side).

  8. Ken Hanke

    I want to thank everyone who came to the screening tonight — one of our bigger crowds — and helped make the evening such a pleasant one. I thought the attitude of laughing — not unkindly — at the cheesier parts struck just the right tone.

  9. CWorkman

    Parts of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT may be cheesy, but other parts are downright spooky, such as the demonic spirit appearing in the smoke emitted by the goat’s head in the marble floor.

    But about THE GORGON, it should be noted that Barbara Shelley was an advocate of the live-snake-headed skull cap – and she herself wanted to play the part. I imagine the film would have been better had Hammer taken this approach. As it is, however, it’s still very, very good, with some wonderfully atmospheric cinematography. In terms of color schemes, it looks the most like Fisher’s THE MUMMY (1959).

  10. Ken Hanke

    Parts of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT may be cheesy, but other parts are downright spooky, such as the demonic spirit appearing in the smoke emitted by the goat’s head in the marble floor

    All of which is pretty much undone by a spectacularly lame ending so far as I’m concerned.

    But about THE GORGON, it should be noted that Barbara Shelley was an advocate of the live-snake-headed skull cap – and she herself wanted to play the part. I imagine the film would have been better had Hammer taken this approach.

    I have yet to be convinced of this because I have yet to be convinced that the idea is practical. How do you keep the snakes secured? The holes could, I suppose be too small for the mid-section of the snake to pass through, but then a rather small portion would actually appear, and you’d be faced with a significant section of serpent underneath. Multiply that by, say, 20 or 30 of these things and you end up with something awfully large just to contain the out-of-view portions of the snakes. This doesn’t begin to take into account the question of whether they’d writhe or tend to just flop there, nor does it factor in them biting (snakes do bite whether they’re poisonous or not). The thing is, having just seen it with an audience, I noticed that the gorgon herself drew no laughs. What do are the rubber head hitting the floor and, more, the shot of the snakes retracting.

    In terms of color schemes, it looks the most like Fisher’s THE MUMMY (1959).

    But it’s much more enjoyable than The Mummy, I think.

  11. CWorkman

    According to everyone involved, the live-snake-headed cap was actually created and looked great, so when the producers decided to go with a special effect, everyone was surprised. I’ll trust Shelley’s and Fisher’s judgment, since they were there and I wasn’t.

    About THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, I like the ending – except for the special effects, and those are bad enough in spots to almost kill it. It should be noted that Hammer didn’t trust Fisher to do them (though his films up until that time have fine fx – particularly the resurrection of Dracula in DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS). Thus, for the last two weeks of special effects photography, they were turned over to someone else. The result? Well… you see it on the screen, and it ain’t pretty.

  12. Ken Hanke

    According to everyone involved, the live-snake-headed cap was actually created and looked great, so when the producers decided to go with a special effect, everyone was surprised.

    Did anyone bother to photograph this contraption or say what the producer rationale was for not using it?

    those are bad enough in spots to almost kill it

    As far as I’m concerned, they do kill it.

  13. CWorkman

    It may have been photographed, but if so, I’ve never seen it presented anywhere.

    There have been a couple of different reasons bandied about for why the producers didn’t go with it. I imagine that, ultimately, it was for the same reason producers insist on digitals these days when live-action would look far better. They think we all want cool FX (which they often can’t deliver) rather than something that looks real. (And maybe with some fans, they’re correct in their thinking; I just don’t happen to be one of them.)

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