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.