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Popcorn Fall

Popcorn Pictures

Reviewing the best (and worst) of horror, sci-fi and fantasy since 2000

  • Andrew Smith

The Gorgon (1964)

"A monster with the power to turn living screaming flesh into stone"


Professor Jules Heitz arrives in the village of Vandorf to investigate the circumstances of the death of his son and his son’s girlfriend. He becomes suspicious when the local doctor Namaroff refuses to show him the bodies and is met with hostility by the villagers. Heitz investigates further in the ruined castle but is turned to stone. His other son, Paul, arrives with his friend Karl Meister to continue the investigation. Both men soon come to believe that Megaera, a gorgon from Greek myth, has taken human form as one of the townspeople and only emerges when the moon is full.


Hammer had started to run out of ideas after their initial boom of bringing the old Universal classics into glorious colour. Once they'd worked their magic on Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy, they had to come up with new monstrous fiends for their actors to battle. Numerous offerings such as The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies sprung up in the years following and here we have one of their first attempts to weave the Hammer magic onto something other than a Universal reworking. The Gorgon bares all of the hallmarks of the Hammer series, featuring the ultimate who's who of the studio: director Terence Fisher, producer Anthony Nelson Keys, production designer Bernard Robinson, composer James Bernard and leading actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It's top talent who brought the studio's biggest successes with The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, adding their magic to something different this time.

The Gorgon is ranked up there as one of Hammer's most genuinely uncanny and atmospheric and its easy to see why. The first half of The Gorgon works the best simply because there's not as many characters running around, the story has a set direction and it's drenched in atmosphere. It's exactly how you'd expect a film from Hammer maestro Terence Fisher to appear. There's an otherworldly presence lurking around in the night scenes, aided by some ethereal singing sounds. You're half-expecting the gorgon to pop out at any time whilst her victims stumble aimlessly around the castle. Of course being a low budget film, you're not going to see this creature until the very end. Thankfully the film plays upon this and the odd glimpse you do get of the gorgon is via silhouette or even a reflection in a fountain, adding to the mythology - it's almost as if we, the audience, are too afraid to look upon it. The script even messes with the gorgon mythology too so the victims don't immediately turn to stone: a slow and painful process of petrification sounds nasty and looks like it as a few of the characters here don't die straight away, adding a bit of drama to their final moments.

From a decent period flick, The Gorgon turns into more of a murder mystery with the main characters trying to work out who Megaera is. Well stupidly enough, only one female character is actually given any screen time so it won't take a rocket scientist to work out who it is from the start. And, because you know straight away who the gorgon is, it's actually pretty dull watching the characters run around trying to work it out for themselves. After the opening intrigue, the film gets bogged down with dialogue a little too much. When you've just created a decent set-up, the last thing you need to do is blow it all away like they nearly do here. However, the fact that the script is dealing with a female-centric twist on the usual monster formula (something The Reptile would also do) gives The Gorgon a little more room to breathe and develop.

Despite the sluggish middle third, the finale is a perfectly tense and poignant scene where the gorgon is confronted in the castle once and for all. The make-up effects team do their best to create snake-hair for Megaera and whilst they don't look particularly convincing, you'll barely get chance to have a good stare such is the emotional wallop of the final scenes. You just get the feeling that a little bit more of the monster wouldn't have gone amiss here, perhaps one or two extra kills to spice things up and build up the threat more. There is a sense that this problem is too small scale to be a massive concern to anyone outside of the local village and only the handful of people on screen have any reason to be worried.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing star together here and it's refreshing to see them swapping their usual roles. Cushing gets to play the villain (well not so much a villain but a misguided lover) whilst Lee gets to save the day as the hero (even though his character is brash and obnoxious). It's not their best work together but you're never going to get sloppy phone-in performances from either of them - consummate professionals. Despite their top billing, they don't get to share any screen time with each other until it's far too late in proceedings. There's good support from a variety of other actors including Patrick Troughton and Barbara Shelley. I always loved Hammer films for this aspect. They had a great pool of talent from which to assemble their supporting cast and they all do reliable, sometimes superb jobs. Never the main stars, they add that little extra credibility to the supporting roles.


Final Verdict

The Gorgon is a rather talkative art times and a bit too patchy to become an outright classic but for a standalone film outside of their big franchises, it's one of Hammer's best efforts. The Gothic vibe hasn't worn off yet and all of the big Hammer hitters seem to be on top form here either in front of or behind the camera. You will feel a bit uneasy and unsettled during The Gorgon's more atmospheric moments and the strong focus on theme and characterisation over cheap scares is much appreciated.


The Gorgon

Director(s): Terence Fisher

Writer(s): John Gilling (screenplay by), J. Llewellyn Devine (based on an original story by)

Actor(s): Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Richard Pasco, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe, Patrick Troughton

Duration: 83 mins


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