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The Gorgon (1964)

Dir: Terence Fisher.

 

When Bruno Heitz moves into the village of Vandorf and takes a local girl as his lover, the villagers who are already insular and suspicious take a deep mistrust in him. He's also an artist and as we know from these films this is the kind of decadent profession that makes them choke on their warm ale!

When the girl, who we see being waylaid in the woods by an unseen horror, is found dead and Bruno found hanging from a tree, the villagers and their constabulary blame him for her death. Everyone involved, including Professor Namaroff (Peter Cushing) who runs the nearby Asylum and the Chief of Police (Patrick Troughton), keeps quiet about the fact that (like various other victims over the years) the girl's body has been turned to stone.

Bruno's Professor Father disbelieves the authorities verdict and sets out to prove that there is something else to blame; that the village is in fact home to an ancient creature, the Gorgon, a spirit that inhabits female form and who's look can turn people to stone.

That night Professor Heitz hears singing coming from Castle Borski, an ancient dwelling place now empty and shunned by the locals. While investigating the ruin, Heitz catches sight of the Gorgon, he flees but is already stricken. With his final strength, as he slowly turns to stone, he writes a letter to his last surviving son, Paul, to carry on the investigation.
Paul sets out to uncover the mystery, but a close call with the Gorgon puts him in the hospital of Namaroff where he meets the Professor's assistant Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley) and (very quickly!) falls in love with her. Deciding he needs help to tackle the creature, he sends for his mentor Professor Meister (Christopher Lee) to help him end the terror once and for all......

 

This is a typical sedate Hammer horror made before their 70's struggles and full of that easy going charm most of the earlier films always had. The atmosphere of mystery and deceit is well spun over the viewer as Fisher expertly, if at times typically distantly keeps the story moving along nicely. It certainly never drags to a crawl like a lot of early Hammer films ("Dracula; Prince of Darkness" is a good example of this sometimes sleep inducing, mannered approach) and the fine cast helps keep you interested in the unfolding plot.

The pairing of Cushing and Lee is always welcome and both do a grand job. It's also nice to see a reverse in the roles they are playing.
The sinister character of Namaroff is the kind normally held in reserve for Lee, but Cushing adds a certain tragic pathos to the Professor that Lee wouldn't have, and he does it with practiced ease. Lee has fun as the loud and antagonistic Meister, who steamrollers over any obstacle with an eccentric manner that rubs people the wrong way, but yields results.



Troughton does a typically professional job, and huffs around in a suitably arrogant fashion but is given none of the wonderful writing to play with which resulted in such a memorable horror performance in "The Omen".
Shelley, a favourite of Hammer fans, is only adequate here in a role of very little substance that could have been played by any of the Hammer roster of beauties. She is certainly never given the chances to shine like she had in the aforementioned "Dracula Prince of Darkness", where her vampiric transformation was so memorable.

The sets are nicely done with Castle Borski being especially effective, but the outdoor scenes are badly studio bound and create a cloying, closed atmosphere that shows off the small budget badly. Roger Corman nearly always shot on location because of this cheapening effect indoors for outdoors sets always create and this film shows what a wise decision that was.

The Gorgon herself is well photographed and is surprisingly shown pretty early in the film, which makes a nice change to the normal case of not seeing the monster until the last ten minutes.
Her appearance, when shown full-on near the end, was a slight let down though to say the least, with this ancient evil looking more like an old women with too much make-up on and a rubber reptile filled wig. The snakes are very stiff in their movements and seem to be just wobbling around as opposed to writhing. But this effect would always be compromised on a film with this type of budget. At least Hammer's team certainly gave it a good try.

The sparse 80-minute running time makes for a no nonsense little film, but at the same time leaves the viewer strangely unfulfilled. So much more could have been made of the legends surrounding the Gorgon (as the excellent short story adaptation of the film does in the 'Hammer Horror Omnibus', which is well worth tracking down if you can as it also contains adaptations of "Curse/Revenge of Frankenstein" and "Curse of the Mummy's Tomb") and the village and it's superstitious inhabitants are sadly conspicuous by their absence for most of the film.

So not a bad movie at all.
It provides some easy entertainment and another chance to see, with Cushing and Lee, two masters of horror movies showing everyone around them how it's done.