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The Gorgon (1964)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE GORGON (1964)

Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, Michael Goodliffe

Written By: John Gilling, J. Llewellyn Devine (story) Directed By: Terence Fisher

The Short Version

Hammer tries out a monster that’s never used in horror.

Shh… They’re really remixing the werewolf story.  Don’t tell anyone.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee aren’t the real leads here.

Hammer just can’t do mystery, and the effects are awful.

The Gorgon is worth it for Hammer fans, but falls flat overall despite its cool twist.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PARMESAN.

It’s hard as stone, but everyone just shreds and grates it to bits.


Pairs Well With...

SACRED STONE.

Delicious blended California red wine for those who miss the bloody tang usually present in Hammer films.

“Doctor, you’ll perform an autopsy?”

“On a body that’s turned to stone?”


After several years of success with classic horror monsters and monster-makers, Hammer was ready to try something new come 1964.  Well, almost new, anyway.

What they decided to do was recycle the old lycanthrope story and replace the werewolf with a monster from antiquity that no one had bothered to use in horror before: a Gorgon.  [For those unsure of what that is, think one of Medusa’s sisters.  If you don’t know who Medusa is, then I would dare to suggest that you are in dire need of finding a book on mythology.  Not a search engine; a real book.  They’re good for you, really.  But anyway.]  And you know what?  It was a really great idea.

Notice that I said “great idea” and not “great movie.”

Our story takes place in a remote Germanic burgh called Vandorff sometime in the early 20th Century.  We immediately meet a Bohemian artist painting a picture of a nude woman.  (Since this is 1964, however, the audience never sees anything naughty even though the model is indeed clearly nude.)  As one might guess, there’s more going on between them than a platonic artist/model relationship, and it just wouldn’t be a movie if she didn’t pick this moment to mention that she’s pregnant with his child.  An argument ensues, and he storms off into the woods, with her following close behind.  The next morning, both are found dead: him hanged, and her… turned to stone.

As it turns out, she’s not the first person to be found “stone dead” in this area.  Over the past five years, seven victims have be killed in a similar fashion, though the locals don’t like to talk about it.  Indeed, the coroner is quick to announce that the artist did it and hanged himself afterward out of remorse; case closed.  But the young man’s father doesn’t believe it, and he intends to get to the bottom of things, starting with rumors about a Gorgon…

As noted, The Gorgon starts with a fantastic idea.  After all, it’s a very rare thing for the horror genre to try something new, even if it is built upon a familiar framework.  Not only is the premise interesting, but the movie’s also got Hammer’s “dream team” on board: actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and director Terence Fisher.  If anyone could make this idea work, surely they could.

And for their own parts, they do.  As he’d proven time and again during Hammer’s Frankenstein movies, Cushing is a master at playing the hyper-intelligent scientist with dark secrets to keep, and he does so here once more as Dr. Namaroff, the director of the local hospital.  Christopher Lee, meanwhile, gets a rare chance at the hero’s role in his turn here as Professor Meister, whose resemblance to the Van Helsing archetype ought to give Lee’s Dracula fans a good chuckle even as they enjoy his performance.  And Fisher – the man in the big chair for most of Hammer’s greatest efforts – again proves himself to be an efficient craftsman: building an atmosphere and moving the story along as naturally as though the audience were right there in town.  As Lee himself would later note, The Gorgon is indeed a “beautiful looking picture.”

So what’s the problem?

First off, the magnificently talented Lee and Cushing may get top billing, but they are not the stars of the show.  Rather, they’re supporting players (Lee in fact doesn’t show up for more than a two sentence insert until well into the second half of the film), and the man in the lead just isn’t up to their level.  Richard Pasco maybe have been recognized by the British government thirteen years later for his “services to drama,” but here, his performance reminds me of nothing so much as watching a particularly annoyed deer in headlights.  Of course it’s unfair to hold anyone’s talent up to the standards of Lee and Cushing, but since the two are right there, it’s rather hard not to, and since his plot device of a character (yes, the lead character is written as a mechanism instead of as a person) isn’t doing him any favors, either…  It’s just bad luck for Pasco, and a drag for the audience.

But with Fisher at the helm, this shouldn’t be a problem, and indeed it is not nearly as big a problem as it could have been precisely because of Fisher’s talents.  Unfortunately, the script is conspiring against the director, too.  As mentioned before, The Gorgon is built around the standard werewolf framework, with the title monster standing in for the werewolf.  The way this works is that just as with a classic lycanthrope, an otherwise perfectly nice human being transforms into a murderous monster whenever the full moon shows up.  After the moon is down, the person returns to normal, with no memory of any murderous rampage.  So far, so good.  The problem is that the script does not make the unfortunate person aware of who/what she really is, even though it’s absolutely obvious to the audience the entire time.  (There are only two possibilities, and the plainly labeled red herring is eliminated from suspicion even for dullards rather early on.)  This makes the proceedings a bit tedious despite Fisher’s best efforts, as the audience is made to sit through a non-mystery made worse by a lead character (Pasco's) who voluntarily elects to play dumb about things even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  Yes, making the Gorgon’s alter ego self-aware would have required a massive rewrite of the script, but I really think the movie would have been better for it.

And then there’s the physical matter of the transformed Gorgon herself, which everyone – including the producer and the cast – tends to gravitate toward naming as the primary problem with the film.  I can’t say that I disagree, either: had the creature looked good, the rest of the film’s sins would probably have faded into the background for me.  Unfortunately, the mechanical snakes look hideously bad, and the decision to use a completely different actress to play the transformed Gorgon doesn’t help, either.  The overall effect is that of someone wearing a mud mask and particularly ugly curlers with children’s toy attached, and that’s “scary” only in a sense that the studio never intended.

Producer Anthony Nelson Keys knew it, too; once he saw the final film, he regretted going for quick expediency instead of following actress Barbara Shelley’s pre-production suggestion.  She had wanted to play the Gorgon herself, with a wig that had real live garden snakes attached to it.  While this certainly wouldn’t make any modern branch of SPCA happy, the fact is that it would have made for a much better, much more interesting monster, and possibly even been enough to vault The Gorgon to “classic” status.

As it stands, despite the best efforts of Hammer’s signature director and the always-worthwhile contributions of the studio’s two greatest actors – Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing – The Gorgon is instead a mere sidenote to the genre.  Worth it for established fans, but for the casual viewer?  Not unless it’s raining when the movie happens to come on.

Bottom line, while The Gorgon isn’t bad, per se, it’s disappointing enough that only established Hammer Horror fans will want to go out of their way to see it.  For those people, there are certainly enough treats here to make The Gorgon worth your time, but for more casual horror audiences, it’s easy enough to skip.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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