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One of the lesser known horror thrillers to have emerged from Hammer Studios, The Gorgon (1964) is considered by some aficionados to be one of Hammer's most artistic and atmospheric films and even director Terence Fisher admitted it was a personal favorite. Screenwriter John Gilling adapted a story inspired by Greek mythology by J. Llewellyn Devine and created the first female monster for the studio's signature horror line. Set in the Central European village of Vandorf in 1910, the story focuses on a series of unsolved murders in which the victims have turned to stone. When Professor Heitz decides to learn the truth, he pays with his life but in his dying moments he manages to dispatch an urgent letter to his son Paul, who comes to investigate his father's death. Paul soon becomes attracted to Carla, the assistant to the local hospital director Dr. Namaroff, who has a secret agenda of his own. When Karl Meister (Christopher Lee), Paul's professor and his late father's friend, arrives on the scene, he uncovers evidence that points to a curse associated with the deserted Castle Borski, a place with an evil history. It all builds to a climax in which the murderer is unmasked under a full moon and the resulting consequences approach Greek tragedy.
The Gorgon was the first time since The Mummy (1959) that Terence Fisher, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had worked together and it was a harmonious experience for all. Fisher was still reeling from the disappointing critical and financial failure of his 1962 remake of The Phantom of the Opera for Hammer and needed a hit. Lee had recently completed The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) for the studio and was happy to be reunited with Cushing again, saying "We're great kidders and both of us caught the habit of making the other laugh which, sometimes, quite disastrous." This time around, Lee was the hero and Cushing was the villain. "I played an evil man," Cushing later admitted, "although to be fair, this character had a secret reason for behaving as he did." (from Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio)
Barbara Shelley, who became one of the great scream queens of British horror beginning in 1957 with Cat Girl, at first found Lee to be "rather bluff, pompous, intellectual" but later admitted she "began to see another side of Chris. Without ever allowing it to interfere with his discipline or professionalism, Chris has a beautiful dry sense of humor." The most disappointing aspect of The Gorgon for her was the title creature. [SPOILER ALERT] "When the Gorgon actually appeared," she said, "it was another actress made up. If I was needed on the set as Carla, it would take two hours to switch from the Gorgon - or even longer the other way." The film's producer, Anthony Nelson Keys, felt he needed two actresses for the role in order to protect the creature's secret identity. Shelley, however, tried to convince him she should play both roles and that for the Gorgon's wig, live green garden snakes should be woven into it for a more realistic effect. Her suggestions were ignored and actress Prudence Hyman was fitted with a headpiece with five wires that were manipulated from a box placed 25 feet behind her. The result was not convincing and actually blunted the film's effectiveness; Nelson Keys later apologized to Shelley for not using her suggestion. Even Christopher Lee later commented, "The only thing wrong with The Gorgon is the gorgon." As for the famous decapitation scene at the climax, prints in the U.K. were allegedly darkened for close-ups of the severed head.
Upon release, The Gorgon was well received by most critics with British publications such as The Daily Cinema noting it was "Elegantly decked out in Hammer's best Gothic Style." The Kinematograph Weekly wrote that it had a "Sustained atmosphere of eerie foreboding and genuine suspense" and even U.S. reviewers were favorable with Variety calling it "A well made, direct yarn." Yet, the film has a stately pace and may disappoint some fantasy genre fans due to an abundance of expository dialogue scenes and not enough moments of pure horror. Despite that, The Gorgon has acquired a devoted following since its release with TimeOut critic Geoffrey Macnab writing "Given that so many thrillers are predicated on the idea of the murderous male gaze, it's a novelty to have the woman staring back." However, the entry in The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies, edited by Phil Hardy, is probably the most insightful analysis of the movie: "The pervasive fantasy of the phallic mother is so logically and consistently enacted that even a psychoanalytic interpretation could not be more explicit...the movie's overall impact remains unnervingly powerful as it brilliantly presents one of the fundamental nightmare images of our culture, something even most horror films (Alien, 1979, for example) shy away from, preferring to cloak the monstrous mother-figure in less easily recognizable shapes. This is Fisher's most dreamlike and bewitching work, perfectly acted by all concerned..."
Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: John Gilling; J. Llewellyn Devine (story)
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Music: James Bernard
Film Editing: Eric Boyd Perkins
Cast: Christopher Lee (Prof. Karl Meister), Peter Cushing (Dr. Namaroff), Richard Pasco (Paul Heitz), Barbara Shelley (Carla Hoffman), Michael Goodliffe (Prof. Jules Heitz), Patrick Troughton (Inspector Kanof), Jack Watson (Ratoff), Joseph O'Conor (Coroner)
by Jeff Stafford
Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio (McFarlen)
Fragments of Horror: An Illustrated History of British Horror Films by Andy Boot (Creation Books)
House of Horror: The Complete Hammer Films Story by Jack Hunter (Creation Books)
The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies, edited by Phil Hardy (Harper and Row)