Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Gorgon (1964) review


Christopher Lee (Professor Karl Meister), Peter Cushing (Dr. Namaroff), Richard Pasco (Paul Heitz), Barbara Shelley (Carla Hoffman), Michael Goodliffe (Professor Jules Heitz), Patrick Troughton (Inspector Kanof)

In the small township of Vandorf, the deaths of a young man and his girlfriend are rendered a murder/suicide. This leads the young mans father, Professor Heitz, to investigate the true nature of his sons death. After reprisal from the violent villagers, the professor is soon assured more supernatural forces are at work and they lie within the Castle Borski. Discovering first hand that an ancient evil is among them, the professor, as his last dying wish, asks for his friend, Professor Meister, to come to Vandorf. Together with Heitz's other son, Paul, the duo discover a connection between the sinister Dr. Namaroff, his assistant, Carla Hoffman and the terrifying legend of the mythological Gorgon's; creatures with the power to turn their victims into stone should they gaze upon their pale, snake haired visage.

Like a fair number of sequences, the one thing the film never fails in is its atmosphere.

Terence Fisher directs this odd movie in Hammer's horror canon. It's totally bizarre when compared with the company's more familiar output. The out of place British accents notwithstanding (as it's prevalent in all of Hammer's horror movies nestled within Eastern European countries), the film gets the mythology of the Gorgon all wrong and it just seems a bit peculiar that an icon of Greek myth would be found in Poland. Nonetheless, Fisher manages to imbue the film with a dark fairy tale quality and his patented tragedy arc between two lovers. This time, it's more of a love triangle between the villainous Namaroff, Carla and Paul Heitz. Things end badly for the doomed lovers as they most often do in Fisher's movies.

Villain Cushing & hero Lee butt heads

Considering this is a Cushing/Lee team up, it's not one of the duos best pairings. Peter Cushing takes the antagonist role for this one and he's rather reserved (most of the time) playing the role in a decidedly more subdued fashion when compared with his Frankenstein pictures. Cushing plays his character as a jealous lover willing to do anything, including mastermind murder to keep Carla beside him. Her connection to the Gorgon is one of the mystery's of the movie revealed later in the film.

One of the funniest scenes in the film is this sarcastic exchange between Lee and Patrick Troughton about the investigation of the bizarre deaths in the village.

Christopher Lee is the one saving grace, though, playing the batty Professor Karl Meister by way of an unkempt Sherlock Holmes. His role is the most energetic and his performance will keep impatient viewers awake who may doze off due to a lack of horror.

The finale features a decently choreographed duel between Peter Cushing and Richard Pasco

THE GORGON is similar to other Hammer 'one offs' such as THE REPTILE (1966). The pacing lags from time to time and you see very little of the title monster till the final moments. There are the requisite Gothic trappings and even a spooky castle with windswept floors and creepy images. Despite its shortcomings, THE GORGON has just enough good moments (including one where Cushing duels with a sword!) to salvage it. The first 20 minutes are engaging, but the middle portion moves at a snails pace only picking up steam during the last ten minutes.

The special effects are terribly weak and these all revolve around the Gorgon creature. Forgiving the fact that there was little that could be done to create a realistic interpretation of writhing snakes in 1964, the idea of using real snakes was contemplated and this idea was welcomed by one of the actresses. But the director wanted a different performer to play the monster, so this plan was done away with. Also, the decapitated head of the Gorgon isn't the most believable and would have been fine had not the camera lingered on it for so long a time. Then there's the matter of the Gorgon itself and its mixing and matching of various details from other tales of Greek mythology.

Another of the films Gothic Fairy Tale qualities during a nightly meeting between Paul and a mystery guest

Some legends differ as to the history of the Gorgon's. Medusa, Stheno and Euryale were the three sisters mentioned in Greek myth. However, for the Hammer picture, Medusa is the one mainstay, although she is mentioned only in passing. The other two spoke of in the movie are Megaera and Tisiphone. Megaera is the Gorgon of the films title. The only problem is that there were no Gorgon's bearing these latter two names. Megaera and Tisiphone belonged to another variety of Greek mythology. It's puzzling why names of the Erinyes (Furies) were utilized here.

Patrick Troughton (DR. WHO) is also good as the seedy police inspector

Possibly, screenwriter, John Gilling became confused as there were also three Furies, Megaera, Alecto and Tisiphone. They were also prone to acts of violence and retribution as well as having snakes adorning their heads just like the Gorgon. Stories also differ as to the living snakes being exclusive to Medusa, while other tales reveal that all three had venomous Ophidian hair and the power to petrify their victims.

Cushing at one point gets down with some Frankensteinian surgical procedures in what might have been a homage to the "good" doctor.

One constant is that Medusa could be killed (as she was punished by Athena after being raped by Poseidon in her temple) while her two sisters were immortal (something else the film bungles). Some stories also detail Medusa to be an ugly woman while others say she retained her mesmerizing beauty amidst the flailing snakes atop her head.

THE GORGON (1964) was the fifth film to feature the terror triumvirate of Cushing, Lee and director Fisher at the helm. Yet, despite bearing marks of an unusual, yet ambitious horror picture, THE GORGON was plagued with numerous problems and alterations. The original script did not feature the sword duel between Paul and Namaroff, nor the on screen destruction of the Gorgon. This was one of the additions from scriptwriter, John Gilling who changed much of John Lewellyn Devine's original submission. Even still, Terence Fisher was very happy with the film, despite it being a troubled production. One of the major problems was the Gorgon itself and its appearance which caused controversy between two different effects artists as to how the creature should be presented on camera.

Prudence Hyman (under the makeup) nearly lost her noggin during the sword swinging climax

One instance almost proved fatal for the actress playing the monster. Chris Lee almost decapitated her for real as she failed to remember to duck on cue. Had not the assistant director, Bert Batt, not pulled her away from the staircase in the nick of time, it would have been a real head appearing in the final shot.

THE GORGON is one of Hammer's most curious movies and a lesser production from ace director, Terence Fisher. It nonetheless was a success being released in Britain on a double bill with the meandering CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1964). It could easily have been a female version of THE WOLFMAN, as it shares much with the legend of the lycanthropic creatures of the night. The deaths occurring during the nights of the full moon being one of them. As it is, it's a confounding picture that some fans will find a joy to watch while others will see it as unquestionably ridiculous and dull. Even still it's worth a watch for being a strange, yet flawed entry in Hammer Films long history of horror.

This review is representative of the Sony 2 disc set Icons of Horror Collection.

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