An unfairly neglected gem from the Golden Age of Hammer Horror, The Gorgon is an atmospheric chiller with a sterling cast, an interesting story, plenty of atmosphere and a strong sense of tragedy. It's only let down slightly by some unfortunate special effects choices in depicting the title monster at the climax (Christopher Lee is on record as saying "The only thing wrong with The Gorgon is the gorgon"), but the rest of the film is good enough to overlook these technical lapses.
The film opens in yet another mitt-European burg, Vandorf, with the death of the young daughter of the local innkeeper. Police find her lover, visiting artist Bruno Heitz, hanging from a tree in the woods nearby, and the coroner is quick to claim a verdict of murder/suicide, ignorant of the girl's real cause of death - she was turned to stone. For reasons of his own, Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing, in fine icy form), withholds the truth from the court. Bruno's father, Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), protests the court's ruling, and determines to get to the bottom of the case and clear his son's name. He hears tales of an evil creature called the Megaera, mythical sister to Medusa, said to be haunting the ruins of nearby Castle Borski.
Dr. Namaroff warns Prof. Heitz to leave Vandorf before ill befalls him. Angry villagers try to run him out of town, but Heitz is made of sterner stuff. He's no match for the dreaded Megaera, however, and is soon lured to the castle by her siren call to meet his doom. He staggers back to his desk with just enough life left to pen a letter to his remaining son, Paul (Richard Pasco).
Cushing and Barbara Shelley
Paul leaves Leipzig University and soon is following in his father's footsteps. Stonewalled by Dr. Namaroff and Inspector Kanof (Patrick Troughton), Paul soon meets and becomes enchanted with Namaroff's nurse, Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley). Their relationship grows even stronger as Carla nurses him back to health when Paul is found outside his flat after a near-fatal attack by the gorgon.
Now prematurely grey-haired from the shock of his attack, Paul is more determined than ever to find out what exactly is going on. He digs up his father's casket and finds his stone corpse. He gets drawn closer and closer to Carla, as the jealous Namaroff and his assistant Ratoff (Jack Watson) keep a watchful eye. Namaroff knows all too well that the Megaera's 2,000 year-old spirit has possessed the body of someone in the village, transforming into its hideous shape and hunting for fresh victims every night when the moon is full.
Paul's mentor at Leipzig, imperious and commanding Prof. Karl Meister (Christopher Lee), soon arrives on the scene and together the two dig into the village's sinister secret. Meister blusters the Inspector into showing them the records of all women who arrived in Vandorf before the killings started, five years before. Of course, he soon zeroes in on Carla, much to Paul's vehement disbelief.
Richard Pasco as Paul.
Carla summons Paul to meet her one night at Castle Borski and begs him to take her away, but Paul is not yet ready to abandon Meister and the search into his father and brother's deaths.
When circumstances cause him to change his mind, Carla seems unable to leave the area, for reasons she can't quite explain (but which the viewer has long ago figured out). The full moon soon wanes, and the scene is set for an inevitable, final confrontation with the Gorgon...
Famed Hammer director Terence Fisher imbues the film with lots of wind-swept, spooky ambience, helped immeasurably by one of James Bernard's most haunting scores. The screenplay is by John Gilling (who would go on to direct the two "Cornish horror" semi-classics, Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile). It's a solid script, deliberately paced but rife with a strong sense of the implacability of fate and a remorseless, impending doom.
Richard Pasco is a solid enough lead and possess a strong speaking voice, but even so, when Christopher Lee blasts onto the scene late in the film, he gives the proceedings a very welcome boost of gravitas. It's a rare heroic role for Lee, and he handles it with his customary aplomb, despite a rather dodgy wig and facial hair.
Peter Cushing (rocking some nice muttonchops) rings some changes on the supercilious scientist character traits that he brought to the Hammer Frankenstein films. His Dr. Namaroff is a conflicted character driven by unrequited love to protect the Megaera's secret and allow the killings to remain unsolved. It's a typically smart performance by an actor seemingly genetically incapable of giving a bad one. While he and real life pal Lee only share the screen briefly, their scenes together crackle. Michael Goodliffe is authoritative as the Heitz patriarch, and departs the story far too soon. Doctor Who number two Patrick Troughton is characteristically fine as the Inspector, though the reliable Jack Watson is largely wasted as Ratoff.
The bulk of the The Gorgon's emotional content rests on Barbara Shelley's capable shoulders, and she's very good as the confused, kindhearted and ultimately tragic Carla. Her mix of aloof, patrician beauty and barely suppressed passion make her a sympathetic heroine. Her very human presence brings a little warmth into what is an otherwise pretty grim, fatalistic film.
As mentioned before, this is a very classy production marred slightly by the realization of the Gorgon herself. Frankly, I don't think the effects are too bad, other than a few egregiously fakey shots of the monster's severed head. The creature is best when glimpsed in shadow or farther back in the frame. Admittedly, the immobile snakes on its head are not well rendered, but the makeup and general appearance of the monster are sound. It's certainly not enough to ruin what is otherwise a very effective, moody horror piece. Strangely underappreciated by most fans of British horror, The Gorgon is highly recommended viewing for this time of year.
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