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Strange to say, but the right kind of horror movie can sometimes be a very reassuring thing. Sitting down to watch the 1964 Hammer horror The Gorgon, one is at once presented with a succession of familiar names – Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Patrick Troughton, director Terence Fisher – to the accompaniment of an unmistakable James Bernard score, while a gloomy Gothic castle glowers behind the credits. Such is the power of the Hammer brand and the associations of all these things that you just know that, no matter what the merits (or otherwise) of this particular script, the undertaking overall is going to have a bit of quality about it.

THE-GORGON-landscape

And so it proves, more or less. The film potentially finds Hammer a little out of its comfort zone, as the film is set in a remote, German-dominated part of Europe in the early years of the 20th century – but any differences from the classic Transylvanian fairyland setting are entirely cosmetic. We are still in a world of boyish young students carousing with accommodating peasant barmaids, ominous local police chiefs, crusty old professors who are fonts of wisdom and sanity, sinister local authority figures, and castles you shouldn’t be seen dead at after dark (for fear of actually being found dead at, the following morning).

The Gorgon has a slightly awkward structure, opening with young student Bruno discovering to his alarm he has accidentally impregnated his girlfriend Sascha. Off he sets into the night, intent on reassuring her father of his gentlemanly intentions, despite her pleas for him not to go. She ends up following him anyway. The next day, he is found hanged, while her body is taken to the local asylum – well, either it’s her body or an extremely lifelike statue of her…

This draws Bruno’s father, Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), who finds the truth of what happened being covered up by the asylum boss Dr Namaroff (Cushing) and the police chief (Troughton) – Bruno is being fitted up for Sascha’s murder, and the petrification is being quietly forgotten about. Heitz vows to stick around and uncover what really happened, despite the hostility of the locals. But one night something lures him to the local ruined castle where he encounters a hideous, snake-haired creature. Staggering home, he finds himself rapidly turning to stone, so (as you would) quickly jots down a letter to his other son, Paul, explaining just what is going on in quite surprising detail.

The laborious plotting continues with Paul (Richard Pasco) arriving and vowing to discover the truth about his father and brother’s death. At least he has Christopher Lee as his university tutor, who is an expert on this sort of thing. On the other hand, he does find himself distracted by Namaroff’s beautiful assistant (Shelley) – and just why is Namaroff trying to cover up the strange events in the area…?

Viewed objectively, you’d be hard-pushed to seriously argue that The Gorgon was first-rate Hammer horror. There is, as noted, the awkward plotting whereby a string of people get attacked by the titular beastie, each in turn summoning the next investigator/victim: the film threatens to devolve into a string of set-piece Gorgon attacks. There’s also the problem that it’s never really clear who the protagonist of the film is supposed to be – Cushing, when the chips are down, is a bad guy, Goodliffe gets turned to stone by the end of the first act, Lee only really appears towards the end of the film, and Pasco’s character is a bit too weak and passive to be really engaging.

If the movie lacks a strong hero, it also has problems with its beastie as well: the Gorgon itself is a silent, alien malevolence with no voice or agenda of its own beyond petrifying innocent people. The film has swiped a bit of werewolf lore in that the creature spends most of its time lurking inside an unsuspecting human host, only physically taking them over during the full moon. The identity of the Gorgon is never really in doubt – there is a half-hearted attempt at misdirection on the point – but, for whatever reason, the film opts not to give us the scene in which the human host transforms into the creature itself. The monster is female, but – predictably – the story is told almost exclusively from a male perspective.

But above all it’s just clumsily written. We never really learn why Bruno turns up hanging from a tree at the start, and the idea of the lurking Gorgon is dropped out of nowhere into the script (Goodliffe’s character mentions the legend first, before he’s even aware of the string of statuary-related murders in the area). As I suggested, parts of it do verge on high camp (the professor writing a letter while in the process of petrifying, for example).

That said, whenever I feel the temptation to dismiss any of these old Hammer horrors as quaint or corny, I remember watching Plague of the Zombies on a proper cinema screen with modern sound and vision and being genuinely gripped and unsettled by parts of it. I’m not sure the same wouldn’t happen with The Gorgon, too, for those set-piece Gorgon sequences are supremely well-directed, particularly one in which Paul finds himself repeatedly confronted with the monster’s reflection in various surfaces. The conceit that the Gorgon’s petrification doesn’t happen immediately but takes place over a period of time is quite an inspired innovation too.

Even watched on TV, this is a film with a shockingly bleak ending – I suppose the lack of a strong protagonist is something of a plus point here, as it would be even worse if they ended up dead along with nearly every other major character in the film. And it’s hard not to interpret it as being fundamentally misogynistic – the sole major female character is alternately monstrous or under the sway of the various men in the film.

So The Gorgon is not without some qualities of its own, but it remains a hard film to actually like. Perhaps the fact that both Cushing and Lee are cast against type is partly to blame – for whatever reason, neither has quite the presence in the film you might expect, and they don’t share much screen-time, either. Certainly, if you look at the raw material this film had to work with, in terms of performers and idea, you might expect something a little more impressive than the end result. It’s still hard to completely dismiss, though.

 

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