I’ve seen a lot of Hammer horror movies in my time. In fact you could say that my love of horror movies stems from watching so many of them in my childhood. On a Saturday night the young me would be sent to bed, where I would pretend to be asleep until my parents were downstairs partying with their friends, at which point I’d sneak into their room where the black and white tv was and watch the horror double bill on BBC2. Every week you’d find me hid behind their double bed so if they came in they’d just think they’d left the tv on. How I got away with it I will never know, maybe they knew all along.
Throughout all those great evenings I never saw The Gorgon. Sure, I’d seen pictures, but the monster just looked like one of mum’s drunk friends in a bath gown and it didn’t really appeal.
Well now I’ve seen The Gorgon, and in many ways I don’t know what held me back. It’s handsomely staged, eerie and captivating. On the flip side, the Gorgon looks like one of my mum’s drunk friends in a bath gown.
What Hammer have done here is take an ancient Greek legend and splice it with Dracula and Frankenstein. So we have the old, dark Transylvanian castle above the village, fearful peasants up in arms (its never explained what they’re annoyed about), big thugs working for mad doctors and a wholly unnecessary brain removal scene, all mixed up with people turning to stone and looking at the reflections of snake haired women in mirrors. And for the most part, it works.
With the great Terrence Fisher at the helm, The Gorgon has that classic Hammer look. It has lots of pretty moonlit matte paintings and odd day-for-night footage which look great and give the whole film a dreamlike quality. Plus all the (probably cheap) sets are lit fantastically, almost as well as the actors, especially Barbara Shelly as the innocent victim in all the horrific goings on who looks like a Hollywood superstar of old. I mean, the camera cannot get enough of her cheekbones, red hair and bright eyes, it is in love with her.
I am in love, or course, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing is the morally grey doctor who may, or may not, be involved in all this Gorgon based fun and is his usual fantastic self, and gets to pop the brain in a jar for no good reason. Lee, meanwhile, gives us one of his rare heroic roles, playing a Van Helsing like character with a big fluffy moustache. It’s a shame Lee never got to play more roles like this (though The Devil Rides Out a few years later showed one of his very best performances, and again, as a good guy), his physical size adds a sense of strength to the part so that you’d think if you were going to go up against the undead or Greek monsters, you’d want him on your side. And he plays it seriously, but with a light touch so that whenever he’s on screen the whole production seems to get that much more fun. And a sense of fun is always important in serious and seriously good horror movies.
However this is not a seriously good movie. It’s still pretty good, the story is solid, is well acted (Patrick Troughton pops up as the local Police chief as well and is brilliant at playing an corrupt but incompetent figure of authority) and like I said, it looks beautiful. However it does slow down for a large chunk of the movie, the gothic doomed romance is a drag, characters go back and forth unable to decide what to do about their lives and the Gorgon herself makes too few appearances.
But then maybe this is a good thing.
Because the biggest trouble with The Gorgon is the Gorgon herself. As I said she looks like a late middle aged woman from Croydon whose partied too hard, for too long, with a baggy face and bloodshot eyes. In fact the horror of waking up next her might be enough in itself to turn most men to stone, but then she is completely undermined by her hair of snakes. They jerk back and forth as if being pulled around by particularly stiff ropes and look like overweight iguanas rather than snakes. Honestly, you’re more likely to laugh to death than anything else. I felt kind of sorry for the poor thing.
So if by chance you want to watch a really good film about the Gorgon then watch the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans. If, however, its Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Hammer at the height of their creative powers (though not firing on all cylinders) you are after, then you could do a lot worse than spend eighty minutes or so with this forgotten gem. Well, semi-gem. Okay, pretty Greek stone.