18 November 2008

Movie Review: The Gorgon

The Gorgon (1964)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Richard Pasco, Michael Goodliffe, Barbara Shelley, Patrick Troughton

I know that Halloween has come and gone, but I’m still going to pretend that we’re living in the crisp winds of October and go ahead and review one of the Gothic classics from Hammer. The eerie skies of the fires of Southern California have helped with a certain spooky, ghastly mood this November.

I earlier posted about an upcoming two-disc DVD release from Columbia that packs together four ‘60s horror movies from Hammer Films, those wonderful British gents and ladies who gave us so much Victorian Technicolor terror. Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films brings together Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), Scream of Fear (1961, actually a black-and-white contemporary thriller), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), and the one I have the most interest in, The Gorgon (1964).

The Gorgon is the only movie in the collection featuring the full unholy trinity of Hammer fame: director Terence Fisher and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. (Fisher also directed The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, but only Christopher Lee appears in it.) The Gorgon is an often overlooked film in Fisher’s canon, like The Phantom of the Opera, so here I come to the rescue.

The notion of using the Greek mythological snake-headed Gorgons with their powers of petrifaction as the feature terror shows that as the mid-‘60s approached, Hammer wanted to stretch out to find some new monsters outside of the classic stable of vampires and mummies and werewolves and Dr. Jekylls. Placing a monster from Greek myth into the Victorian setting—well, that’s damn interesting.

An opening scroll informs us that the sinister Castle Borski (a beautiful matte painting in the Hammer style) overlooks the village of Vandorf, and for a hundred years a monster from an ancient age has dwelt here. So we’re apparently in some vague Eastern European part of Hammer-land, based on the names flashed at us so far.

The opening incident has village beauty Sascha Cass (Toni Gilpin) die mysteriously in an atmospheric sequence near a roadside shrine in the woods with strange chorale music and shots of a be-clouded moon. It’s superb work.

Cue Peter Cushing, playing the character we so often see him take on in Hammer movies: the rational man of science, our heroic focus . . .

No . . . wait a minute . . . is Cushing actually covering up that Sascha’s body later turned to stone? Is he hiding something? Is he really somehow the sinister manipulator behind these deaths?

Yes, Peter Cushing’s Dr. Namaroff is one of the villains of the piece, and we’ll later find that Christopher Lee’s Professor Meister is one of the heroes. This upends every expectation horror fans might have for those two actors, and both Cushing and Lee do great jobs in the swapped roles.

Dr. Namaroff obscures Sascha’s death so that suspicion and eventual guilt fall on Sascha’s boyfriend Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst), a painter trying to make himself the next Aubrey Beardsley to judge from the illustrations on the wall, who hangs himself after the girl’s death. Bruno’s father, Professor Julius Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), comes out to Vandorf to clear his son’s name—an unwelcome intrusion for Namaroff and villagers, all of whom seem afraid of the series of “Vandorf murders.” (Please note a future Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton, as the corrupt country constable. And he’ll get a flagpole through the chest in The Omen. And he was in a Ray Harryhausen film too. Cool guy.)

Ol’ Professor Heitz doesn’t last long in his investigations, and dies in another astonishing scene, this one inside Borski Castle. The interior of the ruined castle is an amazing, dust-covered set, filled with strewn brown leaves and cobwebs wafting in the wind. The Gorgon’s glare works differently from the insta-effect of mythology, acting instead through a slow process that allows Heitz to scribble a warning to his other son Paul and Professor Meister in Leipzig before he gets completely stoned. (Cue rim-shot.)

Paul Heitz (Richard Pasco) dashes down from Leipzig University to finish his father’s work, and finds himself falling in love with Namaroff’s beautiful assistant Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley). Paul works from his father’s theory that the killer is none other than Megaera, the only surviving of the three Gorgon sisters of classical mythology. (Megaera is actually one of the Furies, but never mind.) Namaroff, however, has even more to hide than it appeared at first, and he has his own claim on Carla. After Paul has his close brush with the snake-headed monster, the true hero of the tale, Christopher Lee’s Professor Meister, comes following after Paul to clean up the mess in Vandorf.

Lee dominates his scenes; he makes a remarkable hero, darker and more imposing than most actors would play such a part. He also towers over all the other actors physically; Lee makes Troughton look like a Hobbit. The scenes of Lee and Cushing confronting each other are electric: the two men make a perfect contrast to each other that fits together like the matched ends of a puzzle—even when playing on the opposite sides of good and evil than they usually do.

The Gorgon is a Gothic delight. The production design team makes the best of the limited space available at Bray Studios to create astonishing sets of dead leaves and rotting stone. The dark cloud-swept backdrops are amazing, some of the best I’ve seen in a Hammer film. Even if the film isn’t as famous as some of Hammer’s other horrors, the Gorgon may have the definitive “look” of the studio’s output in the ‘60s.

The appearances of Megaera herself are done best when we don’t see much of her. The sudden flashes in mirrors, between pillars, or in rippling fountain surfaces, are otherworldy. However, the extended shots show the stiff and immobile snake-heads, and the final effects aren’t among the more impressive visual moments in the movie. Certainly, the fully-revealed Megaera is no threat to Ray Harryhausen’s unforgettable Medusa in Clash of the Titans (1980). But the sinister, almost hidden Megaera, is one of Hammer’s most effective monsters.

One of my commentators, Paul McNamee, noted in my original post that The Gorgon essentially re-tools the werewolf myth—an outwardly normal human who changes into a monster during the full moon—for its story. This is true, and the revelation of Megaera’s daytime identity won’t surprise anybody. But the classical mythological slant, the horror inflicted from petrifaction, the female monster, the role-switch for Lee and Cushing, and above all Fisher’s athletic direction and the production team’s work make for an unusual and startling film. It’s one of my favorites from Terence Fisher and one of Hammer’s finest horrors. It’s gorgeous to look at it, and like most of Fisher’s movies it has a helluva climax, a complete downer of one in this case. The score from Hammer stalwart James Bernard is also an unusual one for the composer, relying on eerie female chorale techniques and an electric organ.

And need I say that watching Lee and Cushing snarl at each other with their standard roles switched . . . well, it doesn’t get better than that.

The picture on the DVD is flawless, clear and with bright colors, and preserves the veddy British 1:1.66 aspect ratio. This movie alone is worth the purchase of the 2-disc set, but I will get around to reviewing the other three on it eventually.