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March 2012

The Gorgon on DVD

cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, and Patrick Troughton

director: Terence Fisher

83 minutes (15) 1964
widescreen ratio 1.66:1
Sony DVD Region 2

RATING: 4/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Gorgon on VHS
The Gorgon

"Overshadowing the village of Vandorf stands the Castle Borski.
From the turn of the century a monster from an ancient age of history came to live here. No living thing survived and the spectre of death hovered in waiting for her next victim..."

The bohemian artist sketches preparatory drawings of his tastefully topless model fiancée. When she tells him she's pregnant he accepts his 'obligations', and stomps off into the forest to seek out her father. She follows, but loses her way in the darkness. She turns as the moon slides behind a cloud... and screams. The Gorgon is a mid-period Hammer production. Their original run of hit movies based around the Universal prototypes had worked its way through the regular Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman and the Mummy characters, leaving Hammer scratching around for fresh screen horrors. They settle for this one-off venture back into Greek mythology. Although things are not exactly as they seem.

According to John Gilling's script, Megaera is the long-dead third Gorgon, the one whose roaming spirit has found a new 20th century body. Only problem is that, going back through Ovid and Homer, according to the heroic exploits of Perseus, yes, Medusa is the snake-haired Gorgon whose glance turns victims to stone. But Megaera is a completely different breed of mythical beastie - an avenging Fury. The story is set in 1910 in the full generic Gothic mode of Vandorf village - although filmed at Bray Studios and on location no further than Oakley Green in Berkshire. And Megaera's snakey fright-wig is operated by five wires worked across a space of several metres.

A crude and sadly anticlimactic spectacle to those more used to Bill Nighy's Industrial Light & Magic beard of facial-tentacles as Captain Davy Jones in the ongoing Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise. Or the CGI motion-capture Gorgon (Natalia Vodianova) in the 2010 remake of Clash Of The Titans. But this was 1964. Things were simpler then. And there are few things more intimidating than a woman on a bad hair day. In the Vandorf Medical Institution, nurse Carla (Barbara Shelley) wheels the dead body of model Sascha (Toni Gilpin), into the lab. As she clips the trolley against the workbench a stone finger snaps off. How can Dr Namaroff (Peter Cushing) perform an autopsy on a body that's turned to stone?

Meanwhile the spike-helmeted police use dogs to hunt down their suspect, only to find artist Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst) has hanged himself from a tree. The verdict is that Bruno killed Sascha, and then took his own life in a 'fit of remorse'. "Given a certain set of circumstances, I believe almost everyone is capable of murder," Namaroff muses. Bruno's bristle-haired father is unconvinced, and denounces the court as a witch-hunt, a 'conspiracy of silence' to cover their fear. After all, it's their seventh unsolved murder in five years. Privately, Carla also challenges Namaroff over his cowardice in concealing the truth. But the villagers close ranks. Namaroff warns father Jules Heitz off. Scared locals torch his house. And police Inspector Kanof (Patrick Troughton) offers him only "safe escort to the rail station." But Heitz is not about to be discouraged. He sends a message to his second son Paul (Richard Pasco), and to dapper Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee) at Leipzig University.

While he's preoccupied with jotting down notes about the 2,000-year-old legend of Megaera from a thick tome by real-life evolutionist Herbert Spencer, he hears a phantom voice calling in the night. Unwisely, he follows it into the dark forest, towards castle Borski. Empty for 50 years, it seems derelict - apart from the usual horror-movie shock-stumbles, unexpected gusts of wind, and a storm of birds. Then he screams, as he glimpses the green Gorgon... he's only had a glance, so his petrifying happens slowly, long enough for him to scrawl a warning letter to his son before turning to stone. Paul duly arrives in time to check out the sketches in his dead brother's studio, then Carla helps him dig up his now-deceased father's coffin, to find the shrouded body inside is 'gorgonised' to stone. Yet Namaroff's autopsy again avoids such inconvenient unpleasantness by diagnosing death by heart failure. "This is a police state," he argues. "They don't have to give reasons."

So why has Namaroff lied on the death certificate? Who is he trying to shield? Only Carla dares break the conspiracy of silence by offering help. Namaroff "tries to deny the existence of something he cannot explain," she argues. Yet "every legend and myth known to mankind is not entirely without its authentic foundation." Paul gets scarily close to the truth when he gets an accidental view of "the most horrible thing I've ever seen" reflected in an ornamental garden-pool. It's enough to put him in shock for five days, waking in hospital white-haired and plagued by terrible nightmares, but with Carla by his side to soothe him.

And a caped wild-haired Prof Meister (Lee) newly arrived in waistcoat, watch and chain, "It looks as though you've been in your grave and dug your way out," he comments brusquely. Meister sets about stirring things up, to help "find this creature, and destroy it," acidly putting Kanof down with a cutting "don't use long words, Inspector, they don't suit you." A defensive Namaroff argues that "we are men of science. I don't believe in ghosts or evil spirits, and I don't think you do, either." Heitz retaliates "that's one of the most unscientific remarks I have ever heard. I believe in the existence of everything which the human brain is unable to disprove." Meister is ambivalent, "I neither believe it nor disbelieve it."

Is it a scary movie? The gaze that petrifies obviously has a certain sticky traction as it's an idea that's survived from antiquity, preceding the usual Hammer bestiality by many centuries. Is it a good movie? Well - even within the Hammer pantheon it's hardly frontline. The cast turn in their regular proficient performances. It's impossible to fault Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing who dignify and rise above even the most mediocre material. In a reversal of their more usual Hammer roles it is Lee who is the good guy, if arrogantly aloof, while it's Cushing who is intent on concealing truths, even if he has his reasons.

But no, The Gorgon is a minor curio, little more. Even though it's one I hugely enjoy watching. The most involving hook is the question of Megaera's identity. If the ancient Gorgon's spirit has returned, where has she 'found a resting place'? Who is she? There are false leads. At first it seems to be Martha, an escaped madwoman from Namaroff's institute. But she's recaptured and dissected. "It isn't a pretty sight," commentates the good doctor as he removes her brain and places it in a flask, it "never ceases to amaze me why the most noble work of god, the human brain, is the most revolting to the human eye."

Finally, Namaroff concedes his possessive behaviour is due to his attempts to protect Carla who - it appears, is subject to amnesia blackouts. Surely she's not Megaera? Not kind affectionate brave Carla! Repulsed by his control-freakery, she flounces out and arranges to meet Paul - who is now her lover, in the castle, because "no-one dares come near the castle." This quaint film reaches its climax there, as the protagonists follow her into the looming night. Megaera/ Carla watches, her hair a seething mass of unconvincing snakes, as gothic thunder roars around the crumbling towers and Namaroff and Paul duel.

Too late for Namaroff he sees her... and petrifies. Paul only sees her in the mirror, and as he turns, Meister appears from behind and neatly lops her head off with a single sword stroke. As the phoney snakes retract into the waxy severed head, the Gorgon transforms back into Carla. Just as the Invisible Man returns to visibility in death, or the Werewolf sheds its wolf-fangs and fur to become human again when it is killed; a return to innocence. "She's free now, Paul, she's free," consoles Meister.

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