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Greek Mythology, as Envisioned by Hammer

Hammer’s The Gorgon

by Tony Nash

(#4 in The Month of Hammer Horror)

(Spoilers may follow)

(all opinions are of the author alone)

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The Gorgon (1964) PG-13 **** ½

Christopher Lee: Prof. Karl Meister

Peter Cushing: Dr. Namaroff

Barbara Shelley: Carla Hoffman

Richard Pasco: Paul Heitz

Patrick Troughton: Inspector Kanof

Michael Goodlife: Prof. Jules Heitz

Prudence Hyman: Megaera, the Gorgon

Joseph O’Coner: The Coroner

Jack Watson: Ratoff

Jeremy Longhurst: Bruno Heitz

Alister Williamson: Janus Cass

Toni Gilpin: Sascha Cass

Written by: John Gilling, based on a story by J. Llewellyn Devine

Directed by: Terence Fisher

Synopsis: After his brother is found hung and his father turned to stone, a university student begs his Professor, who is knowledgeable on the Occult, to come and help him find the culprit. The locals insist it was Megaera, the surviving sister of Medusa, the Greek monster who turned people to stone. The Professor’s suspicions fall immediately on the local area doctor who seemed very anxious to have the brother’s death declared a suicide. The doctor is definitely hiding something, but everything seems to revolve around his nurse, an amnesiac.

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Hammer Studios, always looking for new subject matter to expand their output, had one time turned to the fables of Greek Mythology for inspiration. A loose rendition of the Medusa legend, this go around saying she was one of three sisters, the youngest one, named Megaera, somehow fleeing to Germany where she terrorizes the locals. The plot element of people dying upon being turned to pure stone was an early ingenious effort by Hammer, and was certainly a welcome change from their Dracula and Frankenstein adaptations. What also made the film unique is that it was of the few Hammer Horror films to set in a totally different country. Most times the films would start out in another country and at some point the action and ending would return to England, in this case the characters and events are all set in and around Germany. Hammer also delves a little into the ghost story, something they didn’t do much of unfortunately, as the Gorgon appears to be more of an entity rather than a living being, presumably taking a living body as a host to commit its mayhem. That the Gorgon has her own image means at one period she was a living, breathing woman, suggesting that over the years that man’s loss of its Old World ignorance led to her losing much of her power and being forced into the form of a spirit.

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This idea also offers something of a contradiction as the people of the small hamlet, save for the ones who’ve been educated in the big cities, have a very real and terrifying belief in Megaera. With this in mind it seems strange she hasn’t been able to manifest herself into a full concrete form to terrorize without having to shed whatever host she utilizes after a while. This is never explained fully in the film and makes a kind of hindrance to the back-story as the beginning hints at Megaera having been situated in the city for quite a number of years.

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Christopher Lee, one of England’s many venerable character players, delights in one of his first good guy roles as Prof. Meister. While his performance is regulated to mainly the last half of the film, his character’s knowledge of the Occult plays a huge part in the figuring out the truth behind the events. Lee portrays Meister as a Van Helsing type who deals more in the world of entities of mythology and folklore rather than the undead. Appearing as very much cultured and educated in the modern sensibilities, Meister is fully aware even Old World traditions have a grain of truth to them, whether literal or metaphorical, and cautions everyone he meets to not take what he says lightly. Lee makes the role more interesting by having his character not delve into the melodramatics of other actors to play Van Helsing or characters that resemble him, keeping him as a realistic and believable as possible. That he maintains a calm and cool rationale makes the danger the populace is facing all the more frightening as the so called “smart locals” shrug off his warnings and knowledge, constantly arguing there’s a real world explanation to it all. Lee has his character take on the responsibility to end the terror as his protégé and favorite student has become too personally involved in the matter and that someone he has grown to care for may be somehow involved in the plot.

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Peter Cushing, Hammer’s resident hero, gets an even rarer opportunity to play a full on bad guy in Dr. Namaroff. Right from his first scene on screen, Cushing has Namaroff acting very suspiciously, clearly having some knowledge of what is really going on. Seeing Cushing playing a completely deceptive type who allows a dead, but innocent man to be held as responsible for the death of a young woman found turned to stone was shocking at the time as Hammer fans knew him primarily as good guys or generally decent men driven to insane desperations for what they see as the good of humanity. That he has no regrets about his actions adds to this idea of menace about the character and Cushing plays this aspect to the best of his abilities. Cushing adds a bit of warped romance to the character as he clearly shows a devotion and affection to his nurse/assistant, but if he is truly admirable is still up in the air. That he seemingly does all this for the sake of her seems strange, and makes his actions even more bizarre as the audience wonders what the woman has to do with the case. This warped affection will lead to Namaroff’s undoing.

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Barbara Shelley, an underrated and under discussed British leading lady and character actress is mysterious and sublime as Carla Hoffman. An émigré from another part of the country, Carla is a woman without a past and what may or may not be a grim future. Shelley portrays her as a woman who remembers nothing prior to several years ago when she ended up in the little hamlet village from a bigger city, and still has occurrences of blackouts to which everything is a complete blur. Her presence in the town seems to have intensified Megaera’s attacks, but her actual connection to the entity can’t be determined. Shelley also play up Carla as a mysterious enigma that no one can seem to figure out, seemingly coming and going at will with no rhyme or reason to her being there. Whether she knows something about what is going on inside of her is unknown, and Shelley portrays that as maybe a subconscious effect. She then falls for the man trying to figure out how and why his father and brother were killed and this genuine romance leads to revelations that will be shocking for the community and outsiders alike. Her genuine goodness will add to events that will prove heartbreaking.

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Doctor Who fans will be excited as Doctor #2 Patrick Troughton makes a supporting appearance as a Police Inspector who seems more concerned with keeping his superiors and Government officials happy than finding out the truth in the horrible deaths occurring right under his nose. Troughton, who was known as a lovable eccentric both on and off camera, gives a surprisingly good performance as the hard nose cop, whom it is never known is on the take or not when it comes to crimes of an unusual nature. While he doesn’t seem too willing to adhere to Dr. Namaroff’s ideas, but because the governing body of the city doesn’t want mass hysteria building up, accepts whatever the doctor and coroner have decided. Towards the end it seems apparent he agrees with the view outsiders like Prof. Meister and Paul Heitz aren’t to be allowed to roam free.

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The film’s only flaw is of course the make-up used for Prudence Hyman as the Gorgon, but in spite of that the film is still very enjoyable, suspenseful, and atmospheric. Star Christopher Lee maintained throughout his life the poor monster make-up hurt the film greatly, and in some ways he was right, but it doesn’t hurt the film so much its other aspects can’t be appreciated and still have it as part of the pantheon of fine British Horror. A good, if in some ways far-fetched, story, interesting characters, a little tragic romance, and some very good practical effects enliven this spectacle a great deal and make the film a well worth watch for aficionados and newcomers alike. The Thriller aspect is at play as well, as the audience, and some of the characters, don’t know who to trust and what could really be going on.  A very interesting take on a popular Mythology, Horror style.

(This one might be a little flimsy, but it still comes highly recommended as an underrated item from the Hammer vaults. There’s a US Blu Ray from a company called Mill Creek, but several reviewers previously have not recommended it for poor audio quality. I had this release myself, but never viewed it after reading one of the reviews. The UK and Australia releases are the recommended better releases both for visual and audio and are fairly inexpensive, one of which is part of a box set)

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Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

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