Friday, October 8, 2010

The Gorgon

In 1964, Hammer had successfully defined itself as a horror-oriented studio. Their gothic formula, and reliance on familiar lead actors such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, had proven lucrative, and behind-the-camera creative forces such as Jimmy Sangster and Terence Fisher were insuring quality features. This is the background for the studio at the time of the release of The Gorgon.

A small village in middle Europe is being plagued by a series of strange deaths. Although the village authorities, including the town doctor (Cushing), are doing their best to cover up the details, victims are being turned to stone. It seems the spirit of one of the legendary Gorgons, Megeara (actually one of The Furies, but you should learn mythology in school, not from horror films) has taken up residence in the countryside, and claims victims every full moon. When both his father and brother fall prey to the creature, Paul (Richard Pasco) comes to investigate. He falls in love with the doctor’s assistant (Hammer veteran Barbara Shelley) and brings one of his professors to town to help him investigate (Christopher Lee, in a delightfully eccentric role). Together, they must find and kill the Gorgon before it can claim any victims.

By this time, Hammer was expert at setting the proper mood for their films. The setting is dark yet beautiful, the direction is assured, the acting is good. Where the film fails is, ironically, the sight of the Gorgon. If you remember your mythology, a Gorgon (think the more famous Medusa) has hair made of hissing snakes. Hammer shot down one star’s suggestion of making a wig with real garden snakes to make it look realistic due to budgetary reason, and instead, the Gorgon has obviously plastic snakes sticking out of her bouffant hairdo. It’s ridiculous, and since a few of the snakes are mildly animated by an assistant following behind her, the Gorgon barely moves. In addition, the movie tries to build suspense as to who the Gorgon turns out to be, but if you haven’t figured out who it is about twenty minutes into the film, you don’t pay much attention.

Still, Hammer in those days couldn’t make a truly bad movie, and The Gorgon is an interesting diversion. No Hammer fan should miss it.

Speaking of Hammer fans, one of the things I found interesting was how specifically the place and time of the movie’s setting was laid out. Usually, hammer moves are set in some indeterminate part of Mittel-Europa in a generic European past. This always meant Hammer didn’t have to worry too much about historical continuity. In The Gorgon, you are told it is in Germany, and the year is around 1910. Also, no one in the movie ever says the word burgomeister, and I always look forward to when the characters would start talking about or to the burgomeister, since I find the word funny for some reason.

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