Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Monster With The Power To Turn Living Screaming Flesh Into Stone!

The Gorgon(1964)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley

Released towards the end of Hammer's golden age, The Gorgon is a significant and often overlooked horror film, just reaching classic status. Largely remembered for it's sadly, lamentable monster design, the film actually contains two of the best performances from genre stalwarts, Cushing and Lee, in their final Hammer collaboration with director, Terence Fisher. It's a unique picture, capturing the gothic atmosphere of the earlier classics, while  introducing a new and original screen monster.

The film takes place in 1910 in middle-Europe, where legends of an ancient monster still haunt a small village in the mountains. In mythology, the three gorgon sisters, whose gaze could turn men to stone, were all killed, save for one named Megaera, who escaped to the mountains.A young painter is painting a beautiful, nude model, who happens to also be his fiance. She reveals she is pregnant and the young man leaves to tell her father. She goes after him, fearful of her father's tyranny, but sees something terrifying and screams. She later turns up dead and the young man is found hanging from a tree, an apparent suicide. The doctor on the case, Prof. Namaroff(Peter Cushing) discovers the girl's body has turned to stone, but still does not reveal at the coroner's inquest, even when the father of the young man, Prof. Heist(Michael Goodliffe) is present, and the murder is blamed on his son. Heist believes that the village is hiding something and goes about seeking information, which leads him to a castle on a hill that supposedly hides a monster. It does, and Heist is reduced to a half-stone state, but is able to record his experience on paper, hoping that his other son, Paul(Richard Pasco) can solve the mystery and defeat the monster. Goodliffe's makeup in this scene is genuinely unnerving, the closest that i've seen on film, resembling the decaying gray corruption described in H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space.
Paul arrives and meets considerable resistance from all concerned, particularly Namaroff, who appears to be concealing a dark secret. His nurse, Carla(Barbara Shelley) is asked to see if she can get information from him, but ends up developing affection for him. One evening, Paul sees a reflection of the gorgon in a fountain and is hospitalized as a result. Regaining his strength, Paul resumes the hunt for the truth, this time aided by friend, Professor Karl Meister(Christopher Lee) who aids him in the hunt. They conduct research, stealing notes from Namaroff's lab, and discover that Carla was an amnesiac and that ever since her stay, murders have been committed, with the bodies turned to stone. Meister and Paul dig up Heist's grave and discover him as nothing more than a statue. Meister believes that Carla is under control of Magaera, but Paul does not believe him. Namaroff confronts the two men at Paul's home, which includes a great verbal duel between Cushing and Lee, and Paul attempts to hide Carla, so they can run off together. Paul goes to the old castle to face the gorgon and finds Namaroff, who engages him in a fight, before the gorgon(Prudence Hyman) rears her ugly head. Namaroff attempts to behead her, but looks at her gaze and is killed. Paul sees her as well, moments before Meister arrives and decapitates her from behind. Paul, slowly turning to stone, watches as the decapitated head of the gorgon, Megaera,  becomes Carla.

The Gorgon is a near-classic and is among the essentials from Hammer studios. The monster design is poor, chiefly because the woman cast looks nothing like Barbara Shelley, who actually voluntered to play the role herself, providing confusion among many a film fan as to why was not cast in the part. Plus, the snakes look silly and mechanical. It's a shame because it's the only real debit to be found in this otherwise, excellent horror film. Christopher Lee himself has said of The Gorgon, "the only thing wrong with The Gorgon, is the gorgon!"

Fisher's direction is typically fine, capturing all the gothic ambience that is required of such a production, though the plot lags a tad near the middle, a problem in several subsequent Hammer offerings. The moody photography and creepy score help to heighten the mood and are able to create that fairy tale-like atmosphere that the studio's best horror pictures were known for. The performers are all fine in their roles, especially the top billed stars. Cushing is cast against type as something of a villain as Namaroff, a piteous man who secretly loves Carla and is full aware of the horror caused by the gorgon. He is virtually driven mad throughout the picture and it's a carefully modulated performance that deserves more credit, particularly from the beloved actor's fans, who often miss this one in favor of his much more celebrated, Baron Frankenstein and Prof. Van Helsing.

Lee has a rare turn as a hero and gives it his all. His character appears blustery and stoic, but actually is a warm and dedicated man and his expression at the end is very effective, as he witnesses his young friend's death. The verbal sparring he has with Cushing, albeit brief, is very good and intense, as Lee reveals to Cushing what he knows, however cryptically. Both actors are excellent in this scene, though Lee's determination reminds me that this could be a dry-run for his definitive performance as Count De Richleau in The Devil Rides Out(1968). Barbara Shelley is lovely and sympathetic as Carla, bringing her usual warmth and sensitivity that always made her performances so special in her genre work. Her lashing out at Cushing towards the conclusion is very well-handled, and it is shocking and sad that her character has to meet such a fate at the close. Pasco is decent in the role of leading man, his agony and frustration fueling the horror of the narrative, which is set up nicely by Goodliffe as his father, whose ultimate fate is among the more terrifying in a Hammer horror film, if not the genre as a whole.

The Gorgon is a fairly unique Hammer film with a monster seen all too seldomly in cinema. The gothic flavor of this film is in keeping with the earlier classics and would sadly be lost in the ensuing years. The Gorgon marks the end of an era of classic horror and deserves a spot as one of the better genre films from the period, as well as one of the most interesting films to star Cushing and Lee, and that alone, makes it recomendable.

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