Wednesday, October 13, 2021

THE GORGON (1964) Movie Review

Scare-A-Thon Totals to Date:

Total Movies Watched: 12
Total First Time Views: 7
Amount raised for ALBANY PARK THEATER PROJECT: $583.80

The Gorgon (1964) d. Terence Fisher (UK) (83 min) (3rd viewing)

A series of strange and unexplained deaths plagues the rural town of Vandorf in the early 1900s, the latest victim being Sascha Cass (Toni Gilpin), lover of local artist Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst) (as in she is carrying his child, although I’m sure she’s fond of his painting as well). What makes the beautiful model’s demise so curious is she has been literally petrified to death, i.e. discovered having turned completely to stone. Inspector Karnoff (Patrick Troughton) conspires with Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing) and his assistant Carla (Barbara Shelley) to cover up the mystery, but when Bruno’s body is found in the forest hanging by the neck, the collective attentions of his professor father (Michael Goodliffe) and brother Paul (Richard Pasco) are raised, along with Paul’s colleague Professor Meister (Christopher Lee). In this dawning age of science and logic, could the spirit of Megaera, an ancient snake-haired monster of legend, be the culprit?

Much ballyhoo surrounded the announcement that director Fisher would be reuniting with his dream team of Cushing and Lee for the first time since 1959’s The Mummy. And while the monster showcased was not from Universal’s classic stable, it was still recognizable to anyone with an elementary knowledge of Greek mythology. The script by John Gilling, who would go on to direct The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies, was apparently overhauled considerably by Anthony Hinds, much to the scribe’s chagrin, but the resulting story remains an intriguing and original yarn spiced through with the Gothic and melodramatic qualities that had made the studio its fortunes.

Hammer’s two biggest stars play against type here, with Cushing a somewhat weak and conservative public servant willing to compromise his ideals in the name of (gasp!) love while Lee dons a scruffy wig and mustache as the irascible man of learning who descends upon the small village with the subtlety of an addled Rottweiler in a butcher shop. It’s one of the rare times in which the latter played with “character,” roughening his voice and adding physical tics and mannerisms as opposed to relying solely on his estimable presence and sonorous voice. The sheer novelty makes it all the more enjoyable for longtime fans.

Both play smaller roles in what amounts to a true ensemble piece, with ostensible lead Pasco not showing up until nearly 30 minutes in. Shelley (Quatermass and the Pit) is stunning as usual, perfectly capturing both the steel and fragility of her character, and Troughton (Scars of Dracula) lends magnificent support as the ineffectual representation of law and order. (We also get a rather obvious glance at Cushing’s mustachioed stand-in during the climactic struggle at Castle Borski. Um, that ain’t Peter swinging that sword.)

It’s oft been written that the somewhat underwhelming realization of the titular fiend nearly undoes the entire affair, but I heartily disagree. Fisher does an excellent job of keeping Prudence Hyman in the shadows until the fatal moments, and while her mechanical rubber head-dwelling serpents don’t necessarily shatter expectations, they serve the turn. (Shelley was supposed to play a dual role, but the idea was nixed in pre-production despite the actress’ willingness to have actual live grass snakes in her hair!)

More effective is Roy Ashton’s (Curse of the Werewolf) gray paint job of Megaera’s victims after they have gazed upon her; Goodliffe’s gradual transformation is surprisingly tragic and chilling. Michael Reed’s (Dracula: Prince of Darkness) heightened Bava-eque lighting during certain dramatic sequences lend just the right amount of supernatural eeriness, with production designer Bernard Robinson’s “brilliance on a budget” once again on great display.

For casual Hammer fans who know only the classic Universal spin-offs and series, The Gorgon resides far below the radar. But those willing to dive deeper will find a satisfying and melancholy melodrama that shows off its iconic stars in a different light. Well worth checking out.


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