The Gorgon (1964)

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The Gorgon is a scary and fascinating monster of mythology, the snake-headed lady who turned to stone anyone (usually men) who looked at her face. In Hammer’s The Gorgon (1964), directed by Terence Fisher, the titular monster is Medusa’s sister, dropped in a vampire-werewolf world where she makes her base a remote and decrepit castle near a German village and turns from human to monster under a full moon. To pass as normal during other times, the Gorgon possesses the body of a nurse (Barbara Shelley) who’s been working at the nearby medical institution since she arrived as an amnesiac.

When a “drunken libertine” artist hangs himself, and his pregnant girlfriend is found dead, he becomes the scapegoat for seven other unsolved murders. The artist’s father (Michael Goodliffe) refuses to believe it, and Shelley asks her employer (Peter Cushing) why he neglected to mention that all the victims were turned to stone. Cushing is keeping a secret about the deaths, his work, his patients at the institute, and he’s shielding a woman he loves, fears and tracks with the help of a burly intern. Cushing seems to dismiss as outlandish the theory that only Megaera, one of the three Gorgon sisters as per Greek myth, is capable of such uncanny transformations. Goodliffe stays on to investigate, and when he’s the monster’s next petrified victim, he lives long enough to summon his other son (Richard Pasco) who in turn draws in a colleague (Christopher Lee).

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Pasco falls in love with Shelley, she begins to question Cushing’s control of her life, and Lee figures out who the Gorgon is. I can’t go on without spoiling that it’s Shelley as the Gorgon’s attractive vessel, while Prudence Hyman plays the monster when it emerges in horrific form at full moon. Since it was set up that the Gorgon was just a spirit, I wish Shelley had played both, the transformation would have been far more interesting and disturbing. Shelley has great presence, gliding around in that hooded cloak with just the right amount of allure, vulnerability and otherworldly distraction. Her fearful distance and impulsiveness suggest the gaps of amnesia, worries over Cushing’s creepy possessiveness, her premonitions of something bad and her desire to run away with her new love Pasco before she goes Gorgon again.

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True to legend, catching sight of the Gorgon’s reflection in a pool or mirror isn’t fatal but will shave some years off your life and turn your hair grey. True to the promise of Hammer horror, the monster is scary, so long as she lures with a moaning siren call, remains in shadow or reflection, floats about eerily with glowing eyes and thick writhing “hair” which is a frightening nest of lunging snakes. However once seen up close at the big end reveal, the Gorgon is more likely to reduce you to giggles than stone. That fake-looking head with its rubbery toy snake hair and, after being chopped off, bright ketchupy blood smeared around the neck, is terribly cheesy. Luckily that sight is only a tiny portion of the movie and it goes back to weirdness once Hyman’s visage crumbles away to reveal Shelley’s face underneath.

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There’s a nice reversal for Cushing and Lee roles here. Cushing is excellent, guarded, cold and calculating, acting for what he believes to be Shelley’s good and to preserve his own interests. As long as she and others remain unaware of her identity and her acts as monster, he can keep her close as his beloved assistant. Lee looks like Einstein’s taller, athletic brother here and gets to be the action hero. He makes a dramatic entrance in high wind, climbs through windows, breaks into Cushing’s files, berates and knocks down policemen and gets to play Perseus by decapitating the monster. He avoids getting trapped by this ultimate femme fatale because of his ability to see Shelley/the Gorgon clearly, his insistence on hard facts, and impatience for Pasco’s infatuation.

James Bernard provides good music with distinct themes for the deaths or dangerous encounters, for Pasco and Shelley’s romantic moments and a memorable Gorgon theme that, just like the monster, comes out in force during the full moon.

This was a rewatch for me, I hadn’t seen it since I was a teenager, and it crawled along a lot slower than I remember. Not up to the better Hammer scaries but still enjoyable for all the creepy parts, the fun of being with these favourite actors doing good work in loads of gloomy, somber atmosphere.

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8 thoughts on “The Gorgon (1964)”

  1. There’s bags of atmosphere in the movie and Cushing & Lee are always a great leading duo. I guess the film is slowish and the fact the Gorgon’s identity is pretty obvious due to the limited cast removes some of the tension.
    It looks wonderful though and I’d rate it among the upper mid-range for Hammer horrors.

    1. Gorgon has always been one of my scariest monsters, so I enjoy this one no matter what. Even where the pace slows, that atmosphere is sustained throughout, it’s almost delirious, especially the bit with the vocal music, when she’s using her “siren” call. So creepy.

  2. I re-watched this one around Halloween time, and, yeah, it was slower than I remembered, too. Still enjoyable for the combination of Lee and Cushing and the direction of Fisher, but not as effective as either the “Dracula” movies or “The Mummy.” Thanks for the review!

    1. I agree, time spent with Cushing and Lee is hardly ever wasted, they’re comfort food, even the lesser ones are fun. Thanks

  3. I liked this movie too – but that scary sixties hair-do is maybe more alarming than the rubber snakes. Fear of letting your hair down?

    1. When the gorgon is just peeking out of the dark those wriggling snakes are pretty scary and convincing. Not the kind of bad hair day anyone wants 🙂 thanks

  4. Feel the love for Chris and Peter as well as the Hammer films. This one is flavorful and fits into that world of superstitious villages that they brought to life.
    I proudly have an original half sheet of this one in the collection.
    “with the help of a burly intern” intern is Jack Watson. So memorable in The Wild Geese as the drill sergeant who steels every scene from Moore, Harris and Burton. Not an easy thing to do.
    Well done!

    1. Ratoff! Yes Watson gets that nice bit where he throws a knife at… no I won’t spoil that at least 🙂 bad enough that I had to say who the gorgon was. I personally like the idea of plopping a figure from Greek Mythology into a superstitious village, she feels right at home there and in a Hammer movie.

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