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).
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.
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.
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.