A Movie A Day: THE GORGON (1964) Don’t use long words, Inspector. They don’t suit you.
Published at: Oct. 15, 2010, 11:20 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Day: Halloween 2010 edition!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf or streamed via Netflix Instant and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day.]
Continuing our theme of Terence Fisher directed Hammer films co-starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee today’s flick is THE GORGON.
Most of you learned of Gorgons the same way I did, through Ray Harryhausen’s Fantasy/Action flicks. Medusa was one, a woman whose appearance was so hideous she turned any living creature who gazed upon her to stone. Oh, and she was cursed with a neverending stream of bad hair days.
This flick has the spirit of one of the Gorgons (the film calls her Megaera, but Megaera was really one of the Fates in Greek mythology) has possessed one of the ladies in the small European town. Every full moon the spirit takes over and turns people to stone.
What’s interesting about the process here is that it’s not instantaneous. For some reason bloody wounds appear in the foreheads of The Gorgon’s victims and they slowly, over what appears to be at least an hour if not more, turn to stone. One character has time to stumble home, talk to his butler and write a 3 page letter before dying/turning to stone.
In a rare turn, Christopher Lee is a good guy here, a Professor and friend to the family that is being picked off by The Gorgon. On the other side is Peter Cushing who plays more of a villain than he usually does as a town doctor hiding the secret of The Gorgon. It’s a nice role reversal as both characters have aspects of their usual archetypes. For instance, the doctor comes across as a nice, proper guy who lets jealousy and fear control him whereas the Professor is morally in the right, but kind of a dick, holding his intellectual superiority over those he views beneath him.
Lee doesn’t even come into the film in any serious capacity until about halfway through. The first half is about the Heitz patriarch reacting to the apparent murder suicide involving his son and his son’s pregnant girlfriend.
Let me just take a minute to talk about how fucked up the opening of the movie is. Yeah, I said pregnant girlfriend and we open with these two people. The Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst) is an artist painting his topless girlfriend (Toni Gilpin), which leads to some melodrama where she wants to know when they’re going to get married.
She confesses that she’s pregnant, kind of a shocker to me in that out of wedlock pregnancy was kind of an off-limits topic at this time, and to make matters worse Bruno decides to go out and tell her father, promising that he’ll do right by her.
When she chases after him, through the woods during a full moon, she instead runs into The Gorgon. While it happens off camera the fact remains they kill a pregnant woman in the opening minutes of this film.
Bruno is found hanging by his neck, face bloody. Maybe I missed it… I’m not sure if he did that in order to stop himself from turning to stone or if he was strung up by the crazed countrymen who do indeed later brandish torches.
But how could there be any possible human explanation for these people to be murdered and turned to stone? I felt that question rise a few times as we see glimpses of the court proceedings and the off-hand explanation of the townspeople just don’t want to acknowledge it didn’t hold water with me.
Luckily it becomes apparent that as far as the top brass know these people are murdered in a regular fashion because Cushing’s Dr. Namaroff is fudging the death certificates. And when we find out why he is it becomes even more understandable.
So first, Bruno’s father comes in to investigate and then, when he is killed, Bruno’s brother, Paul (Richard Pasco) comes in to finish the job, falling in love with Dr. Namaroff’s beautiful assistant in the process (Barbara Shelley).
It’s an odd structure as we’re without a real leading man for quite a bit of the story, but the structure doesn’t hurt the film. Although I will say that if they had made this Christopher Lee investigating the legend of The Gorgon from the very beginning this film would be a classic.
Lee is so great here, an imposing figure with a bushy gray mustache who doesn’t suffer fools and refuses to be intimidated. Because he’s so great I naturally wanted him to be lead. No offense to Richard Pasco, but the dude got totally overshadowed and I found myself just waiting for more Cushing and Lee when he was on screen.
Christopher Lee has famously quipped that the only thing wrong with The Gorgon was the Gorgon and I see his point. The snakes are extremely rubbery and so obviously fake as to distract from the rest of the make-up, which I actually really liked. The contact lenses and semi-scaled cheeks particularly looked good.
But I think Fisher did well with what he had. In fact, I’d bet some of the creepier shots in the movie were because of Fisher creatively shooting around the crappy rubber snakehair. The shots of the Gorgon in shadow or in a wavy reflection are the most effective in the movie, my favorite being the shot of Pasco looking into a pool of water and seeing the Gorgon inches from his own head, the snakes lunging at his face.
I don’t have a problem with this movie at all other than some structural decisions. You could have taken these characters, performed by these actors, and with a slight reshuffling of the script and character priority made a classic of the genre. What we have is a strong turn by two of horror’s greatest performers in a nice, atmospheric creature feature.
They mythology is also strong. I like the new version of a Gorgon, I like the rules they set up. I like that if you see her in a reflection she still hurts you, just doesn’t kill you. Pasco’s hair turns white after glimpsing her reflection and he becomes sickly and, for a time, nearly insane.
I also want to take a little time out and give some love to the Icons of Hammer box sets. The Gorgon comes from the Icons of Horror Collection and is a beautiful transfer. Longtime AMAD followers will remember my run of Hammer Adventure reviews, all coming from the great Icons of Adventure Collection. I highly recommend either sets to people who love Christopher Lee or Hammer films and want to seek out some of the studio’s lesser known, but still awesome, films.
Final Thoughts: The Gorgon is a strong film, a fun and atmospheric film that is surprisingly fucked up. There are some structural flaws that keep it from being a classic, but for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing themselves it’s worth watching. If you’ve ever thought of yourself as a fan of either man you owe it to yourself to seek this out. If you do, also try to find The Skull, featuring both men. It’d make a pretty good double bill with this one!
Currently in print on DVD: YES Currently available on Netflix Instant: NO
Here are the next week’s worth of AMAD titles:
Saturday, October 16th: MAD LOVE (1935)
Sunday, October 17th: REPULSION (1965)
Monday, October 18th: THE VIDEO DEAD (1987)
Tuesday, October 19th: THE BLACK CAT (1981)
Wednesday, October 20th: THE BLACK CAT (1934)
Thursday, October 21st: THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963)