The Gorgon (1964)

Director: Terence Fisher

By Roderick Heath

Perhaps the darkest, surely the most genuinely uncanny and poetically realised of all Hammer horror films, The Gorgon sees most of the classic elements and seasoned artists of the studio’s canonical repertoire—director Terence Fisher, screenwriter John Gilling, composer James Bernard, and stars Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Barbara Shelley—working at fullest pitch. The titular figure out of Greek mythology was a fine counterpoint to the great masculine figure of entrapping, corrosive, sexual threat, Dracula, which Fisher had already memorably handled; in taking on a female icon of irresistibly destructive force, Fisher was able to conjure his most metaphorically acute and sadly circular fable.

The Gorgon is structured as mystery revolving around the deserted, ruined Castle Borski somewhere in Germany in the early 20th century. The castle is the perfect heart of darkness that both repels and attracts the protagonists as they act out an oedipal fantasy of fathers and sons fighting to reach the forbidden female at the centre of the myth who will consume them. In realising a story with the force and simplicity of a folktale, it’s appropriate that The Gorgon is Fisher’s most deceptively placid, oneiric film, opening with a shot of the remote castle and a moon-gilded forest landscape that seem to have been slipped out of a Grimm yarn.

The initial situation evokes a classic quandary, in which young Bohemian artist Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst) is told by his model Sascha Cass (Toni Gilpin) that she’s pregnant by him. He angrily stalks out to tell her father that “I won’t evade my responsibilities,” as she pursues him, afraid her father might become violent. But on the forest path, she spies something that causes her to utter a final scream of soul-wrenching fear.

The township of Vandorf, where this occurs, is afflicted with unexplained killings, but the authorities, represented by reactionary Police Inspector Kanof (Patrick Troughton), a malleable coroner (Joseph O’Conor), and particularly the formidable, dictatorial hospital chief Dr. Namaroff (Cushing), are eager to pass Sascha’s death off as Bruno’s work—a job made easier when he’s found in the woods where he’s hung himself in grief. Bruno’s father, Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), a professor at Leipzig University, attends the inquest and upsets the apple cart by abusing the officials and promising to solve the mystery himself. What he doesn’t know immediately, but which Namaroff and his favourite nurse Carla Hoffman (Shelley) are well aware of, is that the bodies of the victims are found turned to stone. Heitz begins to suspect the truth, even reaching so far as to suggest that the legend of Castle Borski, that it’s inhabited by the spirit of Megara, the last of the three Gorgons, might be true.

One night, when researching this myth, he’s drawn by a siren song to the castle ruins, where he spots the spectral fiend and runs away screaming, doomed to petrify even as he writes an explaining letter to his last remaining son. That son, Paul (Richard Pasco), comes to Vandorf after taking leave of his own gruffly paternal teacher, Karl Meister (Lee), and encounters the ambiguous, amnesiac, terrorised Carla, who is being used by Namaroff to get close to him with a hope of turning up any useful information on Megara. Paul barely survives an encounter with Megara when she appears at the house during a storm, glimpsed in grotesque snatches mirrored in a pond. Paul recovers in the hospital under Carla’s care, deepening their growing affection, and Meister arrives in Vandorf to aid his student. This leads to Namaroff’s increasingly forceful efforts, backed up by Kanof’s proto-totalitarian regime, to fend off these intrusive know-it-alls and maintain his hegemony over Carla, whom Meister concludes might be the human vessel of Megara, a fact Nemeroff already suspects but won’t yet face.

Like so much of Grecian legend, the Gorgon myth offers an explicit psychological metaphor for the inevitable corruption of specifically female beauty and the dangers of arrogance. Fisher and Gilling give the myth a tweak that skews it close to familiar Fisher territory of portraying Janus-faced desire and repression, amour and brutality, which he expressed most directly in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). Whilst it anticipates in key metaphors and plot movements Gilling’s later, interesting The Reptile, The Gorgon is far superior not only in Fisher’s deeper sense of mise-en-scène, but because where The Reptile severs the chief protagonists from direct involvement in the twisted sexual dynamic it invokes, The Gorgon sees a father, two sons, and the stern representatives of a paternalist state and culture all trying to contain or penetrate the feminine mystery at its heart. Most modern horror films, of course, are about sex disguised, concealed, and expressed through violent anxiety and shadow-puppet representatives, and more specifically, most are about a desire to control and obliterate sexual emblems, usually women, on screen. The Gorgon is something slightly different, because it portrays a group of men dying one by one, shocked into an eternal frieze, as like Theseus into the labyrinth, they chase Megara into her home.

Where most Hammer films set in Europe usually described an ambiguously defined Germanic realm deep in another age, The Gorgon is specific about setting and evokes a paranoid, uptight world just before World War I. Fisher makes an explicit link between political repression and the sexual and psychological variety, with Vandorf described as a police state and Namaroff a Caligari type trying to keep the various demons corralled and controlled. He might be considered an anti-Freud trying to guard the true nature of the heroes from themselves—Carla from realising she’s a destructive goddess incarnate and Paul from seeing into his own oedipal doom to repeat his father’s self-destructive odyssey—whilst maintaining his own firm agenda to protect/own Carla. The threat of explosive, yet repressive dictatorial rage lurks, warned of in Sacha’s father and finally actualised by Nameroff as he tries to keep Paul from uncovering Carla’s secret. Whilst the structure of the state is maintained by Nameroff and Kanof disguising the truth—a fatal attraction to a primal embodiment of sex-as-death—that structure is threatened by the forceful, yet foolish efforts of the Heitz men and by Meister’s pitilessly logical insight.

The desire to know the forbidden, always an obsessive theme of folk-myth and the horror genre, involves a piercing of boundaries of social control and civic authority, endangering the balance by which social forms are enforced. This theme takes on thoroughly, if subtly, erotic meaning as Paul and Nameroff’s war to possess Carla becomes an overt generational struggle. Lee’s Meister, cast as Nameroff’s equal and opposite in wielding the power of knowledge, is rendered distinct from the psychosexual merry-go-round of the Heitzes and Nameroff in competing for Carla/Megara; thus, he is the only one who clearly recognises her for what she is and who can wield the sword that decapitates her. The price he pays is being exempted from any sensual association with her. Forms of control of the human, especially female, body are reiterated, from Boris capturing Sascha’s naked flesh on page as overture to making her pregnant to Nameroff coolly hacking a dead female patient’s brain out and placing it in a jar, declaring that the most noble work of God is also the most repulsive to look at, an allusion to the beauty and murderous ugliness of the Gorgon herself.

And, of course, the Gorgon ripostes with an irreducible capacity to turn anyone who approaches her to a stony mockery of a human form. In spite of all warnings and rational measures, Paul refuses to believe Carla could be the monster and winds up battling Nameroff in Castle Borski essentially for the right to solve the mystery, a mystery, however, that can only be solved by staring death in the face, bringing the sex/death correlation of so much religious and folk imagery to a final nexus. This, at least, gives Meister the chance to slice Megara’s head off and end the poisonous roundelay, but not before a calcifying Paul watches with his dying breaths as Megara’s snake-crowned head transmogrifies back into Carla’s.

The Gorgon is quieter and more intimate than the general run of Hammer product—and Fisher’s usually lightning-paced work, in particular—but like much of Fisher’s best films, the visual detail works around limited effects and budgets to present a spare, yet iridescent sense of a mythic realm blooming amidst the cold grey stone of a regulated world. Moreover, its careful, pregnant pace responds to the necessity of its specific story and mood. Few other films of the era maintain the sheer eeriness The Gorgon offers in its iconography of the ruined castle as a lonely shrine in the forest and the siren song of the monster that infests the night, drawing men out to their doom.

On the more immediate level, it’s fun to see Lee playing the iron hand of rational conquest Cushing usually played in taking on Lee’s Dracula, made up to look the older savant whilst still promising a mob of yokels with utter conviction that they’d better not try any rough stuff with him like they did with Heitz. His appearance at Paul’s door late in the film, standing in the shadows, plays as a sly in-joke reversal of Lee’s entrance in Dracula (1958) and also anticipates the ironically menacing appearance of Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1973), another late-arriving saviour in a narrative with more than one point of similarity. Pasco is an untraditional sort of young hero, reflecting Hammer’s taste for real-looking actors, a fondness that often stretched even to its glamour-pusses. Cushing could play cold fixation as second nature, but his acting here, with slashing sideburns and dagger-sharp eyes firmly evoking rigid will and imperative possessiveness, summarises all such performances with bleak, unforgiving perfection.

Shelley, who became an almost emblematic star for Hammer in the early 60s, possessed a rare talent for suggesting bubbling passions under a staid English Rose façade, very much the opposite in look and persona from the era’s other British Barbara, Barbara Steele. Her poised job here as the profoundly troubled Carla, snatching at hope, bending to Nemeroff’s will, and finally surrendering to a force within but beyond herself, is quietly heartbreaking. It’s a pity that she doesn’t get to play the Gorgon as well (Prudence Hyman does that) and fully embody the beauty/beast. Indeed, the only real faults of The Gorgon are purely technical, like the unfortunately lame effects of the severed head and its transmogrification at the end, and a rain storm that turns on and off like a garden hose. Otherwise, it’s a highpoint of intelligence and artistry in the genre.

  • tdraicer spoke:
    15th/03/2010 to 12:14 am

    One can’t help feeling that even in that era and on those budgets they could have done a much better job with the snake-hair, but that aside, it is certainly a very atmospheric film. Besides the Hammer Regulars, I always enjoy seeing Michael Goodliffe, an under-used character actor who gave the most memorable performance in what is still imo THE Titanic movie, A Night To Remember.

  • Rod spoke:
    15th/03/2010 to 12:33 am

    TD: Agree on Michael Goodliffe, whose performances both here and as Andrews in ANTR are truly excellent. Speaking of the latter, the scene where he coolly predicts the ship will sink in an hour and that everyone around him is likely to die is indelible.

    Impressive atmosphere is much harder to generate than FX – just ask any number of modern asshole genre directors – and generally I prize it far more, and I’ve long since become immune to such lacks. But yes, the snake hair is remarkably lame even by Hammer’s standards, but they don’t bother me so much as that awful fake head in the very last shots. One stand-out effect of the technical decline of the post-Television, post-Big Studio movie era was the remarkable decay in the arts of special effects, which did not really gain a true revival until Kubrick set to work on 2001, except for oddities like Ray Harryhausen’s few films of the decade.

  • tdraicer spoke:
    15th/03/2010 to 12:52 am

    >One stand-out effect of the technical decline of the post-Television, post-Big Studio movie era was the remarkable decay in the arts of special effects, which did not really gain a true revival until Kubrick set to work on 2001,

    Good point.

    My favorite line in ANTR, mostly because of Goodliffe’s delivery:

    Captain: But she can’t sink. She’s unsinkable!

    Andrews: She can’t float.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    16th/03/2010 to 8:44 pm

    Late to the party here, but this is definitely one of the best Hammers, and Fisher, Cushing and Lee are in prime form, in a film with -as you astutely note- metaphorical underpinnings. I definitely agree that the pacing with this film is more deliberate and subdued, and I am particularly in agreement with this great point here:

    “The Gorgon is specific about setting and evokes a paranoid, uptight world just before World War I. Fisher makes an explicit link between political repression and the sexual and psychological variety, with Vandorf described as a police state and Namaroff a Caligari type trying to keep the various demons corralled and controlled. ”

    What are the best Hammer films?

    I would vote for in no particular order:

    Horror of Dracula
    Plague of the Zombies
    The Devil Rides Out
    Vampire Circus (perhaps the most ambitious film)
    The Gorgon
    Brides of Dracula

    But I can’t really talk against these either:

    The Reptile
    Twins of Evil
    The Curse of Frankenstein
    Quatermass and the Pit
    The Revenge of Frankenstein
    Hound of the Baskervilles

  • Rod spoke:
    16th/03/2010 to 9:33 pm

    Hi Sam.

    Funny thing is, I first saw The Gorgon at a very young age, maybe 7 or 8, and I remembered it with extreme vividness, but was afraid in returning to it after such a long time my memory might betray me. But no, I was quite stunned at how good it was.

    My personal rankings for the best Hammer films would look a lot like yours, and I’d pretty well compress both halves of your list (although I haven’t yet seen Revenge of Frankenstein or their version of Quatermass and the Pit; I’m a huge devotee of the original TV version of that), except for most prominently Vampire Circus, which I’ve only seen in bits and pieces and has always struck me as problematic, and Twins of Evil which has great moments but also some cringe-worthy ones. Amongst the later Hammer works Peter Sasdy’s films like Hands of the Ripper and Countess Dracula are uneven but to my mind even more “ambitious” in terms of story scope and production. A few others I’d put up my hand for would include Fisher’s version of The Mummy, Peter Sykes’ quite underrated To The Devil…A Daughter, Val Guest’s adaptation of Kneale’s The Abominable Snowman, and a there’s still quite a few well-regarded ones I’m tracking down.’

    Either way, more Hammer to come in the not too distant future!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    17th/03/2010 to 7:21 am

    Great stuff Rod! There’s no doubt that ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN belongs there (I erred) as that has some splendid pace and tension, and THE MUMMY and DEVIL are also more than noteworthy.

    I look forward to your planned essays in the series!!! Thanks so much for responding to me as always.

  • Jessica Lanford spoke:
    16th/06/2011 to 3:18 pm

    The review sounds great. I’m going to try to see if this is available on NetFlix or some other Internet service. The costumes look fantastic. 1964 was a little before my time but I love the classics. It looks like a fun movie for a lonely Friday night.

  • Rod spoke:
    16th/06/2011 to 11:26 pm

    That’s what old horror movies are for, Jessica!

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