When it’s on: Saturday, 7 November (10.50 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
Whilst the ‘big bad’ in 1981’s Clash of the Titans is the Kraken, the film’s finest and scariest moments come when Perseus faces Medusa. One of the three Gorgon sisters, Medusa has been cursed by the gods into a figure of such ugliness that one direct look into her face and the hapless watcher is turned instantly to stone. To add to the effect, her hair is a throng of living, writing snakes. Even the approach to the ruined temple that is now her dwelling place is fraught with peril and foreboding, from the skeletal boatman who ferries Perseus and his friends to her island to the outskirts of the building, festooned with statues that turn out to be previous victims of Medusa’s stare. Having seen off his companions, Medusa is only foiled when the hero is able to catch her reflection in his shield and uses this advantage to decapitate her. It’s a thrilling and powerful sequence, and the only time in the movie when Perseus is clearly out of his depth.
Sadly, the level of threat, menace and the atmosphere of death is only partly captured in Hammer’s The Gorgon, released some years earlier. It’s a film that’s likely to appeal to ardent fans of the studio rather than those approaching it with fresh eyes. In its credit column, The Gorgon assembles an A-List cast of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley, with support from Patrick Troughton, and the element of surehandedness continues with Terence Fisher on directorial duties. Little was left to chance, Hammer reeling from a string of failures at the box office – notably an adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, not a terrible piece of work but absolutely worth a watch for the hilarious singing lines given to the performers – and bringing out the big guns for this entry. With those names behind it, the movie can’t be so bad and it isn’t. The actors bring gravitas and credibility to the table. Fisher wraps everything up in a neat package that last little over eighty minutes, treating us to a plot that takes in some easily solvable murder mystery hokum, setting it in the traditional Central European locale that’s dominated by suspicion and intrigue and of course hooking it all on the presence of a monster.
For this one, writer John Gilling reached back into Greek mythology, introducing Megaera to the Hammer oeuvre. Though long since dead, the Gorgon’s spirit has endured and attached itself to a human, though who precisely plays host to Megaera dominates the story. Someone who might very well have an idea is Dr Namaroff (Cushing), who runs the local clinic and asylum and leads a conspiracy of silence when anyone tries to dig up the truth, one supported by local police chief Inspector Kanof (Troughton). People die, and while their corpses become stone figures Namaroff cites a series of medical reasons; clearly he’s protecting someone, but who? The mad woman who makes continual efforts to escape is one suspect; Namaroff’s assistant Carla (Shelley) is another, especially as the latter suffers from spells of memory loss. When a local artist is found hanged after his lover has turned up dead, he’s quickly blamed for her murder, something his father (Michael Goodliffe) disputes. But later he too is ‘petrified’, which prompts the arrival of his son Paul (Richard Pasco), a student of the eminent Professor Meister (Lee) and the University of Leipzig. When not falling in love with Carla, Paul starts uncovering some facts, and after Meister himself turns up their research starts unravelling the spell under which the entire community appears to suffer.
I find the plot of this one a little on the nonsensical side. Whilst I can understand why Namaroff wants to keep the likely identity of Megaera a secret, the actions of the police in following his lead make no sense to me and on this occasion not even Cushing’s air of authority as the town’s intellectual figure – one he played eternally, the tipping point being the moral side on which his characters fell – can smooth over the cracks. All the story really has to do, of course, is provide a set of hangings for the Gorgon’s appearances, but given the small cast on hand – there are only occasional glimpses of townspeople outside the main cast members – the sense of fear that is supposedly gripping the community struggles to become apparent. Worse comes with Megaera herself. The film uses a different actor (Prudence Hyman) to play her in protecting the creature’s ‘human identity’, but it’s to be appreciated that special effects in the early 1960s weren’t able to capture her repulsiveness effectively, especially when it came to animating the snake hair, and the effect largely fails. Wisely, she’s shown in the shadows and semi-darkness for much of the film, only fully stepping into the light at the conclusion, which shows up all the shortcomings. She just isn’t very frightening, carrying almost none of the stink of impending death you always felt whenever Lee’s Count Dracula, as one celebrated example, strode onto the stage. Ray Harryhausen got around this in Clash of the Titans by transforming Medusa into an animated model, making her appear more fantastical and giving her a bow and arrow to draw opponents into her deadly stare, though the less said about the CGI Medusa in the 2010 remake the better, in my opinion.
Despite all that, the usual Hammer tropes remain in place, and they press all the right buttons. I’ve always enjoyed the setting they chose for their horror films, that fictional proto-Germanic hinterland pressed in on all sides by gloomy forests and Brothers Grimm folklore. It’s a perfect realm for dark fairytales, within which The Gorgon fits rather nicely. You can really imagine these places, virtually cut off from the rest of the world and dominated by some imposing and abandoned castle, having their own legends, where even men of science and reason can’t equate what they have learned with the fantastical things going on around them. Cushing is as good as ever, bringing calm command to his role as the town’s doctor even though he’s abusing it by covering up what’s happening, and he gets to bring the athletic aspects of his acting to bear later in the tale. Lee shared top billing, presumably through sheer virtue of being Christopher Lee, despite only really entering the film fully in its closing acts. To give him a professorial air, he’s made to wear an Einsteinian wig and play Meister as an older man, but as soon as he starts talking you’re sold into his performance as an open-minded intellectual who cuts the crap and knows what’s what. As always, Troughton does a lot with very little material, bringing an underplayed nervousness to his character who’s trying to maintain a failing control over the situation. As the film’s one significant female character, Shelley’s job is to make us understand why people want to protect her, and in this she largely succeeds. Hammer was renowned for picking actresses based on little more than their ability to fill out a low cut dress, but Shelley was a bit special. Undoubtedly beautiful, she more importantly gets across really well Carla’s vulnerability and her ultimately futile hopes for a better future.
In the end, The Gorgon is one for the individual to decide upon. It’s one you are perfectly entitled to find terrible, a hopeless misfire featuring a poor monster and a plot that fails to hold up. Then again, when the performances are as good as this and the direction so reliable, there’s an awful lot to like. A note of appreciation for Terence Fisher. Even with a story as daft as this, he could film these things really well, picking out all those inky recesses and shadows to emphasise the threat closing in. It also features a great score by James Bernard, punctuated by haunting female vocals that run through the film.
The Gorgon: ***