Monday, February 11, 2019

The Gorgon (1964)

Director: Terence Fisher                                 Writer: John Gilling
Film Score: James Bernard                            Cinematography: Michael Reed
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Richard Pasco and Barbara Shelley

There’s almost no complaint whenever Hammer Studios put Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee together. Almost. The Gorgon is one of those rare films in which the teaming of the duo can do nothing to overcome a weak screenplay and an even weaker monster. The two horror legends have only one brief scene together and somehow both of them come off as completely miscast. What’s so bizarre is how many of the people involved in the film thought it was great. Sure, the first half of the film is fairly atmospheric, but it never really delivers on its promise. The original story, by J. Llewellyn Devine, went back to Greek mythology in reviving a sister of Medusa who could inhabit the body of a human with her spirit and turn those who looked upon her into stone. The story was adapted for the screen by John Gilling, but while the film is touted as presenting the first female monster in Hammer’s horror films the result is so underwhelming, from the makeup to the practical effects, that it’s difficult to understand why anyone would think the film was good. The tag line for the film is “Terror Beyond Belief,” but the only thing beyond belief is that the monster isn’t terrifying at all. In the end, Christopher Lee had the best summation of the film: “The only thing wrong with The Gorgon, is the gorgon.”

The credits roll over a beautiful painting of an abandoned castle somewhere in Eastern Europe. In a nearby village painter Jeremy Longhurst is sketching a nude portrait of his girlfriend, Toni Gilpin. When she tells him she’s pregnant, he storms off to see her father. The old man already hates him, but now Longhurst knows he has to consent to their marriage. As Gilpin chases Longhurst through the woods, she suddenly sees something that makes her scream in terror, and the next day the constable brings her dead body in to be examined by Peter Cushing. Like a series of murders during the last few years, the body has turned to stone. After finding Longhurst’s body hanging from a tree, Longhurst’s father, Michael Goodliffe, comes to the village to attend the coroner’s inquest. But his son is not only blamed for the murder of Gilpin, he’s made the scapegoat for the other murders as well. This is something Goodliffe will not stand for, and he stays in the village to clear his son’s name, despite the villagers trying to run him out. That night he hears a voice coming from the castle and is compelled to investigate. But when he looks upon the Gorgon he is able to tear his eyes away soon enough to make it back to the house. He’s gradually turning to stone but has enough time to write a letter to his other son, Richard Pasco, telling him what happened. When same thing happens to Pasco, he’s fortunate enough only to have seen the Gorgon’s reflection in the water and it doesn’t kill him. Because he is in the hospital for several days, however, his mentor, Christopher Lee, comes to look for him and together they vow to uncover the truth about the Gorgon.

The film begins promisingly enough, as Terence Fisher makes some interesting directorial choices, specifically the murder and its aftermath. As always, Peter Cushing plays the cool, rational doctor, only this time with mutton chops, and is quiet intensity is effective. Michael Goodliffe is every bit his equal in his determination to clear his son’s name. Christopher Lee doesn’t fare as well as the professor with a full beard who is absorbed in his work. The main problem is with Prudence Hyman as the Gorgon. She just isn’t menacing enough. Sure, she has the power to turn mortals into stone, but she’s stuck haunting the nearby castle and the woods, and her victims pretty much have to stumble on her by accident in order to die. And the phony snakes in her hair are pretty laughable. The other issue that seems to undermine the film is with Cushing’s character. As Frankenstein he certainly acted in an immoral manner, but it was always in the quest for the truth. Here, he seems to be deliberately concealing the truth, lying to the family members of the victims as if he’s part of the conspiracy of silence, just as fearful as the villagers, and that seems a betrayal of the kind of character he usually played. Lee doesn’t come into the picture until late, and the film might have been better had he exchanged roles with Cushing. Even James Bernard’s score is fairly subdued for a Hammer film. The whole thing bogs down in the middle and never recovers, and the ending is so devoid of fear and artistry that it winds up being incredibly anticlimactic. The Gorgon is enjoyable to a point, but definitely falls well short of Hammer’s late fifties masterpieces.

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