31 Days of Halloween: The Gorgon (1964)

Sometimes you have a history with a movie before you even experience it. This is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge in an age when everything’s on demand or one YouTube click away. In my youth, weird cult movies were things that were whispered about with reverence, only experienced in the pages of cinema books such as Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books, or by flipping through old issues of Fangoria magazine. I remember overnight camp counselors going bananas over The Rocky Horror Picture Show, back when you could catch screenings of it once in a blue moon in the theatre only, which is arguably where that film belongs.

I have the same history with Hammer’s The Gorgon.

The Gorgon was apparently the movie that scared the crap out of my coolest cousin, Max, who was older than me by a decade. As the story goes, Max and fellow cousins Larry and Michael had stayed up late to watch it – either before or around the time I was born. Years later, I’d encountered a sealed VHS copy of the movie on Max’s shelf in his apartment, which he was giving to either Michael and/or Larry. Clearly, this movie had left an impact on them. My own memory of Max’s encounter with The Gorgon was enough to rouse my interest.

Needless to say, I was then on a mission to watch The Gorgon. By this time, I’d already seen The Fly and Aliens. My father had rented the baffling Videodrome (at my request) on the week my mom and sister took off to Florida for spring break. It goes without saying that when I found a battered VHS copy of The Gorgon at the video store on the edge of town, it completely failed to live up to the frightful expectations set up by Max and my own imagination.

So, why am I picking it as a 31 Days movie all these years later?

It’s not that The Gorgon is the most representative, or even the best of Hammer’s run of horror films. Neither is it particularly scary, which is hard to judge a Hammer film by, since this British studio’s legacy works best as monstrous costume dramas with great actors, rather than freaky shock-fests.

Still, the movie has resonated with me for well over twenty years. It may be partly due to nostalgia (which is why I can still endure screening Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn in its entirety to this day), but there’s something going on in The Gorgon that may be worthy of your attention, too.

The movie is set in the early 1900s in the village of Vandoff, which is cursed by a Gorgon that has been turning the inhabitants to stone. Despite the monster in their midst, the locals aren’t keen on having any one snoop around, particularly outsiders, for fear of the monster’s reprisals. This leads to Christopher Lee’s Professor Meister teaming up with Paul Heitz (Richard Pasco) to unravel the mystery.

There are a few killer scenes. I’ve always been drawn to the one in which Pasco’s father, Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodlife), is lured to the Castle Vandoff and is turned to stone by the gorgon. He’s not instantly petrified, and has enough time to stagger back home. Here, he slowly writes an explanatory letter to Paul as his joints harden and solidify. There’s enough time for him to say goodbye to his housekeeper and scrawl three pages in increasingly jagged font, with the final words, “I am turning into stone,” a final, passionate wash of ink across the page.

The movie’s also got Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and they’re both great – for once, Lee gets to play a dashing, if somewhat eccentric hero rather than the notorious bloodsucker he usually got paid for. Also shaping up the cast is then up-and-coming Doctor Who lead Patrick Troughton, who starred in several Hammer films. Here, he plays a gruff chief of police, and it’s a complete diversion from his role as the Doctor – understated and unlikable, he was a great character actor.

But the movie is ultimately centered around a doomed love story between Richard Pasco and Barbara Shelley, playing Cushing’s assistant Carla Hoffman. Shelley was always a striking figure in her Hammer appearances – ranging from Dracula: Prince of Darkness to Quatermass and the Pit. She may have been put there as eye candy (in a podcast on Quatermass I listened to recently, the commentators noted how she’s the only one wearing actual colours), but Shelley has a commanding presence. Even when she’s in the background just looking at something, she’s got our attention.

The plot admittedly moves like molasses at times, but if you can submit to its languid flow, there’s a real beauty to it. Take, for example, James Bernard’s score, which utilizes a haunting female vocal. It helps to add an ethereal quality that accentuates the autumnal landscapes with skeletal trees and crunchy leaves blowing in the wind. Also terrific is Michael Reed’s luminous cinematography, full of shadows and eerie greens, particularly in Vandoff castle. The sets, courtesy of Bray Studios production designer Bernard Robinson, balance the clutter of the village sets with the empty, cavernous castle – in which there seem to be more cobwebs than furniture.

Finally, a word of warning: if you’ve come to The Gorgon expecting a Medusa-like creation that will rival Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creature from Clash of the Titans, I must warn you that Roy Ashton’s makeup is not up to his usual standard. It’s acceptable when confined to background shots in the shadows, or reflected in pools of water. But there are perhaps three or four close-ups too many, and the limitations of rubber snakes for hair are notable.

I’m not sure if my cousins walked away from The Gorgon mesmerized by its aesthetic charms; they may have been freaked out by the brief shots of the snake-haired gorgon and the occasional stab of aggressive orchestral music. But today, they can revisit the movie as it was meant to be seen. Mill Creek Entertainment has finally done The Gorgon the justice it deserves and issued a blu-ray of it this past September, coupled with The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. Though Mill Creek’s track record with putting older titles out in HD is spotty (their upgrade of Revenge of Frankenstein looks as if they’d dragged their print through a cheese grater), the transfer on The Gorgon is superb, and really showcases the crisp cinematography.

Now all I need to do is invite Max and the gang over to see how potent the film remains.

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