The Gorgon (1964) **
An extremely bizarre offering from the renowned Hammer Film Productions, The Gorgon is the movie that asks, “What would happen if a monster from Greek mythology returned from the dead to terrorize East Prussia in the early 20th century?” Now, you might expect such a movie to be more fun than the proverbial barrel of monkeys, but sadly, you’d be wrong. The Gorgon may be plenty stupid, but it isn’t fun stupid.
Oh, the movie gets off to a promising start, alright, with a young artist named Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst) sitting at his easel, painting a portrait of his topless girlfriend. For no apparent reason, the girl asks Bruno if he will marry her. His response, that he will do so as soon as he has paid off his creditors, sends her into a fit of hysterics, after which Bruno eventually pries out of her the information that she is pregnant with his child. Oh, so that’s what this is all about, is it? Well, despite his reputation to the contrary (he is an artist, you know) Bruno Heitz is not a man to shirk his responsibilities, and he heads off at once to see the girl’s father. Bruno’s girlfriend doesn’t think this is such a good idea, on the grounds that her father will surely kill Bruno, so she takes off after him. As she chases her boyfriend through the forest, she encounters something that we don’t see, but which is apparently right fucking hideous. No sooner does the girl lay eyes on it than she screams at the top of her lungs and passes out.
Cut to the office of Dr. Namarov (Peter Cushing with a mustache, so we know he’s got to be the bad guy-- can you remember even one time when he played a hero sporting more facial hair than a pair of tastefully restrained sideburns?). He’s puttering around with some test tubes full of unsavory-looking fluids when he is interrupted by a police inspector (and this is how we know we’re in East Prussia-- look at the man’s helmet!), who has brought with him the dead body of the girl from the previous scene. The inspector (Viking Queen’s Patrick Troughton) asks Namarov to perform an autopsy, which is a stunningly idiotic request, considering that the girl has been turned to stone. A short time later, the police find Bruno, who had been their primary suspect (we all know how many domestic violence cases involve women being turned to stone by their boyfriends/husbands), hanging, dead, from a tree. The coroner’s inquest, at which Namarov, the inspector, the girl’s father, and Bruno’s father (Michael Goodliffe of Peeping Tom) all testify, unsurprisingly rules that it was a case of murder-suicide, much to the disgust of Mr. Heitz, who thinks it fairly obvious that his son is being scapegoated-- I mean, come on, the girl was turned to fucking stone! He announces his intention to remain in Vandorf, rather than returning at once to his home in Leipzig, for as long as is necessary to clear his son’s name. The fact that he is immediately assaulted in the local house he has rented by a mob of motivelessly enraged townspeople, combined with the fact that Bismarck Jr.’s police force shows exactly zero interest in doing anything about the attack, convinces him more than ever that something fishy is going on in Vandorf, and the highly suspicious blow-off he gets from Dr. Namarov only demonstrates the pervasiveness of the “conspiracy of silence.” Later that night, something catches his attention, and leads him to start poking around in the long-abandoned Castle Borski, which stands on a mountaintop deep in the woods. Inside the castle, Mr. Heitz gets a glimpse of something-- it appears for only a split second, but it looks like an extremely ugly woman-- so horrible as to drive him, screaming, all the way back home. When he sits down at his desk, we see that a few changes have come over the man-- his movements have become very stiff, and his skin has turned gray and taken on a somehow sandy consistency. Heitz summons his butler, instructs him to send for his other son, Paul (Richard Pasco, from Rasputin, the Mad Monk), care of Professor Meister in Leipzig, and says that he intends to write a letter which is to be given to no one but Paul. Heitz is able to write some three pages before he finishes turning to stone.
Paul Heitz’s first experiences in Vandorf bear a depressing resemblance to his father’s. Everyone in town, the authorities in particular, seems determined to prevent him from learning the truth about his father’s death. The police, for example, refuse to let him see the body, and Namarov sticks doggedly to his ridiculous contention that the elder Heitz died of heart failure. The only sympathetic ear in Vandorf belongs to Namarov’s nurse, Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley, from Cat Girl and Blood of the Vampire). She knows Vandorf is prey to some supernatural evil, and she believes she knows exactly what it is. What she tells Heitz confirms his suspicions; like his father, Paul is a scholar of classical mythology, and he shares his father’s belief that Vandorf has become the home of Megera, last of the Gorgons (about whom I’ll have plenty to say in a later paragraph). And, lucky Paul, he receives a visit from Megera at his house that night, and is nearly turned to stone, just like his father.
Paul wakes up in the hospital five days later. This immediately tells us that Namarov is very deeply implicated in the current rash of Gorgon attacks, because we know that Paul got a good, close look at Megera’s face; how could Namarov have developed a cure for Gorgonic petrifaction if he’s as innocent as he claims? There is a highly unconvincing scene in the hospital that establishes Paul and Carla as love interests for each other (Come on, Paul’s been in town for seven days, and for five of them, he’s been in a coma-- at what point did he and Carla have an opportunity to fall for each other?), and then Professor Meister (Christopher Lee-- how could we possibly have a Hammer horror film without him?) arrives, wondering what became of his pupil, Heitz. Over the next thirty, maybe forty minutes, more damning information about Namarov comes out (like the fact that he sends Ratov the orderly-- way to designate the villain there, folks-- to kill Heitz), and Meister pieces together the true nature of Vandorf’s problems. You might want to sit down for this. It seems that the spirit of the Gorgon Megera has taken possession of one of the local women (just guess which one-- there are only three women in this movie, and two of them are already dead by the time Meister comes into the picture), causing her to turn into a Gorgon on nights of the full moon!!!! Namarov has been sheltering Megera’s host, because he’s in love with her, and he naturally will do anything to throw the authorities off the scent, even if it means killing anyone who gets too close to the truth. The film finally winds up with Heitz and Namarov in a candelabra vs. cavalry sabre fencing match in Castle Borski, while Meister and the Gorgon look on. Much petrifaction and decapitation ensues.
So what went wrong? My inclination is to say that Hammer was just too dignified and classy to pull something like this off. A film as riddled with stupidity as this one is needs to be completely over the top to succeed, with frenetic pacing and wildly excessive performances. But instead, the film’s pacing could best be described as “stately”, and the cast, especially Lee and Cushing, is so conspicuously talented as to clash most jarringly with the imbecilic story. What The Gorgon really needed was some bombastic overacting (picture Vincent Price or Michael Gough as Namarov!) to distract the audience from the script’s shortcomings. And the false notes in the story abound, let me tell you. First of all, I want to talk about some of the police inspector’s dialogue. At one point, when he is attempting to stonewall Meister, he makes the assertion that “this is a very democratic country.” Now this would seem to imply that Meister and Heitz are foreigners, but guess what... Leipzig is in Germany, just like East Prussia! Had The Gorgon been set about 70 years earlier, before the creation of a unified Germany, this line might not have been so stupid, but there is no reason for a Prussian policeman to have to explain the laws and politics of his land to a Leipziger in 1910. More importantly, German political and police authorities in the days of the Kaiserreich were absolutely unapologetic authoritarian monarchists. Democracy was the corrupt and godless hangover of the French Revolution. For the inspector to protest that he is acting in the name of democracy would be akin to a military man in one of those American atomic bug movies from the 50’s asserting that he was acting in the name of socialism!
And then there’s the little matter of the Gorgon. Leaving aside the question of what a monster from Greek mythology is doing running around in what is now Poland (look at the map; it’s not exactly a short trip), the Gorgon’s back-story has got some problems. Rather early on, the elder Heitz describes the Gorgons as three sisters— Medusa, Megera, and Tisiphone— with living snakes for hair, so hideous that to look them in the face would turn the viewer to stone. Of the three, two were slain in ancient times, but the third, Megera, lives on. He’s correct about there being three Gorgons, but of those three, only Medusa was killed by Perseus; the other two Gorgons were immortal— not even the gods could kill them. Also, at least according to Ovid’s version of the Gorgon stories, Medusa was the only one with snakes for hair, and the only one with the paralyzing gaze, her enhanced hideousness stemming from the way she became a Gorgon in the first place. Unlike the others, Medusa had been a human priestess of Athene once, but was turned into a monster by the goddess in a classic example of blaming the victim— Poseidon raped Medusa and got her pregnant inside the temple sanctuary, and Athene wasn’t the sort of goddess who went in for that sort of thing in her holy places. Finally, Medusa’s sisters were named Stheno and Euryale, not Tisiphone and Megera. Tesiphone and Megera were two of the Furies, a different triumvirate of fearsome female beings frequently depicted with snakes for hair. That point of similarity might suggest that screenwriter John Gilling simply got confused as to which names (beyond the universally recognized Medusa) went with which trio. Or it could be that he didn’t think anyone would be able to pronounce Stheno or Euryale, and decided to change the names to something the actors would be able to say. Or maybe he just plain didn’t know the difference in the first place. Either way, I’m open to the possibility that I’m being too smart for my own good here, and that absolutely nobody else would notice this sort of thing, or care about it if they had. But, damn it, it bugs me, and I say: two stars.