Often, I tell friends and colleagues that I “cut my teeth” on horror films. Long unfairly considered to be an undistinguished and low-rent genre, it’s where I first discovered my movie love. When I was a young boy, horror films ran on broadcast television constantly. And not only on Friday and Saturday nights, but weekend mornings had double features, and weekday afternoons ran them on ABC’s “The 4:30 Movie”. And there was nothing I adored more than the Universal “classics”—especially the “Frankenstein” series. But also “Dracula”, “The Wolf Man”, “The Mummy”, “The Invisible Man” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”. They held a creepy power over me that has never vanished, and the nostalgia for them burns in me like a brush fire at times—and I pine to revisit them(not too difficult, btw, since I own every complete series I mentioned on DVD!). During the 1950’s, a good decade before I was born, the British film company Hammer Films decided to take a stab at producing their own series of films starring the creatures made infamous by Universal. Adding color film to the visual palette, 1957’s “The Curse of Frankenstein”, 1958’s “The Horror of Dracula” and 1959’s “The Mummy” were major successes, each spawning their very own trail of sequels. They also served to make stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee major international stars. And that lucrative macabre teaming continued right on into the 1970’s. Along the way, the duo would star in the occasional Hammer “monster mash” not connected to Universal’s stable, and the one I remember most fondly is 1965’s “The Gorgon”. And I recently treated myself to another look at it for the first time in decades. Some of it has even held up quite well.
Let’s keep things brief on the plot summary: it’s 1910, and a series of murders have been committed with one glaring similarity in each case—all seven victims were physically petrified into stone. The police of the rural German town where the crimes have been perpetrated, attempt to suppress the bizarre nature of the killings to avoid spreading panic and superstition. But when a young woman is found in the rock-hard state, and her lover commits suicide after her death—the authorities pin the crime on the man who took his own life. When the dead man’s father, Dr. Namaroff(Peter Cushing), arrives to defend his deceased son’s honor, a mysterious chain of events occurs with the coming of each full moon. Soon an ancient castle, a mysterious beauty, and a mythological legend become entwined, as more victims are found, and Professor Karl Meister(Christopher Lee)attempts to crack the case.
“The Gorgon” was directed by Terence Fisher, who not only helmed the aforementioned 1950’s monster triptych, but also Hammer versions focusing on Dr. Henry Jekyll, the Phantom of the Opera, and a werewolf. So, by the time “The Gorgon” landed on his plate, Fisher was well-versed in just how to pull this kind of stuff off. And Terence does pull a great deal of it off, although unfortunately the seams have started to show a little bit more as I’ve reached middle age. Yes, some of those long distance shots are obviously matte paintings, and there is a distinct wire pulling a decapitated head at one point. And speaking of heads, the “live” snakes on the cranium of the title creature are stiff-looking rubbery things that don’t slither as much as they weakly wiggle. Christopher Lee apparently once quipped that “the only thing wrong with “The Gorgon” is the gorgon!”—and he’s close to correct. It is a beautiful looking film, with rich color and atmospheric sets. There are some continuity errors that I choose to forgive, and the budget doesn’t appear to have been all that high. And the screenplay and story also play fast and loose with the Greek mythology story of Medusa, but that’s okay too(the gorgon is said to have been Medusa’s sister Megara, but neither of Medusa’s sisters went by that name in the ancient myth). But “The Gorgon” still manages to be creepy and fun, and the siren call of the monster still gave me a bit of the “willies” all these years later. In other words, it ain’t perfect—but it sure was a delight to visit it again. Give it a go—maybe you will feel the same. You can start by taking a gander at the opening scene up above. Grade: B-