Terence Fisher, 1964
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley
In the small German village of Vandorf, authorities are finding corpses that turn to stone. Locals fear a legend about gorgon sister in an abandoned castle, but a professor decides to get to the bottom of things himself after a young girl becomes the latest victim. Unfortunately, he is petrified by the gorgon and manages to get a message to his son, Paul, before dying. Paul and a family friend, Professor Meister, begin to investigate, despite resistance from the locals. In particular, the unfriendly Dr. Namaroff does everything to get in their way, though his lovely young assistant, Carla, promises to help them as she and Paul begin to fall for each other.
The Gorgon is one of Hammer’s more unique, if underrated efforts. With a script from John Gilling, this is similar to his film The Reptile (1966) and even Tigon’s The Blood Beast Terror (1968): in all three films, a beautiful female protagonist transforms into a murderous creature, often at the light of the full moon. The Gorgon also offers a female monster for the first time in Hammer’s history, even though the titular beastie barely shows up during the runtime. This also has far more in common with The Wolf Man and werewolf folklore than it does with actual Greek mythology, which stipulates that the gorgons are three, hideous sisters with living snakes for hair: Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. They did not transform back and forth into attractive women but were permanently monstrous with animalistic qualities like fangs and tusks. Gilling seems to have at least partially confused the gorgons with the Furies or Erinyes, hellish goddesses of vengeance. Virgil named three — Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone — though there were more, and it is from Virgil that Gilling takes the name of his titular monster.
This is also, I believe, the final time director Terence Fisher and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would team up for a Hammer production. In an interesting twist, Lee is one of the protagonists, while Cushing is an antagonist. His jealous, possessive Dr. Namaroff is a spin on his icy, hyper rational Dr. Frankenstein, though his misdeeds are all ultimately motivated by love. This would make an interesting double feature with the later Twins of Evil, as his characters in both films are similar and come to similar ends. Lee plays a gruff, no nonsense scientist — one who is slightly off his rocker — who keeps the talkie middle of the film interesting, but I always enjoy seeing him in these sorts of roles.
Anyone looking forward to a Greek riff on the werewolf film is going to be disappointed, as there are few moments of actual horror and little gore or violence. Instead, the emphasis is on the lovely Gothic atmosphere and a depressing sense of doomed romance, as it becomes almost immediately clear who is transforming into the gorgon by the light of the full moon. It’s actually unfortunate that the worst thing about The Gorgon is the creature itself, thanks to some very poor special effects. It’s probably for the best, then, that the monster isn’t seen very often.
SPOILERS: Star Barbara Shelley’s character Carla, Namaroff’s assistant, turns into the gorgon when exposed to moonlight and it is she who commits the murders, though — like most werewolf characters — she has amnesia in human form and possesses no knowledge of these crimes during her waking hours. Shelley wanted to play both Carla and the gorgon, though the studio refused and cast former dancer and Hammer extra Prudence Hyman (yes, that is her real name) instead. Shelley recommended using living snakes for the gorgon wig, but Fisher ignored her, to his detriment.
I would say The Gorgon is one of their best second-tier films; it’s not quite in league with the studio’s classics, but it deserved far more love than it’s received over the years. The tragic tone and solid performances will please anyone who likes more melancholy horror and the abandoned castle set piece and fairytale elements foreshadow some of Hammer’s best later era films like Vampire Circus and Twins of Evil. Overall The Gorgon comes recommended — it’s actually one of my favorites — and is worth watching at least once. You can find it in Hammer’s Icons of Horror Collection along with The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, Scream of Fear, and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll.