The Gorgon, released in 1964, is something of a hidden gem amongst Hammer’s gothic oeuvre. When it is mentioned it is usually in dismissive terms, deriding the appearance of the titular monster as being a bathetic let down, and criticising the ponderous pace of the film. This seems an unduly harsh appraisal. It’s a fine mood piece, with Terence Fisher’s expressionistic use of vivid colour reaching new, Douglas Sirk-like heights. It also gives a central role to Barbara Shelley, possibly the finest of Hammer’s female actors, who delivers an excellent performance, full of subtle restraint. It’s a film rich in implication and metaphor, with as much suggested as directly revealed, which is perhaps one reason why its reception has always been a little muted. The poster can’t have helped, either, with its garish promise of a new and terrifying monster which is only ever peripherally present. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are both on top form, the latter relishing the opportunity to play the bluff, scholarly hero turned man of action, who strides in towards the end of the film to sort the whole sorry mess out. John Gilling’s collaboratively produced script is also a brave attempt to introduce a new element to the Hammer formula, drawing from sources beyond the usual 19th and 20th century literary perennials. The disparity between the creature from classical mythology and the gothic trappings into which it is set is in itself striking, and implies a connection with ancient civilisations whose gods have yet wholly to have passed out of the world.
Romantic landscapes - cottage in the valleyThe action takes place in the customary Hammer mittel-European setting, this time a woodland village which goes by the name of Vandorf. It’s an insular, unfriendly village, its inhabitants paralysed by fear and quick to fall into an aggressive defensiveness. Outsiders are left in no doubt as to how unwelcome they are, in the official capacity of Patrick Troughton’s steely Inspector Kanof if need be. One such outsider is Bruno Heitz, a bohemian artist living in a small cottage beyond the village boundary in cheerful, carefree poverty (although he does appear to have a Renoir painting hanging on the wall which might later serve to alleviate and lingering impecuniousness). Upon learning that Sascha, his coy model and casual mistress, is bearing his child, his playfully teasing manner instantly evaporates, leaving only an admonitory sternness which places the blame firmly upon her person – even though it was he who we have just witnessed attempting to persuade her to disrobe for ‘artistic purposes’. They both go their separate, unhappy ways. He to do the right thing and request permission to marry from her father, the splendidly named Janus Kass, she to hurry back to the village through the moonlit woodlands, the Berkshire beeches of Black Park familiar from so many Hammer films. Neither reaches their destination. Sascha meets with something that causes her to rend the night with a terminal scream of terror. Bruno is found hanging from a tree, his bruised and beaten features making it all too clear that his death was not self-administered, but meted out via the summary justice of the lynch mob.
Accusing fingerSascha’s body is brought to the Vandorf Medical Institute, which is presided over by Doctor Namaroff (Peter Cushing), with the aid of his assistant Carla Hoffmann (Barbara Shelley). Carla has a quiet air of self-containment about her, infused with a hint of resigned and downcast disappointment. When the sheet is removed from the body, its petrified state is revealed. It has been transmuted into grey stone, a grim funerary sculpture. Carla looks on with an expression of fear and pity, but doesn’t utter a sound. She will later display a similar air of unruffled calm during a classic Peter Cushing brain removal. The scream, horror film’s emphatic punctuation mark and amplifier of the moment of terror, is provided by Martha, the wild-haired madwoman who has just broken out of Namarof’s lunatic ward. She is restrained by the hospital guard Ratoff, played by the ever-reliable Jack Watson, whose granite features (speaking figuratively in this case) are here set into their brutish thug mode, although Watson was equally capable of conveying stoic nobility and other qualities. The stony finger of Sascha’s corpse is snapped off and drops to the floor, where it points in disembodied accusation.
One of the grey menBruno’s father, Professor Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), travels to Vandorf to attend the hearing which will determine the cause of his son’s death. Namaroff withholds the truth about Sascha, and the verdict of suicide is clearly arrived at with the aim of concluding matters as swiftly as possible, obviating the need to delve further into the affairs of the village. The professor is volubly dissatisfied, and pursues his own investigations. His continued presence disrupts the villagers’ customary low-level disgruntlement, and they are soon forming a torch-wielding, stone-lobbing mob which descends on the professor (who is staying in Bruno’s cottage) to make it clear to him just how strongly they don’t like his sort around here. As tends to be the case with Hammer’s European peasantry, this angry, muttering rabble sounds more like a bunch of cockneys bruising for a scrap, with no trace of Prussian or Slavic accents to match the costumes and set dressing. All of which matters not a jot, of course. The professor is undeterred by the intimidation of the mob – indeed, it spurs him on all the more, intimating as it does that the entire village has a shameful secret it wishes to conceal. His area of expertise is literature, and it is in knowledge gleaned form the crackling, antique pages of age-old books that he begins to understand the nature of the curse which casts its shadow over the locals. One night he is drawn out into the moonlit woods and on towards the ruins of Castle Borski beyond by an eerie siren song. Climbing up and entering the castle through the open gate, he glimpses the terrible visage of the gorgon, scored with the lines of age and hatred, its hair a writhing corona of serpents’ heads. He manages to stagger back to the cottage and write out his last testament, his account of what he has discovered in his studies, and what he has just witnessed. He sits at his desk until all motion becomes impossible and he settles into his final statuesque pose.
Reflections from autumn leavesHis son, Paul Heitz (Richard Pasco), a student in a local city, is sent by his teacher Professor Meister to find out what has happened to both his father and his brother. He too receives a cool if not openly hostile reception and an evasive fog of stubborn ignorance surrounds his every inquiry. Only Carla treats him with any consideration, and he begins to fall for her enigmatic, sad-eyed charms. He intuits that there is something very wrong with the village, an aura of suppression which seeps into every exchange. But before he is able to uncover its source, he is glanced with a reflective glimpse of the gorgon’s stare in a pool of water and plunged into a deathly fever. From hereon, his vitality and mastery of events is greatly diminished. He becomes a weak and enfeebled man, old before his time.
Savant in tweedThe story is punctuated by the appearance of authoritative male figures, each with varying degrees of whiskery facial hair, who attempt to take control of the narrative and penetrate its secrets. These men have professional titles rather than first names, honorifics which also serve to mark out their elevated social standing. Doctor Namaroff, whom we meet first, possesses the secret knowledge of the gorgon’s nature and is intent on keeping it his alone, suppressing the monster’s terrible power as much as he is able, but failing to use what he knows to end the horror which is recurrently visited upon the village. Professor Heitz and Christopher Lee’s Karl Meister, who travels to Vandorf after learning of Paul’s sickness, are typical of the paternalistic elder characters in Hammer films whom Kim Newman identifies in his book Nightmare Movies as savants: those who possess or have access to the esoteric learning which gives them insight into the nature of the monsters they confront. The knowledge of these savants, often professors or scholars of one kind or another, gives them a natural air of authority, and is the key to determining how to destroy the unnatural creatures with which they and those who fall under their protection are confronted. Newman sketches the savant (in the chapter on ‘The Indian Summer of the British Horror Film’) as ‘an elderly mystic, steeped in arcane knowledge, apparently rational, but with an Old Testament streak of ‘vengeance is mine’ fundamentalism’. Professor Heitz, who is an intermediary John the Baptist of a savant, paving the way for Christopher Lee’s bluff, betweeded saviour, Professor Meister (or Master), falls foul of the gorgon’s fatal gaze, but has time to impart a considerable number of last words. These are not a series of emotive and breathless gasps with which he expresses feelings unarticulated in life. He departs with the written word, a swiftly penned resume of his research, findings and conclusions, before dying at his desk. He leaves life with one final scholarly paper.
Carla amongst the monochrome menCarla takes her place amongst these men and seems meekly subservient to their authority. In court, she sits between two men in black, her pale yellow outfit contrasting markedly with their monochromatic conservatism. It’s never really any mystery as to the provenance of the gorgon’s periodic apparitions. It turns out that the spirit of the last of these three cursed sisters from classical antiquity has taken possession of Carla’s soul at some time in the past, probably before she arrived at the village and was left in the care of Doctor Namaroff at the Institute. Some degree of mental distress is hinted at, with blackouts and a general sense of unease. Whilst Carla remains consciously unaware of the monster which inhabits her, her troubled mind and bearing indicate that she intuits its malign presence at a deeper level. The gorgon emerges under certain circumstances which are only vaguely alluded to. It is certainly sporadic and irregular in its manifestations. The full moon acts as a catalyst for any such transformations. This variant of the werewolf mythos suggests that the creature has made certain accommodations to the legends of the north lands. The migration of the last of these terrible monsters of Greek antiquity from the mediterraenean to the European heartlands suggests the intriguing notion of mythological evolution; gods and monsters moving on from lands in which the currency of belief becomes devalued to places where they can adapt to new and still unfolding cultural patterns. Here they can give form to the hopes and fears (particularly the fears) of those who do not yet feel in control of the world, and who need stories to make sense of it. It’s an idea which has been used by many writers, notably Neil Gaiman, whose American Gods is an exemplary example of relocating a pantheon in a new environment and having them find there a renewal of their identities.
Romantic landscapes - the castle at nightThe gorgon has moved on from the architecture of Doric columns and classical entablature and takes up residence in the gothic surrounds of Castle Borski. The castle is the locus of evil in the area, creating a negatively charged spirit of place which discourages visitors. It’s no wonder that this is where the gorgon is drawn to make its new home. The castle’s abandoned and ruined state, filled with the windblown debris of autumn, perhaps also denotes an admission on Hammer’s part that its gothic locales are now ready to be inhabited by a new breed. John Gilling’s Plague of Zombies and The Reptile would follow such an impetus, even moving from the mittel-Europe of Karlsbad and other such Teutonic-sounding place names to the wilds of Cornwall (whilst never straying from Bray studios, of course). The gorgon, we discover, is called Megaira. Greek scholars will immediately point out that this was the name of one of the three Erinyes, or Furies rather than that of one of the gorgons. Megaira is the Fury which embodies envious anger. The nature of the Erinyes, or ‘angry ones’, was inverted by Neil Gaiman in the last of his Sandman series, ‘The Kindly Ones’, in which they deliver a merciful ending for the dream lord, who is unable to bring it about himself. Classical mythology is mixed up and misquoted in the film, Megaira becoming partnered with Medusa and Tisiphone in the gorgon’s triad. She was in fact one of the three Furies, alongside Tisiphone and Alecto. The gorgons were three sisters, Medusa, Euryale and Stheno, of whom only Medusa was mortal. She was slain by Perseus, as Ray Harryhausen fans familiar with Greek mythology through Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans (certainly my primary sources when I was younger) will be aware. Euryale makes an appearance as the last of the gorgons in Harry Kumel’s film of Jean Ray’s novel Malpertuis, in which she is brought, along with other remnants of the much diminished gods and creatures of Greek myth (including the Fates), to a rambling mansion on the outskirts of a Belgian port city.
Perhaps such confusion was intentional, since the idea of one of the Furies emerging to unleash its pitiless power upon all who cross its path or stir it into life is wholly in keeping with the submerged themes of the film. The Fury is like an archetypal projection of Carla’s unstoppered rage and fury, all the more terrible for having been so long suppressed. Her life with Doctor Namaroff is essentially that of an unacknowledged wife, as well as implicitly still a potential patient – both mate and inmate. Namaroff’s feelings are kept firmly in check, but Peter Cushing’s beautifully nuanced performance makes it evident that he does love Carla in his own way. It’s a possessive love, however, and his secret knowledge of the nature of her affliction enables him further to extend his control over her. When Carla hesitantly recites the tale of the three gorgons which she has memorised from Professor Heitz’s final letter, it as if Namaroff is forcing her to confront the presence of her inner demon, and so to concede her dependence upon him, her need for his protection. When she is finished, he embraces and declares his love for her, the only open display of affection and desire he offers in the film.
Munch poseCarla is a character who is both vulnerable and strong. Convinced by Namaroff that some inherent mental weakness means that she must remain in his care, she nevertheless feels the frustration at the limitations imposed upon her life. Her cool strength is demonstrated in her unflinching observation of a Peter Cushing brain removal, and her impulse towards independence in the way that she goes to meet the outsiders (Heitz, father and son) who come to the village. It is Paul who makes her begin to believe that she might indeed still have a chance of beginning life again beyond the limits of the village, although the tragic element evident in her character (as indeed it is in most of the characters Barbara Shelley played in Hammer films, from Dracula: Prince of Darkness to Rasputin: The Mad Monk, and even Quatermass and the Pit, in which she is once more possessed by an evil force) makes us aware that this will never happen. In the latter stage of the film, with Megaira having manifested herself several times, we find Carla in Namaroff’s laboratory. With her hair pinned up, shirt buttoned to the neck and hands held anxiously before her she looks like one of the sorrowful women in Munch’s Frieze of Life paintings. Behind her, on the wall, is a large diagram of the cross-section of a brain. It’s a visual representation of the manner in which Dr Namaroff has dissected and clinically analysed her psyche and attempted thereby to dominate her will. Like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, she pushes against her domestic confinement and finally, encouraged by the increased sense of self-worth engendered by her meetings with Paul, confronts Namaroff. She tells him ‘I’m sick of your jealousy, sick of you’.
Classic Cushing brain removal techniqueHis reaction is restrained and placatory, a response which refuses to take her anger seriously. Her outburst takes place in his laboratory, amongst the powders and tinctures, and below the dissection table where he has just removed a brain (for no immediately apparent reason) and plopped it indelicately into a specimen jar. Incidentally, Cushing is, as ever, superb in conveying the sheer effort required to saw through cranial bone matter (particularly when you're only using a scalpel) in what is effectively a mimed performance, since the operation thankfully takes place below the edge of the frame. Carla is as much a fixture of this laboratory as she is a part of the doctor’s home, an object of his study as much as his affection. Every reaction and behavioural anomaly is to be noted and added to the case history. Finding a cure is not necessaritly Namaroff’s priority. While she is under the spell of the gorgon, or prey to her own self-negating neuroses (the one being a metaphorical mirror of the other) she is also under his spell. He is prepared to go as far as sending Ratoff after Paul with a knife in order to prevent him from meeting his rendezvous with her and possibly taking her away from the village. Anything to maintain Carla’s state of passive acceptance and self-denial. The villagers also militantly attempt to sustain a state of stasis throughout their surroundings. There is a sense of aggressive secrecy rooted in a fear of change. The petrification suffered by the gorgon’s victims is a highly symbolic fate and a deathly metaphor for such stultifying intransigence.
Brown and grey - the aged heroThe mood of the film is autumnal. It is in part a meditation on encroaching age, and of the disappointments associated with a life reflected upon and led less fully than once hoped for. Carla and Namaroff have settled into a listless, drifting partnership in which they barely acknowledge one another’s presence. Carla’s wistful melancholia and Namaroff’s permanent air of vagueness and distraction are signs that they have become disconnected, from one another and from the world, and have turned broodingly inward, in harmony with the spirit of the season. The sense of changelessness, of a permanent stasis which it no longer feels possible to disrupt further encourages the contemplation of aging; of involuntary change and declining fall. The gorgon is partly a harbinger of old age, taking the form of an aged woman. It lurks in a castle whose windows are broken and whose doors are permanently lodged open to cold and comfortless winds. Perhaps Megaira, as the Fury of envious anger, turns her terminal gaze on Sascha at the start of the film in impotent rage at the youth and vitality which she no longer possesses. Paul’s peripheral glimpse of the gorgon leaves him prematurely aged, his hair turned grey and lines of weariness scored around his eyes. This appearance can also be seen as a foretaste of the long-term effects of the village’s enervating atmosphere, of the dessication of spirit resulting from its wilfully narrow horizons. Paul attempts to persuade Carla to leave with him whilst they stand in the graveyard, a cold wind moaning in the background to complement the cold promise of the tombstones around them. Carla is framed by an ornamental row of classical columns, a hint of the world from which her demon has travelled. Autumnal colours are prevalent throughout the film. In this scene and others, Carla wears a long, sweeping cloak of brown, the shade of the fallen leaves. The beeches of Black Park have all turned a burnished copper, which also happens to echo the colour of Carla’s hair beneath the cloak’s hood. It all makes her seem of a part with this turning season – beyond summer’s end, awaiting the first icy touch of winter.
Technicolor test tubesTerence Fisher makes wonderful and subtle use of bright colour in The Gorgon, as in his other Hammer films. Here, this is often displayed in small but significant details, which stand out against the otherwise restrained palette. As we’ve noted, the male characters in the film are generally notable for their lack of colour. The grey faces of those who are turned to stone are an extreme extension of this monochromatic appearance. Barbara Shelley’s Carla stands out all the more clearly as a result, with her yellow, peach and sky-blue blouses, muted though their tones are in accordance with her own subdued bearing. Christopher Lee’s Professor Meister proves a slight exception to the general trend of conservative male attire, arriving in caramel brown tweeds enlivened by the bright red splash of a protruding handkerchief. His lively and no-nonsense personality matches his mildly non-conformist outfit. Doctor Namaroff’s laboratory has plentiful elements of carefully contained colour in the contents of test tubes and the powders and tinctures stored in jars and on the shelves. We also see him with a bright red pen later on. These colours suggest that his passion lies chiefly in his work. He does also have a bright yellow cigarette holder (perhaps one of Cushing’s own), which visually rhymes with the yellow of the outfit Carla wears at the court hearing, and hints at pleasures quietly enjoyed beyond the lab.
Gorgon in greenWhen we see the gorgon, it rises from a throne upholstered in red and wears a bright green dress. Its eyes are rimmed with red. These are the colours of anger and jealousy, those qualities ascribed to Megaira the Fury. Touches of red and purple tinting the castle’s shadows add a further expressive element, and are very much akin to similar effects used by Mario Bava in films such as Black Sabbath and Kill Baby Kill. The glowing red of the fire behind the grate at the back of the cottage draws the eye and acts as a visual expression of the containment of passion and repression of feeling and hope which is such a major theme of the film. There are also a couple of impressive matte backdrops used at sparing intervals. One depicts the castle, looming above the treeline; the other Bruno’s cottage nestled in a valley with a river winding through it, as viewed from the rough, muddy bend of a road which passes precipitously above. Both serve to set the scene and create an atmospheric sense of place.
Castle interior - open to natureNature also plays an important part in the film, often abutting and intruding upon the man-made edifices of civilisation. The gorgon could be seen as nature’s agent in addition to being an emanation of Carla’s suppressed hopes and desires. The castle in which she manifests herself has been invaded by branch and vine, which crawl through the shattered windows. The floor is carpeted by leaves which have blown in the autumn winds through the doorway which is now permanently open to the elements which it once served to shut out. The castle is archetypally romantic, still largely intact but increasingly moulded by nature. As characters approach, it is framed by bare branches, with fallen trees to be negotiated in order to gain entrance. It’s location in the middle of the woods inevitably brings Caspar David Friedrich to mind (well, to my mind at any rate), particularly when a small, lopsided shrine is passed along the way. Megaira is dressed in bright green, like a woodland nymph fading and wrinkling in sympathy with the trees and bracken beyond the walls. Her final decapitation is accompanied by a further influx of dead leaves blown by the storm outside and skittering across the frame. It’s all very pagan – the death of the summer queen carried in on the warm breezes from the Mediterranean.
Courtyard oasisThe scene in which Paul encounters the gorgon is a marvellously evocative sequence, reminiscent of the composed scenes Michael Powell included in Black Narcissus and Gone to Earth. These attempted a marriage of sound, movement and editing, a kind of cinematic dance, and were full of nature mysticism. The courtyard outside Bruno’s cottage is filled with the resonant sounds of birdsong and trickling water, giving it the feel of a pocket Eden. The green of the trees and plants contrasts with the grey of the stone. A shadow passes over the pool of water, with its obscuring skein of coppery leaves. It’s Carla, dressed in peach (the promise of spring’s returning blossom?) and her autumn brown cloak. Paul, dressed in black, is terse and unfriendly. Shortly thereafter (and subsequent to Carla’s reiteration of the story of the three gorgons), when darkness has fallen, Paul returns to this oasis. The sounds of water and of rain falling on the pool, and the susurration of windblown leaves create a mysterious and premonitory atmosphere of suspended anticipation. The siren song music is introduced over the top. The gorgon’s visage appears momentarily in the reflected waters of the pool before it is dispersed by the splash of Paul’s hand, which bats the image away with reflexive terror. It seems almost to have emerged from and then faded back into the natural environment. In its own small way, the scene is very much like the Powell and Pressburger sequences in Black Narcissus and Gone To Earth in which Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) glides with terrible purpose through the empty corridors of the nunnery in Black Narcissus, and in which country girl Hazel (Jennifer Jones) hurries over the moorland on a stormy night in Gone to Earth, filled with ancient superstitions and primal fears. Both were ‘composed’ scenes, accompanied by the urgent cries and whispers of Brian Easdale’s romantic scores. The film as a whole has something of a Powell and Pressburger feel, in fact.
Mention should also be made of James Bernard’s music, which does much to enhance the mood of the above scene and many others. Bernard was Hammer’s in-house composer, and produced many memorable themes for the Dracula and Frankenstein films. He eschews his usual thunderously exclamatory register to create a dreamlike and impressionistic sound. It’s as if he has shifted from the violent, strident music of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin or the first piano concerto to one of his passages of mysterious ‘night music’. Bernard also introduces a tender romantic theme, shot through with intimations of tragedy, which has echoes of Bernard Herrmann. Such romanticism is given further flowering in Frankenstein Created Woman, another of Terence Fisher’s tragic fairy tales.
Barbara imperious - Carla assumes her throneTowards the end, Carla becomes increasingly aware of the dark spirit which possesses her, and when Paul comes to the castle to meet a rendezvous with her, she sits imperiously on the throne from which we have first seen the gorgon arise. The hood of her cloak is up, covering her hair and partially obscuring her face, as it had when she made her silent, shadowy descent past the classical columns into the graveyard where Paul was conducting his night-time disinterment. The juxtaposition in that scene of earth and stone, with Carla set against them in brown, is very elemental. Her covering serves to represent the burial of Carla’s true nature, her essential self. It also suggests that Paul has fallen in love with her superficial surface appearance, the Carla of meek manners moulded by Namaroff, and has no conception of what lies beneath. Her voice as she rises from the throne has lost all of its former tentative uncertainty and she now speaks in commanding, reverberant tones, seemingly pitched to resonate with the stones. As she descends the stairs to Paul, the hood falls down to reveal her face, and her voice becomes pleading, begging him to take her away immediately. There is a sense that if she leaves the village and the castle, escaping the malevolent spirit of place, the curse will be lifted from her. Unfortunately, Paul is a rather stolid individual, lacking the requisite romantic impulsiveness, and prevaricates to fatal effect.
Paul and Namaroff engage in their deathly duel at the climax of the film, allowing Peter Cushing to show off his athletic side, and fail to notice the gorgon’s emergence and slow approach to the head of the stairs above them. So what of the make-up effects which have drawn such derision? Well, they’re perhaps not Roy Ashton’s finest hour. Barbara Shelley, who wanted to play the part of her gorgon emanation herself, was apparently up for wearing a headpiece comprising live grass snakes, which shows considerable pluck. But perhaps wisely, her idea wasn’t taken up. In truth, the make-up serves functionally enough, with a little adjustment in focus from the inner eye of the imagination. The gorgon is really only designed to be glimpsed in mirrors and pools, and in the periphery of vision. Even if such subliminal appearances resulted from an awareness of the shortcomings of the make-up, they ultimately fit in perfectly with the tenor of the picture. The severed head which we are left contemplating as the credits roll is less satisfactory, and ends the film on a slightly discordant note. But these are really minor matters.
Veiled apparition - Carla amongst classical columnsWhat is more important is the atmospheric direction of Terence Fisher, who always preferred to think of his films as adult fairy tales rather than horror movies, and who here produces the perfect example to match that description. And then there are the great performances by Barbara Shelley and Peter Cushing, who bring the complexities of their characters to life in an undemonstrative yet quietly intense manner. It’s a difficult task to convey feeling which remain largely hidden, but they succeed in doing so through small looks and gestures. Christopher Lee also puts in a performance of great brio, creating a savant figure who breaks the mould somewhat. He seems like he might have a zest for fun as well as learning – a man who might share a few biers in the keller with his students. Bernard Robinson’s sets are also marvellous, particularly his transformation of the customary castle interior into a temple reclaimed by nature, complete with statue and plinth in the centre of the hall. It was a film which was always going to be a one-off. There was never any likelihood of the gorgon returning time and again in the manner of an indestructible Dracula or Frankenstein. Perhaps other mythical monsters, such as the Cyclops or minotaur, could have beaten a trail to the northern lands. But in her one appearance, the gorgon allowed for the creation of a melancholic, minor-key classic.