The Gorgon ranks among Hammer’s very best. Its premise is daring and imaginative – a female spectre so hideous that all who gaze on her are turned to stone, a power even more unnerving than the physical ferocity of lycanthropy or vampirism.
It boasts a wealth of Hammer expertise: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are at their peak; John Gilling scripted lucidly; James Bernard’s score is one of his finest, the familiar overwrought strings underlaid with a spectral organ effect; and Michael Reed’s pathecolor photography defines the Hammer ‘look’, all sombre interiors and gorgeous autumnal forests. But the triumph is finally director Terence Fisher’s.
The film begins beautifully with the credits superimposed against the twilit battlements of Castle Borski. Other touches fleetingly capture the mood of gothic-romantic literature. Professor Heitz beguiled into the forest by the Gorgon Magaera’s distant siren-call. Her reflection glimpsed through the dead leaves floating on a mill pond. The encounter by moonlight in the graveyard between Richard Pasco and Barbara Shelley.
The Gorgon is certainly one of Hammer’s most pessimistic entries. The setting is turn-of-the-century Middle Europe and the production-design more Teutonic than ever (Hammer, ever economical, transposed the monster of Greek classical myth to their familiar Germanic milieu). When we join the story the village of Vandorf has been under Magaera’s baleful spell for seven years. Much of the action takes place in a repressive asylum. And Castle Borski is not the richly appointed seat of other Hammer films but a broken windswept ruin.
Characterisation is equally unrelenting. Cushing’s Dr Namaroff is a more ruthless and maniacal variation of Van Helsing. Lee’s Professor Meister , though gruffly benevolent, is overbearingly fatalistic. Meanwhile the most sympathetic characters – Carla, Paul, his father and brother – are all killed.
OK, inevitably the Gorgon’s makeup is weak (though it scared me when I first saw it at age 11). The sickly green palor and spidery wrinkles are good, but the snake-hair just looks like she washed it the night before and couldn’t do a thing with it. Half-glimpsed, her first appearance is remarkably effective, though. Her graceful tiptoe from behind the cobwebs in ghastly counterpoint to what we know will be her terrible visage. A sudden shock close-up and she disappears – almost glides – back into the shadows in long shot, a sequence as well done as anything Fisher has ever constructed. Alas, audience expectation (something Hammer usually deferred to) demanded a full-facial exposure at the end.
The temptation would be to say that The Gorgon might have worked better in black and white – but that would be to deny Michael Reed’s disciplined use of colour. Perhaps only today’s enhanced computer-graphics could properly pull off the effect required.
That flaw apart, The Gorgon survives as an early Hammer classic that can stand alongside Dracula, Brides of Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles.