Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hammer Films' The Gorgon ( 1964 )

"It has been said that every legend and myth known to mankind is not entirely without some truth..." 

In the sleepy hamlet of Vandorf, a legendary 2,000 year old creature has reawakened and its spirit taken possession of one of the villagers. Seven gorgonizing deaths have taken place on foggy moonlight nights in the past five years; each one of the victims turned to stone. 

Paul Heitz ( Richard Pasco ), whose father and brother were the most recent victims, travels to Vandorf and, with the aid of Professor Meister ( Christopher Lee ), attempts to undercover the mystery behind these deaths. Alas, he finds himself confronted by a conspiracy of silence led by Dr. Namaroff ( Peter Cushing ) who, along with his associate, Carla Hoffman ( Barbara Shelley ), is protecting some sinister dark secret.

Peter Cushing, who often portrays the hero in such Hammer Film classics as The Mummy, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, this time reverses roles and plays our villain and a welcome change it is too. He brings a sympathetic appeal to the character of Namaroff despite his stoic and calculating nature. 

As Professor Meister, it is evident that Lee thoroughly relished the opportunity the role gave him. He creates a memorable eccentric who, like Van Helsing, seems quite capable of tracking and capturing any beast, creature, or phantom he happens to find... in a scientific way.

" We are men of science. I don't believe in ghosts or evil spirits, and I don't think you do either "

The always lovely Barbara Shelley was quickly becoming one of Hammer's biggest attractions when she starred in The Gorgon. She had leading roles in such horror flicks as Village of the Damned ( 1960 ) and Shadow of the Cat ( 1961 ) and in the next few years would go on to make Dracula: Prince of Darkness ( 1966 ) and Quatermass and the Pit ( 1967 ), justly earning the title of The First Leading Lady of British Horror. In The Gorgon, Shelley provides the romantic interest which becomes the key link behind the mysterious happenings in Vandorf. 

Other roles in the film are played by Michael Goodliffe ( Sink the Bismarck ) , Patrick Troughton ( Doctor Who ), and Jack Watson ( Grand Prix ).

Two of Hammer's most recent productions, The Old Dark House and The Damned, had failed at the box-office. They were desperate to find material that would appeal to the public and so they took a direct approach and placed an ad in "The Daily Cinema": 

"Got an idea you think would make a good film? One with an exciting title to match? ( Hammer was taking no chances ). If you have, contact James Carreras. Because good, compulsive selling ideas with the right titles are what Hammer are looking for right now"

The article brought in a good response from the trade and public alike and one idea generated enough enthusiasm to prompt Hammer to pursue it into production. It was a short story submitted by J. Llewellyn Devine about a legendary character from Greek mythological in a mid-European setting. Screenwriter John Gilling was called in to rework the story into a feasible screenplay. He did this and in place of Medusa, he renamed the gorgon Magaera ( one of the three Furies in mythology ). "The Gorgon" went on to become Hammer's first female monster.

Production began in late 1963 at Bray Studios shortly after The Evil of Frankenstein had completed shooting. Some of the sets were revamped to create the setting of Vandorf and the Castle Borski.

Barbara Shelley had suggested that she portray the gorgon herself and wanted to use a wig that - humanely - contained several live snakes. Producer Anthony Nelson Keys felt that, in order to protect the creature's secret identity, two actresses were needed and that the live snakes were unnecessary. Prudence Hyman, a former ballerina, took on the makeup and costumes of the gorgon. After the completion of the film however, Keys regretted his decision and had wished that real snakes were used. Since the gorgon is seen full-face in several shots, the impact of her petrifying glare was lessened by the use of rubber snakes. As Christopher Lee so aptly put it, "The only thing wrong with The Gorgon is the gorgon."

Makeup man Roy Ashton applied the hideous skin paint to Prudence Hyman while Syd Pearson, a special effects engineer at Hammer, had the task of creating Hyman's moving snake wig. Twelve plastic molds were made from which he cast latex rubber snakes. Twenty-five foots cables were attached to each snake, woven into the wig and run along the back of Hyman's costume which were then rigged to a peg and board contraption. When each peg was turned the tension created the illusion of the snake's moving independently.  Perhaps this was a bit easier to stage than the frame-by-frame technique Ray Harryhausen employed to create the Medusa in Clash of the Titans but the finished result was less than comparable. 

The Gorgon is not gory, nor is it oozing with terrifying moments, and for this reason it often falls short on the list of memorable Hammer classics, yet the film captures a unique Gothic atmosphere full of eerie foreboding and even director Terence Fisher considered it one of his personal favorites. 

Like all of the Hammer Studio films, The Gorgon contains richly detailed settings and beautiful colorful cinematography. James Bernard provides a mysterious score to enhance this mythological tale and implemented an early electronic keyboard, the Novachord, to create the effect of the Gorgon's call. It was most dreamlike and bewitching.

The Gorgon was released on August 21, 1964 and was double-billed with The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb. Critic reviews were quite favorable and these two films put Hammer back on track once again as one of the leading horror studios.

This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. Go to to view the complete blogathon schedule.


  1. THE GORGON generates a genuinely creepy atmosphere where much is left to shadows, reflections, and one's imagination. Interestingly, director Terence Fisher's early work (such as CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) has been criticized for its emphasis on visual horror. That's not giving Fisher proper credit; he was a polished craftsman who adapted his style to fit the film. THE GORGON is a low-key film and its best scenes achieve an eerie, other-worldly quality, such as when Bruno's father enters Castle Borski--a withered collection of stones, its floors covered with pigeons and dead leaves that swirl as the whistling wind cuts through the structure. Loved your review, especially the production notes and the ad from The Daily Cinema.

    1. Thanks Rick...we're glad you enjoyed our review and thank you for letting us take part in such a great blogathon. The Gorgon's "horror" does indeed rely more on your imagination for what you think will happen then on actual physical deeds.

  2. The Gorgon is really one of my very favorite Hammer films, despite the disappointing look of the Gorgon herself. It doesn't really matter, thought -- everything else is so eerie, including the music, the sets, the awful scenes of the father turning to stone, Cushing's performance ... I just really love this movie! Thanks for the interesting background info to this movie and a good review!

    1. We're glad you enjoyed our post! The Gorgon is a great film to watch... especially around Halloween.

  3. I really felt sorry for Professor Heitz when the creature turned him to stone. He was so brave, standing up to the whole town to clear his dead son's name. I think more could have been done to highlight the twist, but nonetheless a fine, mysterious film was made.

  4. Anyone who says Christopher Lee is a dull actor needs to check out "The Gorgon." He's really quite a force of nature in this film.

    I loved the anecdote about Hammer asking the public for ideas via a newspaper ad. Very funny. I think this is an exceptional Hammer film but one I don't think to view as often as some others. I think I need to rectify that. This is one of the best of the non-series Hammer horrors. Great job ladies.

  5. i love all the hammer films the gorgon is one of my favorites i felt so sorry the girl died as she was the gorgon

  6. Where did you get the image of Syd Pearson from?

    1. Oh my, this post was from four years ago, I'm afraid I don't recall where I found it. However, if you do a Google image search you may be able to dig it up.