By 1964 Hammer Film Productions had transformed itself from one of many generalised British film studios into a popular maker of melodramatic gothic horror films and thrillers. After The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959) all proved successful, a constant hunt was on for any more monstrous terrors around which a film could be based. A gorgon – a creature out of Greek mythology with snakes for hair and the ability to turn any that see it to stone – must have seemed as good an idea as any other.
In the early 20th century, the European town of Vandorf has suffered a long-running spate of mysterious deaths. Each victim has been transformed into stone. When the mystery killer leads first to the suicide of local Bruno Heitz and then the murder of his father (Michael Goodliffe), Bruno’s brother Paul (Richard Pasco) travels to the town to investigate. He is assisted by the beautiful Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley) and his tutor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee), while being stymied at every turn by local doctor Namaroff (Peter Cushing) and police chief Kanof (Patrick Troughton).
To a large degree The Gorgon represents business-as-usual for Hammer’s horror oeuvre: there is a European village, a nearby ruined castle, murders in the night, and fearful villagers wary of strangers. The film, which is directed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher, also features studio stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. They are swapped around this time, with Cushing exercising a nicely unsettling menace while Lee hams things up as an overly gregarious academic on the trail of a mystery. Barbara Shelley is also remarkably strong as Carla, and it is around her that the film’s most striking elements can be found.
It is unusual for a Hammer feature to sideline its monstrous content as much as The Gorgon does, but Fisher does so here. The screenplay, by John Gilling and Anthony Nelson Keyes from a story by J. Llewelyn Divine, seems more focused on a burgeoning romance between Paul and Carla – and with growing tension between Carla and her employer Dr Namaroff. This character work is not complicated, by any means, but it gives the film a romantic edge that other Hammer productions tended to lack. Viewers hoping for some 1960s monster action will still be satisfied – dancer Prudence Hyman makes a nicely menacing gorgon in key scenes – but here it simply is not the focus.
The Gorgon will never be remembered as one of Hammer’s greats, but it remains a rock-solid second-stringer from a period when the studio was at its creative and popular height. It offers a chance to see a slightly different style of film, to experience both Lee and Cushing in variations of their traditional roles, and even to check out Patrick Troughton – here reliably playing a stern police inspector and still two years away from his famous role as television’s Doctor Who. (In fact it’s a small treat to see he and Cushing share the screen, given the latter played Doctor Who in two films around the same time.)
Hammer productions can vary wildly in quality. While not a classic, The Gorgon may be safely taken as one of the better ones – and definitely one of the films deserving a bit more exposure.