Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Review : The Gorgon ( 1964 )

In 18th century Europe, the small, secluded village of Vandorf is held captive to fear as the spirit of an ancient Gorgon spreads death and terror throughout their lands, turning to stone anyone who gazes upon her hideous visage.

The first time I saw THE GORGON, I was a sprightly lad of fifteen, and was more than a little inclined to experiment with substances your local doctor would most likely disapprove of. I remember the evening well. I was in a pretty fragile mental condition, and lay curled up on the couch as the Hammer logo appeared on my 1980's idiot box. Hammer, a word that had meant one thing; horror. Beautiful, majestic, technicolor horror..

As a lifelong Hammer fan, I believed Id seen them all; all the classics at least. But here I was confronted by one that had slipped under my childhood radar, (you must realize, back then there was no such thing as the Internet, kids. We had four channels on TV, and you learned of these horror classics by staying up late and hoping to catch one). Anyway, the film began, and of course I was hooked from the first second as the music swelled and the gloriously foreboding matte painting of the ruined Borski castle appeared onscreen. It was love at first sight. Yet I wasn't to see the movie in its entirety for many years afterwards. The reason? I got as far as the first scene where we first enter the dark, abandoned and crumbling ruins of the castle, and the scene was so well built up, so atmospheric and so damned intense that by the moment when we glimpse the mythic horror atop the stairs in her wind torn castle, I was, for want of a better phrase, scared shitless. The channel was promptly changed, and I spent the rest of my trip trying to get the image out of my head.

Fast forward an indefinite number of years, and I finally, (thanks to the many joys of the worldwide web), got a chance to man up and see THE GORGON in its full glory. Free of any un-prescribed medication. Now by this time I owned most of Hammer's output on DVD, and frankly, as much as I love and cherish all those films, I wouldn't say they scare me. They can be creepy sure, but they are more of a comfort to me than films to be feared. I see them as vivid Gothic fairy tales. So, imagine my surprise when on watching THE GORGON again I found it had lost absolutely none of its power to chill. Just as before, I was hooked from the opening strings of Bernard's haunting score, and when I got to the Gorgon's first appearance it still held me in thrall. I survived it with few problems, but it was easy to see just why it affected me so, on that long ago night.

THE GORGON is a much debated entry into the Hammer pantheon. For some, its a lesser classic, for others it takes to the top position as Hammers finest. I can understand both sides of the argument. The film is far from perfect. The Gorgon herself is the number one target of the naysayers; due of course to her somewhat dated appearance. I call bullshit on that. Sure she looks hokey, but these films are all about imagination. Remember imagination, kids? Its what we used to use before Xbox's and CG painted our dreams for us. And no amount of special effects wizardry can touch a fertile imagination. When I watch a Hammer movie, I don't WANT realism. I want fantasy. I want to be taken to a world far from my own, where vampires, mummies and werewolves stalk the fog shrouded forests and castles of old. And if the effects are dated, so what? All cinema is theatre anyway.

I personally enjoy the look of the Gorgon. Its the baleful expression on her face that chills me. I can easily see past the fake looking snakes bopping around on her head. I'm invested in the story and that's what matters. Look at Medusa in the remake of Clash of the Titans. She could have looked incredible and perhaps did, but no one noticed because no one cared. We weren't invested in the story being told. And that's where Hammer excelled.

For my money, THE GORGON ranks in the higher echelons of Hammers legacy, alongside THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, BRIDES OF DRACULA and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I'm in love with the film and have seen it many, many times over the intervening years. It still bewitches me. Sure, the plotting is a little messy and the mystery can be solved within twenty minutes of the opening credits, but who cares. This is modern mythology.

And its never looked better. THE GORGON may be Hammers most visually accomplished film, alongside BRIDES OF DRACULA. The sets are indelible. From the autumnal graveyard to the windswept interiors of the dreaded castle; its a feast for the eyes. Theres a real sense of time and space here. You feel part of the world. As the clouds rush past the cold moon, you can almost feel the chill in your bones.

And the music. Hammer's soundtracks are always fantastic, and always compliment the action onscreen, often due to the stellar work of the ever reliable James Bernard. Here, he excels himself and produces what I consider to be his very best soundtrack. Its powerful stuff, and when you hear the Gorgon herself singing as she draws victims to her, its hypnotic and downright eerie.

THE GORGON is considered by its director, the legendary Terrence Fisher, to be among his best work. I agree with the great man. Its a powerful film, and in many ways is a good deal darker than most of Hammers output. Without giving anything away to the uninitiated, its quite a bleak tale. And the only character who brings any light to the whole thing is Christopher Lee's Prof. Karl Meister, (sporting a crazed hair and moustache combo inspired by Einstein). He steals the show, though Peter Cushing gives him a run for his money with his multi layered performance as the possibly villainous Dr Namaroff, sole physician at the suitably grim local mental asylum, who's motives steer the movies central mystery. Also of note is the ever radiant Barbara Shelley, who's performance here echoes the acting bombast and style of the 1940's classics. Here, Shelley is given a central role, as Namaroff's assistant and the object of his affection/obsession. As always, she brings a strength and dignity to her role, and looks mind shatteringly beautiful doing so. In many ways shes the heart of the tale. Its an ensemble piece though, and as always with Hammer, the acting is top notch from everyone involved.

If you haven't managed to catch THE GORGON and your a fan of Hammers output, you'll be right at home. And if your new to Hammer, you lucky thing, then its a great place to start. Its a wonderful film that may just find a place to nestle in your dark heart.

9 Terror Trips out of 10

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