There's something about tiny hamlets in central Europe that provides the perfect breeding ground for vampires, mad scientists, demons, and other creatures of myth. At least that's the case if several decades' worth of Hammer Studios movies are to be believed. And who could doubt them? Hammer films are made with such care and, well, authority that it's difficult not to find them so credible.
Veteran film actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee provide a large part of that authority. Hammer studio scripts are often well written, and the cinematography can be top-notch (within the budget constraints), but there's something about the obvious culture and confident earnestness of these two actors that makes their films downright irresistible. Lines of dialogue that would be laughable in the mouths of lesser men sound natural when handled by these distinguished-looking gents. The studio, recognizing the good thing in its grasp, pumped Cushing and Lee for dozens of films, and the history of cinema is richer for it.
Troughton was patient, but
it took a while to find the right
costume for the new Doctor Who.
Traditionally, Cushing played the role of intrepid scientist/hero to Lee's lumbering villain/monster. (OK, sometimes Lee's bad guy characters slinked or leered or towered or faded into the night like so much mist, but some sentences only have room for so many adverbs.) In rare cases like The Gorgon, however, Lee got to try his hand at saving the day while Cushing polished his menacing glare. No doubt this came in handy for Cushing's role as Grand Moff Tarkin, one of the most chilling and arrogant villains in all the movies.
Fortunately for those of us sitting on the sofa, the role switch wasn't so simple as merely making Cushing into a monster and Lee into a swashbuckling hero. Instead, they each act as ancillary characters who are nonetheless critical to the plot. Lee isn't going to get the girl, and Cushing won't be laughing maniacally over anyone's prone figure, but there wouldn't be a movie without them. This is a good thing, because it allows some conflict in Cushing's character, and it saves Lee from participating in the romantic buffoonery that is necessary to a romantic tragedy like this one.
Next time your uncle wants to
play "pull my finger," think twice.
In the German-looking but British-sounding town of Vandorf, a number of people have died mysteriously. The most recent was the unmarried lover of the painter Bruno Heitz. Bruno hanged himself, which of course makes him the prime suspect, but that isn't good enough for his father, Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe). The professor thinks that something is rotten in Vandorf, and the professor is right.
Now for the really weird part. During the local inquisition into the murder, town doctor Namaroff (Cushing) describes the girl's death as the result of violent trauma to the head. What he fails to mention is that her corpse was found transmuted into a material resembling white marble. Professor Heitz's requests to see the corpse are denied, and so he never learns that, in her last moments, his son's girlfriend was literally petrified.
"I'll have to do an autopsy, you
understand, but my first guess
is that she was heh
stoned to death."
Soon the professor is petrified too, and not just at the prospect that Charles may someday become King of England. He wanders into some ruins near town and catches a glimpse of something so horrifying that he starts turning to stone. Yes, something more horrifying than Carrot Top in those long distance commercials! That a monster might be so hideous its mere gaze could turn men to stone is not a new idea. In this variation, however, the petrification process takes exactly as long as is required by the plot. When the elder Heitz is zapped he turns into stone so slowly that, like the protagonist in a Lovecraft story, he is able to go back to his room and write down his last thoughts as he has them.
Upon receiving this autobiographical account of his father's death, young Paul rushes to Vandorf to perform an inquiry of his own. Doctor Namaroff denies Paul the option of seeing his father's body. Even Paul's pleas to the local law enforcement go unheeded: Inspector Kanof (Patrick Troughton!) seems to be in league with the doctor to cover up the town's nasty secret. Meanwhile, Paul finds himself more and more enamored of Namaroff's assistant, Carla. The nurse seems to want to help Paul, but is torn by her loyalty to the doctor
"Did you hear that? It sounded
like someone signing a paycheck!"
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the love between Paul and Carla isn't going to weather a nasty storm like the one that is about to hit the village of Vandorf. Vandorf's local demon is a Gorgon, a creature whose mythology is badly muddled in this little movie. Expect the Greek mythology buffs you know to roll their eyes when they see the Hammer treatment of the Gorgons. This one is named Megara, while the original Gorgons were named Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale. (In Greek myth, Megara was a woman often associated or even married to Heracles.) Moreover, only Medusa was mortal and the inability to kill the title monster in a Hammer film runs contrary to the studio's omnipresent message that any demon could be vanquished with the proper application of science and reason. But the most pertinent fact remains the same: the Gorgon's gaze turns people to stone. And while Inspector Kanof may be concealing petrified corpses simply to safeguard the reputation of the village, Dr. Namaroff has his own, more personal reasons for shielding the Gorgon from discovery.
Like those scientists idolized by the studio, The Gorgon goes methodically about its business. Characters are introduced, relationships established, conflicts set up. Apart from a quick scene towards the beginning, Christopher Lee is absent for the film's first hour! Peter Cushing and Michael Goodliffe easily pick up the slack, though, and the viewers' patience is rewarded with one of the most tragic and ghastly endings ever put on film. Sure, the finale is slightly marred by some cheesy special effects work and a tiny logical problem (exactly why does the Gorgon have a mirror the size of a picture window in her parlor?), but if you have been paying attention to the romantic tension between the star-cross'd lovers, you'll hardly notice papier-mache snakes in the Gorgon's wig.