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Cushing and Lee in the battle of the moustaches...
on 5 November 2010
1964's The Gorgon is one of the less popular Hammer horrors. On the surface, it seems to have a lot going for it, re-teaming director Terence Fisher and actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for the final time under the Hammer banner, and featuring a story and script that originated with John `The Plague of the Zombies' Gilling. It is a typically handsome Bray studios production, is quite eerie in parts, and features a completely original monster (at least in the realm of horror films), with the eponymous `gorgon' of the title actually a snake-headed she-beast from Greek mythology. However, despite its pedigree, the film isn't actually all that involving and for a long time doesn't really seem to be going anywhere. The first half of the film is structured around the `gorgonizing' (or turning into stone) of three members of the same family, one after another, which becomes very repetitive, whilst the central romantic mystery is heading in so obvious a direction that it lacks any real point. Also, like Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965) and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), this is one of those Hammer films that mostly fail to disguise their budgetary limitations, with the use of outdoor locations that have unmistakeably been seen in about a dozen other movies.
This is one of my least favourite of the Lee / Cushing screen teamings. Presumably to shake up public perception of their by-now well established horror personas, both actors are cast against type in parts that don't make the most of their talents. Lee gets to play one of his very rare Hammer heroes, but unlike the tailor-made leading role he took in The Devil Rides Out (1967), the part of the blustering, no-nonsense academic he plays here was clearly written for a much older actor (Lee is very obviously made up under a heavy grey wig and moustache). Cushing, meanwhile, is saddled with a sketchier character than usual, a villainous scientist-with-a-secret who has none of the charm or charisma of his more famous Baron Frankenstein.
There are some grace notes; the music is very accomplished, the set design is generally up to standard, and the always-good-value Barbara Shelley gives the best performance in the film even as she struggles with the thankless leading female part. But there are more enjoyable Hammer horror movies than this one, which lacks the vim of the firm's earliest classics, and the energy of Fisher's later `second wind' efforts like the aforementioned The Devil Rides Out or Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). The Gorgon was made at Bray almost simultaneously with Freddie Francis' equally disappointing The Evil of Frankenstein, and it seems a shame that the two directors weren't assigned each other's projects; Fisher's involvement would have gone a long way towards keeping the Frankenstein series on the rails, whilst Francis, whose films as a director were often more inventive than Fisher's when it came to camerawork and special effects, might have been able to liven The Gorgon up a bit. Despite any negative remarks available to read here, most Hammer fanatics will buy this DVD anyway, as will I, but if you are merely dipping your toe in the Hammer waters, The Gorgon certainly isn't on the must-see list.