The most famous monsters in Hammer Studios’ repertoire were essentially the same ones Universal had hit paydirt with in the 1930s: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the mummy. But Hammer had plenty of other things to shock and disturb audiences with – zombies, Satanists, aliens, man-lizards and, at the end of the studio’s golden age, the cast of On the Buses. One of the most unusual products of their endless search for new terrors was The Gorgon, released on Blu-Ray in the first volume of Indicator’s Fear Warning! collection of classic Hammer films.
The Gorgon is a very unusual film about Greek mythology, but a pleasingly typical Hammer horror. Whether it’s Ray Harryhausen or Percy Jackson, most cinema treatments of Greek myths are aimed at a family audience – strange, considering the parade of rape, human sacrifice, and bloody warfare that Greek mythology consists of. Disappointingly, Terence Fisher’s film doesn’t quite make up for this. It doesn’t take much from the legends other than the central idea of a snake-haired woman who can turn people to stone. Fortunately, the material Fisher and his screenwriter John Gilling come up with to fill this gap is enjoyable enough to make up for this.
One charming quirk of Hammer horror is that, whether it was drawing from Greek, Egyptian or Romanian folklore, it was generally quick to relocate the story in a Western European setting. Looking at Fisher’s earlier film The Mummy, you can see why. Nobody shot moonlit marshlands or misty woods quite like Terence Fisher, but even he can’t make the sound-stage Egypt of the flashback scenes look good. The Gorgon is entirely set in rural Germany – an odd choice for a movie based on a Hellenic myth, but as soon as the opening credits roll over an eerie castle at the edge of some woods, you know Fisher and his team have made the right decision.
The other decisions are mostly as strong, and even the ones that are slightly wobbly are helped immeasurably by Hammer’s regular stable of actors. There’s a slight confusion at the start about who the protagonists are, which can make the very beginning feel like a series of false starts. Once Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee enter, though, you know exactly who you should be watching. They’re both as urbane and compelling as they always were, with Lee enjoying the chance to play a more sympathetic character than usual and Cushing… well, Cushing was probably just savouring his phenomenal facial hair.
Fisher’s famous 1958 Dracula dispensed with the build-up of Bram Stoker’s novel, replacing it with a Jonathan Harker who was fully aware of the Count’s undead nature from the beginning. The Gorgon, by contrast, structures itself as a whodunnit, with Lee as a kind of Sherlock Holmes figure and the great Patrick Troughton as his Inspector Lestrade. It doesn’t entirely work in this register – one early death is never satisfyingly explained – but then it’s probably impossible to make a satisfyingly rational murder mystery out of a Greek myth anyway. What matters is that the genres clash in a giddily entertaining way. In the final reel, it even threatens to become a swashbuckling action film, before Fisher unleashes the film’s monster at last.
Fisher defined the Hammer horror style with his extraordinary late ’50s run – The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Man Who Could Cheat Death and The Mummy, all knocked out within three years. As such, he should be considered one of the most influential cinema stylists of all time, and The Mummy might well be his most beautiful film. The particular shade of blue that he chooses for the night skies is worth the price of this Blu-Ray on its own. I don’t know if it has a name, but they should call it Hammer Blue.
Among the extras are a profile of the film’s female lead – that most dignified and authoritative of the so-called scream queens, Barbara Steele – and an introduction by Matthew Holness, whose sweetly earnest appreciation is as unlike his most famous character Garth Marenghi as it’s possible to be. Powerhouse have a good line in hunting out the odd ways in which people rewatched their favourite films before VHS – the cut-down ‘Super 8’ version on their recent reissue of Arthur Penn’s The Chase, for example – and there’s another one here, with a Gorgon comic strip adaptation from House of Hammer magazine.