31 Days of Horror
In the 1950s, at the birth of the atom age, the content of horror films shifted from supernatural horrors like Dracula and the Wolf Man to science-based atrocities. Frankenstein’s monster, which was a patchwork of body parts given life by the mysterious power of lightning, became the Colossus of New York, a giant robot with the brain of a brilliant scientist who goes mad. The gypsy curse that turned Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot into a Wolf Man becomes a medical experiment that transforms Michael Landon’s Tony Rivers into a Teenaged Werewolf. The monsters were no longer mythological creatures but scientifically created horrors to reflect the place science had taken in our lives.
When Hammer Horror came into prominence at the end of the ’50s and early ’60s it did so because of its penchant for gore and sexuality. The films were in lush technicolor and weren’t afraid to show bright red blood dripping from bite marks on a victim’s neck. Before this time blood was of course obfuscated by black and white cinematography, taking a significant edge off the goriness. There was also ample use of eroticism, utilizing tight dresses on the buxom bodies and a little bit of cleavage. Considered tame by the explicit standards of today’s cinema, there’s something kind of comforting about what we’d retrospectively refer to as restraint. Hammer Horror films also offered a return to utilizing the supernatural elements similar to the Universal Pictures Monsters from the ’30s and ’40s. This movement back to spiritual horrors perhaps reflects the rise of the hippie counter culture and a renewed emphasis on spiritualism.
The Gorgon was directed by Terence Fisher, whom you could call the Hammer Horror auteur, bringing his brand of gothic horror to the screen previously in The Mummy (1959), The Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Of all the Hammer Horror films, The Gorgon features some of the most straightforward debate between science and faith, with the analytical minds challenged by the appearance of the Greek mythological creature appearing in a village and turning citizens into solid stone. When Professor Jules Heitz proposes that the Gorgon is the killer, and not his missing son – whom the town uses as a scapegoat – Peter Cushing’s Dr. Namaroff responds that they are men of science and that neither could believe in something as otherworldly as ghosts and spirits. Heitz’s response is key to where the film stands on the philosophic debate:
“That is the most unscientific thing I’ve ever heard. I believe in everything the human brain is unable to disprove.”
This intellectual conceit allows for the existence of creatures such as the Gorgon, vampires and werewolves, and it’s said in a way that the audience can, if they’re not there already, see from that perspective. What’s more fascinating about this exchange is that Dr. Namaroff knows the creature is real and is working to discover its identity, as he believes it has taken on a human form. While this creates a nice mystery for the film to build around, it also shows that even though science can provide exponential benefits to mankind, that doesn’t mean that scientists lack the capacity to exploit people’s trust and justify it with what they believe to be good intentions.
The Gorgon a memorable and unique member of the Hammer canon
Finding this type of conflict in one of the minor Hammer Horror films certainly is a surprise that elevates the material, but it’s not the only reason to see it. The gothic mood that made Hammer a household name is present, along with the excitable Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who both provide a good mix of dread and discovery in their performances. Fisher also shows restraint in showing the creature, hiding it in shadows and watery reflections. While this seems like a way to hide cheap effects, it actually engages the viewer to fill in the blanks with their imagination, and nothing scares an audience more than its own imagination. While it’s not one of the tent poles of Hammer Horror, The Gorgon still has enough engaging elements to make it a memorable and unique member of the Hammer canon.
Written by Jae K. Renfrow
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.