Professor Jules Heitz travels to the remote Eastern European village of Vandorf when one of his sons is accused of murder before taking his own life. However, he encounters hostility from the locals and suspects that they are hiding something from him.
Despite threats of violence, Heitz elects to stay in Vandorf to find out the truth. During the dead of night, the calls of a siren lure him to the ruins of the castle where he has a fatal encounter with Magera, a snake-haired gorgon from Greek mythology who could turn a man to stone with her gaze.
In his last hours, he manages to send a letter to his surviving son, Paul, who promptly arrives in Vandorf to be greeted by the same hostility and violence as his father. Paul also has an encounter with Magera, although he is lucky enough to escape. Realising he needs help to combat this creature, he sends for his mentor and together the two men seek to break through the wall of silence from the villagers and expose the gorgon once and for all.
Hammer had started to run out of ideas after their initial boom of bringing the old Universal classics into glorious colour. Once they had worked their magic on Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy, they had to come up with new fiends for their actors to battle. Numerous offerings such as The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies sprung up in the years following and here we have one of their first attempts to try the Hammer magic onto something other than a Universal reworking. The Gorgon bares all of the hallmarks of the Hammer series but there's something missing here which is evident from the get go.
The first half of the film works the best simply because there's not as many characters running around, the story has a set direction and it's drenched in atmosphere for the first few scenes around the ruins of the castle. Like many a Hammer film, there's an otherworldly presence lurking around in the night scenes. You're half-expecting the gorgon to pop out at any time whilst her victims stumble aimlessly around the castle. Of course being a low budget film, you're not going to see this creature until the very end. Thankfully the film plays upon this and the odd glimpse you do get of the gorgon is via silhouette or even a reflection in a fountain. It even messes with the gorgon mythology too so the victims don't immediately turn to stone. A slow and painful process of fossilisation sounds nasty and looks like it as a few of the characters here don't die straight away, adding a bit of drama to their final moments.
From a decent period flick, the film turns into more of a murder mystery with the main characters trying to work out who Magera is. Well stupidly enough, only one female character is actually given any screen time so it won't take a rocket scientist to work out who it is from the start. And, because you know straight away who the gorgon is, it's actually pretty dull watching the characters run around trying to work it out for themselves. You'll find yourself screaming at the TV the name of the character in the hope that someone hears! After the opening intrigue, the film gets bogged down with dialogue a little too much. When you've just busted a nut to create a decent set-up, the last thing you need to do is blow it all away like they do here. Thankfully the finale is a perfectly tense and poignant scene where the gorgon is confronted in the castle once and for all.
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing star together here and it's refreshing to see them swapping their usual roles. Cushing gets to play the villain (well not so much a villain but a misguided lover) whilst Lee gets to save the day as the hero (even though his character is brash and obnoxious). It's not their best work together, but you're never going to get sloppy phone-in performances from either of them - consummate professionals! There's good support from a variety of other actors including Patrick Troughton and Barbara Shelley. I love Hammer films simply for this reason. They had a great pool of talent from which to assemble their supporting cast and they all do reliable, sometimes superb jobs.
The Gorgon is a rather talkative and patchy Hammer film which has its good moments (namely the scenes in and around the castle) but they are too few and far between to make it a classic. Although if you're like me, you'll only watch it to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star together. Even though their screen time together is limited, it's still worth it - kind of like a horror version of Heat where Pacino and DeNiro faced off for a few minutes!