When I wrote about Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, I said I would get around to talking about Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964). So today I will. Curse is an example of Hammer at its most workmanlike. The movie, as I said, is fun but slight. The Gorgon, on the other hand, is Hammer and Fisher at their best, a film of considerable beauty and resonance.
After a young artist’s girlfriend is killed and turned to stone, and he hangs himself, the inquest declares the deaths the result of a crime of passion. The artist’s father, understandably skeptical, refuses to leave the little town of Vandorf after the inquest, despite the villagers’ hostility. He discovers the existence of Megara the gorgon, but at the cost of his life. His second son (Martin Pasco) arrives to continue the investigation, and after a near miss that nearly costs him his life, he is joined by his mentor (Christopher Lee), while falling in love with his nurse (Barbara Shelley). The road to true love does not run smoothly, however, as the film makes it quite clear midway through that Shelley is in fact Megara. She doesn’t know this herself, but local doctor Peter Cushing certainly does, but his obsessive love for Shelley leads him to cover everything up.
Let me quote Phil Hardy (once more from The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror) on the film:
“This eerily poetic evocation of an archetypal image to represent the fear of the female sex was one of Fisher’s favourite movies.” He then goes on to give a fairly inaccurate plot summary, but then, on firmer ground, continues: “The pervasive fantasy of the phallic mother is so logically and consistently enacted that even a psychoanalytic interpretation could not be more explicit. In spite of some awkward effects […] the movie’s overall impact remains unnervingly powerful as it brilliantly presents one of the fundamental nightmare images of our culture, something even most horror films […]shy away from, preferring to cloak the monstrous mother-figure in less easily recognizable shapes. This is Fisher’s most dreamlike and bewitching work.”
I heartily second the endorsement of the film, as I do the impulse to give the film a psychoanalytic reading, even if I question the actual conclusions. Megara, as presented here, strikes me less as a monstrous mother figure than two-edged representation of male terrors of female sexuality. On the one hand, there is the terror of its power: turning to stone when gazing directly upon the gorgon (which is usually interpreted as a vaginal metaphor) represents both the obvious physiological transformation AND a castration anxiety, in the sense of a loss of will, self-control, and therefore power. Our boys turn to stone and die: there’s an image that hardly needs to be unpacked. The other edge of the blade, the other terror, is a correlative of the first: we see, particularly in Cushing’s character, a desperate desire to control female sexuality. It must be tamed, in order to tame the fears of its power. Shelley doesn’t know she is the gorgon; in other words, the threat that female sexuality represents is created by male anxieties, and is not inherent to the woman herself. What Shelley does know is that Cushing, the older man terrified of losing the woman to the younger Pasco, is oppressing her with his demands to control her every move.
There is still more going on, of course. I would point out, for instance, the need of the villagers and the authorities to construct a lie that everyone knows is a lie, but is still less frightening than the truth they refuse to face. There’s a scenario that invites both psychoanalytic AND political readings.
This is the horror film as fairy tale, with all the symbolic richness the form entails. This is the kind of thing the horror film, when done well, excels at, and The Gorgon is done very well indeed.