Hammer’s Gothic Nightmare Revisited

by Rob Fisher

Peter and Barbara Shelley

Peter being directed by Terence Fisher

"Overshadowing the village of Vandorf stands the Castle Borski. From the turn of the century a monster from an ancient age of history came to live there. No living thing survived and the spectre of death hovered in waiting for her next victim"

For Hammer the House of Horror, their rise to become leading makers of horror films throughout the world had taken a mere six years to accomplish. 1957 had seen their first screen venture into terror, with ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ becoming an overnight resounding success, and now in 1963 they were well established as true masters of the macabre. But in their ever endearing search for new cinematic worlds to conquer, away from their now well established Gothic settings, their last exploits had proven to be a little uninspiring with the paying audiences of the day. Both of Hammer’s last film productions, ‘The Old Dark House’ and ‘The Damned’, had proved disastrous at the box office and ended up being shelved by their distributors Columbia Pictures. Now, in a bid to find out what people really wanted to see, Hammer turned to the film making industry and Cinema-going public for help.

An advertisement was placed in ‘The Daily Cinema’ magazine by the film company in a search for inspiration: "Got an idea you think would make a good film? One with an exciting title to match? If you have, contact James Carreras. Because good, compulsive selling ideas with the right titles are what Hammer are looking for right now".

The advertisement brought in a good response from the trade and public alike. Hammer’s head producer Anthony Hinds searched through the mail for inspiration and ideas for possible future productions for the film company. From the many submissions, one story did show promise and prompted enough enthusiasm from Hammer to pursue the idea through. The story itself had been submitted by J. Llewellyn Divine and was a brief synopsis which mixed Greek mythology with a mid-European setting. The story itself was rather complicated and confusing, as were the locations and main characters names. It was evident to Hammer that this story could be taken and cleverly re-worked well enough into a ‘Gothic Horror’ screenplay and give them the chance to create a new monster of their own.... a female monster!

The basic idea of the story itself was given to Director/Screenwriter John Gilling, who had just completed ‘The Scarlet Blade’ for Hammer starring the late great Oliver Reed and Lionel Jeffries. Anthony Hinds had initially intended to re-write this new screenplay but with ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’, his 50th film, about to commence production, he was transferred to this. John Gilling was asked to handle this new project and together with the film’s producer Anthony Nelson Keys, they re-worked the story into a screenplay. Many of the original story’s place names were simplified and all of the characters names, with the exception of Dr. Namaroff and Carla Hoffman, were also changed. Gilling also changed the story’s finale to bring the four main character’s together - a vast improvement to the original story’s ending. In J. Llewellyn Divine’s original story, the character Paul wakes to find the sleeping Carla’s hair is a mass of writhing hissing snakes. He reaches for a sword and lunges at the creature. Now, Gilling’s finished reworked screenplay of the as then untitled story now bore a name - ‘SUPERNATURAL’.

On reading the submitted draft script, Anthony Hinds was less than impressed with the finished item. Taking into account that this production would be shot on a tight schedule, he reverted Gilling’s script back towards the original story submitted by Divine. Under his pen name of John Elder, Anthony Hinds rewrote the film’s start and much of the dialogue. He also renamed the screenplay and gave it a more familiar title...‘THE GORGON’.

Filming on ‘The Gorgon’ began at Bray Studios in December 1963, and directly followed ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’ on the lot. Many of the standing interior sets built for ‘Evil’ still stood and were used and re-dressed to suit the film’s 1910 setting. The interior of Frankenstein’s laboratory had been constructed on Stage 1. This considerable sized set became Professor Namaroff’s laboratory in ‘The Gorgon’. The back wall’s recessed arch shapes, which can be seen in ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’ as the Baron revives his creation, feature strongly as Namaroff first enters his laboratory in the film. The set itself was further extended to include the Institute’s corridor, the stairs leading up to the Asylum and Namaroff’s study. The opposite end of the original Frankenstein laboratory set was revamped and became the exterior gardens of the old mill house, including the stairway leading down to the garden pool where Paul first glimpses the Gorgon’s reflection on the water’s surface. When filming was complete on all the scenes involving the laboratory and Asylum, Set 1 was completely cleared to make way for the next set to be built, the interior of Castle Borski . Because of the tight working schedule Hammer had in which to complete the film, construction began on certain parts of the Castle Interior before the Asylum set scenes were completed. In the scene where Christopher Lee breaks into the Institution by climbing in through the window of Namaroff’s Study, the columns of the interior of Castle Borski can clearly be seen through the window. On the other standing set, built for the Coroner’s Court and Police station, a revamp allowed them to become Namaroff’s drawing room. When the required scenes were completed on this set for the drawing room scenes, it was revamped yet again and became the ward in the Asylum where Paul wakes after seeing the Gorgon. Not only were hammer working to a tight schedule, but also to a tight budget as well.

Hammer’s long standing village set once again came into its own to represent the village of Vandorf. The exterior of the old mill house, which features in the film’s opening scenes, had appeared in ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’ as the Village Inn. The Vandorf Medical Institution had previously been the Police Station. A large set had been built for the exterior of Frankenstein’s Chateau. This now became the exterior of Castle Borski. For scenes which involved the Castle to be seen in the distance a scale model was built and this can be seen during the film’s title sequence. For the scenes in Vandorf Forest, location shooting was carried out at Black Park. Many of the scenes filmed here were required to be at night, but were shot as ‘day for night’ shots, whereby a filter is put over the lens of the camera to give the appearance of nighttime. It was a happy reunion for the film’s leading Stars and Director. It had been five years since Hammer Legends Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Director Terence Fisher had worked together on the same project. Their last outing together for Hammer had been in ‘The Mummy’ back in 1959. Since then both Cushing and Lee had channeled themselves into other film roles, Peter channelling his acting on Drama and Costume Adventures and Christopher making Pirate adventures, exploitation and European Horrors. Amazingly, Peter Cushing had made only two horror films since 1959. Terence Fisher had found himself assigned to directing non-important projects following the less than successful response to his film ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in 1962. Considered at the time as a failure, the film left a black mark against Fisher’s name, reducing him to less strongly motivated jobs. But now, after a two year gap, Fisher was back at the helm to direct what was to become a Classic British Horror Film! For Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee it would be their fifth Hammer Horror together, but they would only share three scenes in the production - and only one of these gave them the chance to exchange dialogue with each other!

Being offered the role of Namaroff in the film gave Peter Cushing the chance to play an unusually cold and calculating character. As ever, he was thoroughly delighted to be working once again for Hammer Film Productions, an association he was to continue well into the future. Peter commented during production on ‘The Gorgon’, “Hammer have got to the heart of the matter. When so called ‘horror’ films first came in, everyone got on the bandwagon and some awful stuff was churned out, but over the years Hammer have made better and better films in the genre. That is why I like working in the progressive atmosphere of these studios at Bray”. Sporting a splendid set of facial whiskers, Peter turned in an effortless portrayal as the evil Namaroff, developing the character as only he could, giving him little ‘mannerisms’ which he perfected. For scenes where he was under stress, Peter would run his hand through his hair and perfected an extremely convincing 'nasty cough’, as well as running his finger across his top lip brushing the whiskers. The ‘nasty cough’ Peter had perfected became quite noticeable to the cast and crew. When Christopher Lee questioned his friend about it, Peter explained the reason for the cough. By the time ‘The Gorgon’ had finished production, the film’s cast and crew had given Peter the name of ‘Doctor nasty cough’. When it came to utilizing the film’s props, Peter was as ever the professional, reinforcing his title amongst the Hammer staff and actors as ‘Props Pete’ and ‘The Propmaster’. For his scene in which he performs an autopsy to remove the brain from the dead Asylum inmate Martha, Cushing performs the most perfect and precise cuts with a surgical scalpel to the head, which is out of camera shot. Peter was in actual fact making these expert surgical maneuvers on a cabbage!

It has been said that Peter’s role in “The Gorgon” was one of his few that actually distanced him from his audience. Whether this is true or not I think is purely down to personal choice. It is true to say the character of Namaroff is unusually cold and without human emotion, but then so is Peter’s portrayal of Baron Frankenstein to an extent in his films since ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’. But if the film is watched from the clever angle in which it was written, Peter cleverly disguises his love and devotion to Carla beneath his cold exterior, prepared to go to any length to protect her from being discovered and destroyed before he is sure she is the hideous creature of the film’s title. It is a marvel to see an actor of Peter’s caliber switch so easily from role to role in a film and play each character with such conviction and freshness that is a pleasure to watch. Recalling his role in ‘The Gorgon’, Peter said “I played an evil man, although to be fair, even this character had a secret reason for his behaving as he did”.

Christopher Lee’s role as Professor Meister gave him the chance to play a warm and charming character, which in some way appears bumbling at times. It came as a complete contrast to his previous roles for Hammer which up until then had included Frankenstein’s Creature, Count Dracula, The Mummy and evil Pirate Captains. Since first playing the ‘Creature’ alongside Peter’s Baron in 1957’s ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, Christopher Lee had appeared in almost 30 films, but surprisingly even though he was an extremely popular actor it was only the previous year in 1963 that he received first name billing in Hammer’s ‘The Devil-Ship Pirates’. But once again for this new feature his name appeared again as second billing to Peter Cushing, something that had been arranged in his contract of production. There is a feeling of warmth and comfort in the scenes featuring Meister, a complete contrast to those cleverly played by Peter as Namaroff.

Hammer’s first lady of horror Barbara Shelley took the female lead as Carla Hoffman, and gave a wonderful performance as the tragic heroine. She played Carla with an air of elegance and serenity, lending herself perfectly to many of the film’s key scenes in which she ‘implies’ the underlying evil that is about to engulf her forever. When interviewed on set during the film’s production, Barbara commented, “for the first time in my life I can truthfully say that what I have to do is absolutely monstrous”. Barbara had spent 12 months working in Hollywood prior to her being offered a role in ‘The Gorgon’ on her return to England in the Autumn of 1963. She was already familiar with Hammer Film Productions and had previously worked on three films for them: ‘Mantrap’, ‘The Camp on Blood Island’ and ‘Shadow of the Cat’. Working on ‘The Gorgon’ left Barbara with many happy memories of the time she spent at Bray Studios. With great affection she commented during production of Peter Cushing’s “impish sense of humor. He loves cartoons, especially Sylvester the Cat. Peter does a marvelous impression of Sylvester which can always be relied upon to make Chris Lee laugh”. Originally Barbara had wanted to play the dual role of Carla and the hideous Gorgon herself and had approached the film’s producer Anthony Nelson Keys with this suggestion. Ms. Shelley even offered to work with real snakes (grass snakes were to have been used) to create a truly terrifying effect, and suggested that if some form of head-dress could be constructed, into which the snakes could be harmlessly threaded so as not to hurt them in any way, she would wear it. But the producers did not agree to this. Nor did they agree to her playing the part in full make up either, though Barbara did go through several make-up screen tests with make-up man Roy Ashton before the final desired creature was decided upon. The time it would have taken to apply full Creature make-up to Ms. Shelley would have meant that if she were required for another scene as Carla somewhere on set, the make-up would have to be removed again.

Due to the film’s tight shooting schedule the producers opted to use another actress to play the Gorgon - Prudence Hyman. By using another actress to play the Gorgon the producers believed this would help keep the creature’s true identity a secret from the film’s audience. Strangely enough for her role in ‘The Gorgon’ Prudence Hyman is listed in the film’s credits as ‘Chateline’ a character not seen or mentioned in the film. Whether or not this was intentional is not known. Prudence Hyman had previously worked for Hammer as an extra on their ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ based feature film ‘The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll’. During the Second World War Ms. Hyman had been a traveling ENSA artist. She and fellow ENSA artists had been safely flown through a terrible storm in a DC3 plane by a young R.A.F. Lieutenant. The R.A.F. Lieutenant was none other than Christopher Lee!

Also amongst the cast of ‘The Gorgon’ were Hammer regulars Richard Pasco, Michael Goodlife and Patrick Troughton, all giving excellent and truly believable performances.

Creating the creature of the film’s title came down to the combined efforts of Roy Ashton and Syd Pearson. The initial idea, sparked off by Barbara Shelley, to use real snakes had not proven to be a hit with the producers. Another avenue was sought. Make-up man Syd Pearson had 12 plaster moulds made of snakes by a sculptor. From each of these moulds he cast latex rubber snakes. Each of the snakes were approximately 14 inches in length. A cable was placed through each of the snakes bodies which would enable them to be moved. These snakes were then fitted through a head-dress, complete with long dark wig that was in turn worn by Prudence Hyman. The cables of each snake trailed off behind Ms. Hyman and were wound around a large drum which was fitted with pegs. As the drum was wound around, the varying pegs on each cable varied the tension on each snake, giving them the effect of movement.

The creature’s demise at the film’s finale takes less than a few minutes in the film. But producing the decapitation of the Gorgon took more than four and a half weeks to shoot! A plaster mould was taken of Barbara Shelley’s head and from this a latex cast was made. This was then fitted with duplicate latex snakes the same as were used on the head-dress. On the Castle set, several shots were taken of the severed head rolling down the stairs until the best ‘landing’ position was decided upon. Various reference photographs were then taken at different angles of the head’s final position on set. These photographs were then used as a reference to re-create the bottom of the castle steps in a small special effects studio. A small set was then created on a raised platform to allow make-up man Syd Pearson access beneath the severed head. The ends of the snakes went beneath the set floor where Syd Pearson lay and pulled them from underneath giving the effect of the serpents regression. For the Gorgon’s transformation back to Carla, a thin wax cast was produced on the cast of Barbara Shelley’s head. This was then made up by Roy Ashton to like like the Gorgon and then placed over the latex head . With the room kept at a constant temperature the scene was shot stage by stage as Syd Pearson removed tiny layers of the wax to reveal Shelley’s face beneath. Roy Ashton commented on his work for the Gorgon, “Oddly enough, I found my first female subject less squeamish than certain actors at being made hideous. But I must say that the Gorgon is about the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen!”.

‘The Gorgon’ finished production on the Bray Studios Lot on the 17th January 1964, and along with its double-bill companion ‘Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb’ formed one of the last two features produced in Hammer’s six year deal with Columbia pictures. With all filming now completed Hammer contracted composer James Bernard to score the film and give their latest production true Gothic atmosphere. The musical score James Bernard finally arrived at must surely rate as one of his most memorable and certainly most chilling. A Novachord (an early electronic keyboard) was used to create the eerie effect of the Gorgon’s call from the Castle Borski. Bernard added to this melody a wordless high Soprano voice, which was supplied by singer Patricia Clarke. The finished musical effect is extremely haunting and chilling. The completed film was released to Cinemas in Great Britain on October 18th 1964.

‘The Gorgon’ has a distinct style and character all of its very own that could only ever have been created by Hammer themselves. The film being shot in Eastman color lent a wonderful ‘watercolour’ effect throughout, which was further complemented by many of the spectacular sets used – especially the ruined interior of the Castle Borski. The unseen Gorgon lurking in the shadows proves more electrifying for me than the actual final scenes when the creature is seen in full, but that does still convey a really powerful image in itself. ‘The Gorgon’ at the time of release may have been received with mixed feelings by the critics but Terence Fisher, along with trusted stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, had created an original and true masterpiece of Gothic Horror. 

THE GORGON: the story…

Central Europe 1910: The village of Vandorf has suffered seven horrific murders in five years. In each case, the unfortunate victim has been turned to stone....

In the old millhouse on the edge of the forest, Sacha Cass tells her artist boyfriend Bruno Heitz she is carrying his child. Wanting to stand up to his obligations, Bruno races off into the night to see Sacha’s father despite her pleas for him not to go. She races after him, but soon loses him in the dark forest. There amongst the dark shadows something catches her attention. She looks into the face of something hideous and screams. Raising her head once more she looks upon the horror and screams again before turning to solid stone.

Suspicion immediately falls onto Bruno who is missing, but he is found hanged in the forest by a police search party. A biased court decides it is a case of murder and suicide. The villagers feeling robbed of any vengeance, attack Bruno’s father, Professor Jules Heitz. The local Police warn the Professor to leave the village, but he refuses to go until his son’s name is cleared. He seeks help from Doctor Namaroff, a brain specialist at the Vandorf Medical Institution. Heitz knows that a conspiracy of silence has been set up and that the villagers do not believe the true cause. Professor Heitz believes the murders are the result of something unhuman and hideous from Ancient Mythology. Its spirit haunts the Castle Borski - its name is Megeara, a Gorgon, a creature whose horrible face can turn human skin to stone. On hearing Hertz’s belief, Namaroff immediately terminates their discussion. Professor Heitz contacts his good friend Professor Meister of Leipzig University, who is also his son Paul’s tutor. Paul immediately leaves to see his father.

That night, Professor Heitz is drawn to Borski Castle by a strange calling sound. There amongst the shadows he looks upon something horrible - the face of Megeara the Gorgon. He manages to stagger back to the millhouse and there whilst slowly turning to stone, outlines a letter to his son Paul telling him of the horror that haunts Vandorf. His final words ‘I am turning to stone....’

Paul arrives and learning the sad news of his father’s death goes to see  Namaroff. He is rudely dismissed when he asks if there is any link with the supernatural his father wrote of in his dying letter. Paul does however gain sympathy from Professor Namaroff’s beautiful assistant Carla Hoffman who visits him at the old millhouse, and secretly reads the letter Professor Heitz had written. Later she recites what she can remember of the letter to Namaroff at the Institution. They are interrupted by Ratoff the warden who reports that Martha, a violent inmate, has escaped. Namaroff reveals to Carla that the spirit of Megeara the Gorgon does exist and occasionally takes over the body of an unfortunate human being. That night Paul is drawn outside the millhouse by a strange sound and there glimpses the horror of the Gorgon’s reflection in the garden pool. He wakes five days later in the Medical Institution, aged by ten years.

Determined to destroy the creature, Paul returns to the millhouse. Namaroff has Carla followed by Ratoff. That night there is a full moon. Under the full moon, Paul visits the graveyard and exhumes his fathers body and discovers it is solid stone. Carla silently watches him from the shadows. Emerging from her hiding place, she confides to Paul that Namaroff is in love with her and she is terrified of him. Paul tells Carla that he will take her away with him when the horror is ended. But Carla fears it will be too late by then.

Paul’s tutor Professor Meister arrives at the millhouse to see him. Meanwhile, at the Medical Institution, Namaroff removes the brain from Martha the dangerous inmate who died soon after recapture by Ratoff. Carla believed Martha to be the main suspect in the murders, but now she senses a far worse suspicion. Meister and Paul visit Inspector Kanof. They force him to tell them that Carla arrived in Vandorf as an amnesiac prior to the first murder.

Meeting in secret at Castle Borski early next morning, Carla tells Paul that she will go away with him to safety - but it must be now. He refuses and she runs off. Paul runs after her and is attacked by a waiting Ratoff, but Meister scares him off. Meister tells Paul he believes that Carla becomes an amnesiac during the full moon.

It is during that period that the spirit of Megeara enters her body. Paul agrees with Carla that to leave now is the best thing - but she must leave immediately and he will follow later when the mystery is solved. Later that day Paul cables Leipzig where Carla is supposed to have arrived by train, but there is no sign of her.

That night he goes to Castle Borski as a full moon is rising. There midst the Castle ruins, Namaroff is waiting with a sword for the arrival of Carla. He attacks Paul and they fight. As the fight continues the Gorgon appears at the top of the Castle staircase. Namaroff seizes the chance and races forward to behead the creature, but he looks upon its face and is turned to stone. Paul is trapped as the creature advances on him and he sees her reflection in a mirror. Silently Professor Meister approaches from behind clutching Namaroff’s sword. With a swift slash of the blade he beheads the creature - but it is too late to save Paul who is now dying. Slowly turning to stone, Paul looks upon the severed head of the Gorgon as its features change to that of his beloved Carla.

CAST: Peter Cushing (Dr. Namaroff), Christopher Lee (Professor Meister), Richard Pasco (Paul Heitz),
Barbara Shelley (Carla Hoffman), Michael Goodliffe (Professor Heitz), Patrick Troughton (Inspector Kanof), Jack Watson (Ratoff), Jeremy Longhurst (Bruno Heitz), Toni Gilpin (Sacha Cass), Redmond Phillips (Hans), Joseph O’Connor (Coroner), Alister Williamson (Janus Cass), Joyce Hemson (Martha), Michael Peake (Policeman), Sally Nesbit (Nurse), Prudence Hyman (Chateline).

THE GORGON: Director: Terence Fisher,
Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys, Screenplay: John Gilling (based on an original story by J.Llewelyn Devine),
Assistant Director: Bert Batt, Production Manager: Don Weeks, Continuity: Pauline Harlow, Director of Photography: Michael Reed, Camera Operator: Cece Cooney, Production Designer: Bernard Robinson, Art Director: Don Mingaye, Construction Manager: Arthur Banks, Supervising Editor: James Needs,
Editor: Eric Boyd Perkins, Sound Recordist: Ken Rawkins,
Sound Editor: Roy Hyde, Composer: James Bernard,
Musical Supervisor: Marcus Dods, Wardrobe: Rosemary Borrows, Make-up: Roy Ashton/Richard Mills, Hair Stylist: Freida Steiger, Special Effects: Sydney Pearson, Fight Arranger: Peter Diamond, Stills Cameraman: Tom Edwards, Publicist: Alan Arnold,
Publicity Supervisor: Dennison Thornton,
Studio Manager: A.F. Kelly, Property Master: Tommy Money,
Studio Electrician: George Robinson,
Camera Grip: Albert Couland.

The following publications and fanzines have proved both inspirational and invaluable to me in researching and writing this review: HAMMER FILMS: AN EXHAUSTIVE FILMOGRAPHY by Tom Johnson & Deborah Del Vecchio,  PETER CUSHING: THE GENTLEMAN OF HORROR AND HIS 91 FILMS by Tom Johnson & Deborah Del Vecchio,  PAST FORGETTING: MEMOIRS OF THE HAMMER YEARS by Peter Cushing,  DARK TERRORS Issue 11 by Mike Murphy,   THE HOUSE THAT HAMMER BUILT by Wayne Kinsey, A HISTORY OF HORRORS: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE HOUSE OF HORROR by Denis Meikle 

    © Copyright ROB FISHER March 2000.

Professor Meister threatening Doctor Namaroff!

Terence Fisher busy at work on 'The Gorgon'