HAMMER: VOLUME 1: FEAR WARNING, Various directors/Powerhouse Blu-Ray Box In splendid new Blu-ray transfers, here’s a tempting collection of lesser known Hammer films, including Fanatic, Maniac, and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. But perhaps the most interesting film here is the one the studio (and its makers) were ambiguous in their reaction to. Almost everyone connected with The Gorgon (1964) was prepared to admit – in rueful retrospection – that a key element of the film has simply not been up to scratch — and disappointment of audiences had seriously hurt the film’s prospects. It was, in fact, the vision of the titular monster — the same syndrome, in effect, which had sabotaged another Hammer project, the distinctly non-frightening devil dog in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had similarly drawn audiences’ attention away from the excellences to be found elsewhere in the film (notably, in both films, the nonpareil acting). If this seems a touch unfair given the limited screen time these creatures were given, it was nevertheless short-sighted of Hammer executives not to see that cheeseparing and haste in this crucial respect would not be forgiven by audiences – not least because the build-up to the appearances of the eponymous monsters was so appetite-whettingly staged. But the compromise goes deeper than that, given the iconographic value of these particular ghastly apparitions.
The setting chosen for the Hammer Gorgon (Megaera rather than rather than the better-known Medusa) to wreak her petrifying havoc on those unlucky enough to cross her path was a period Prussia, some distance from the historical antecedents of the mythological Greek monster. As ever, Terence Fisher was aware that he could rely on the copper-bottomed production design of the inventive Bernard Robinson – and that the public would cut him some slack for his performers. But the fires were burning lower than usual: while Christopher Lee’s performance (for once, in a sympathetic savant role) seems less engaged than usual, Peter Cushing, as ever invested his character (a university professor) with the understated authority that was the actor’s stock in trade – and which lent such verisimilitude to so many of the films he appeared in. Nether, however, invested their role with quite the customary authority.
But the film has one other key asset – another actor quite as reliable Cushing: the luminous Barbara Shelley, lending to her role (as always for Hammer) a plausible inner life that granted a flesh and blood reality to her crinolined, corset-wearing heroine. In most of their films, Hammer’s head honchos Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds were canny enough to promote the pretty innocuous blondes who invariably served as juvenile-leads-for-the-menacing, but both men were also well aware that an actress of Shelley’s calibre was required for key female roles, such as Shelley’s in The Gorgon (and it should be noted that there is an assumption here that the reader will be familiar with the film and not disturbed by revelations). Shelley’s reined-in, self-conscious character is (as contemporary viewers of the film no doubt guessed) capable of transforming herself into the snake-headed monstrosity whose gaze can transform her victims into stone, and viewers – then and now – might speculate on how much more effective the film’s tentative mythological charge might have been had the actress herself been permitted to play the eponymous Gorgon ( the part was in fact played – to no great effect — by the actress Prudence Hyman); the fact that the creature’s face is merely that of a middle-aged woman with sinister lighting and a head full of immobile plastic snakes might be compensated for had we been allowed to see Shelley as Megaera. But while the film’s incidental pleasures are many (staging, mise-en-scène, acting), it isn’t just the fact that Fisher seems less galvanised by the project than usual – it is the writing (by John Gilling) which has not discerned any creative spin for the scenario. The interpolation of the Gorgon legend into a potentially militaristic Prussian setting is not fruitful, and even popular entertainment film such as this might have done something with the confluence of a society dedicated to war and a central character whose image is nothing less than the face of death, but that was not on the agenda here. Part of the problem is that Terence Fisher and John Gilling don’t quite know to do with their petrifying Greek monster, other than conform to what the E.M. Forster once dismissively said of several Dickens characters: simply appear in order to do the action is expected of them and then retire, with no particular development. The various quadrilles executed here by the characters between castle, asylum and other settings have a formal rigour, but insufficient eerie charge, though Fisher’s restrained but expressive romantic instincts infuse the material, through the often startling visuals, full of lustrous colour and atmospheric lighting effects. All of this hardly makes up for the fact that Hammer’s most accomplished actress, Barbara Shelley, isn’t really a given enough to get her teeth into (but to some degree that is dictated by the exigencies of the narrative, which has to withhold certain facts).