In 1964 Hammer Films released its Terence Fisher-directed horror, The Gorgon. It was an elegant and unexpected addition to the Hammer canon, taking as its titular ‘monster’ a creature borrowed from Greek mythology.
The studio was rather good at creating female ‘monsters’, The Reptile in 1966 being a significant success, as was The Countess Dracula in 1971.
Working out of Bray Studios, what Hammer Films lacked in budget, they more than made up for in lushly gothic design and brooding atmosphere. Their teams of writers, directors, set and costume designers, make-up artists, matte and model artists and composers, created a rich seam of cinematic horror. They re-invented the old monsters of the Universal Studios – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy among them – in ways that found completely new audiences. The films were largely strongly European in their settings, with brooding Carpathian castles looming over villages where peasants lived in dread of their vampiric overlords.
The cast was stellar: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Richard Pascoe, with Barbara Shelley in the role of Carla Hoffman. Shelley was the studio’s top female star. With her rich auburn hair, evenly chiselled features and low voice, she brought gravity as well as beauty to all her roles. In Carla she played a distaff to that horror staple – the werewolf – by being transformed at full moon into Megeara the Gorgon, whose dreadful stare turns human flesh to stone, the premise for which is the ‘serial killer’ heart of the story.
Fisher and his team were concerned that transforming Shelley into the Gorgon was going to create multiple difficulties. The story required the creature’s true identity be revealed only toward the end of the film, but given there were to be several close-ups of the monster’s ‘killer stare’, it was believed the deceit would be hard to pull off were Shelley to be under the make-up. There was also the matter of time. Transforming Shelley’s classic looks into Megeara would hold up filming on a regular basis, so despite the fact that she was very keen to play the character in both manifestations, no matter the discomforts involved, it was decided to use another actress who might plausibly represent a grotesque version of her, up to the point when the duality is revealed.
Enter Prudence Hyam, an actor and retired ballet dancer who Fisher and his team believed would have the necessary performance skills to embody the elegant, poisonous intensity they hoped to achieve in the Gorgon, yet be up to the rigours of of the uncomfortable physical demands. Hyam didn’t disappoint. She cheerfully submitted to the heavy headpiece hiding the snake mechanisms under her wig, which was over seven pounds in weight. She wore bloodshot, full-sclera contact lenses that in these early days of the technology were not at all comfortable.
This short clip shows Prudence in full make-up and towelling dressing-gown, marching out of the Bray Studios make-up department having hitched the cumbersome loops of snake-mechanism cable-controls over her shoulder, while make-up man Roy Ashton follows with the box that will operate everything out of shot. Hyam looks like a woman not to be put off by seven pounds of special-effects attached to her head!
Hyam clearly didn’t have any problem with playing a character deemed to be ‘monstrous’. One gets the sense she was a performer to her core, relishing the challenges and an opportunity to be evil.
When the Gorgon makes her first appearance in Castle Borski, it’s a moment of spine-chilling unease. Cobwebs billow as she emerges from behind them, a simple effect that adds to the sense of predatory malevolence. Hyam was on a small wheeled platform that created a gliding trajectory – rather like the one employed under Josette Day in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte – and her dancer’s posture wedded to an icy intensity of expression, makes the moment unforgettable.
The set is one which fans of Hammer will know from several films, instantly recognisable by the colonnaded gallery encircling the entrance hallway and the stairway that’s so effective in terms of staging low-angle dramatic moments. Here the space is tellingly furnished with the life-sized hulk of a headless and decaying classical statue, a queasy clue as to what haunts its shadowy recesses.
The Gorgon is not a film without flaws. But having seen it, despite its X-certificate, when I was just thirteen – the local flea-pit cinema never having ever turned down a ticket-purchase on the grounds of age – the memory of it has stayed with me for a lifetime. The appearance of the Gorgon herself has attracted occasionally – in my opinion – unfair comment from critics, with jibes about the character’s design deficiencies. But the jerky rubber snakes and the the too-obvious scaly skin appliances notwithstanding, her appearance gives the film moments of genuine horror, and Hyam’s fierce intensity as she glides out to literally petrify her victims, has persisted in my dreams for five and a half decades. So many times the mood of that colonnaded gallery with its monstress glimmering as green-as-absinthe in the cobwebby shadows has nudged into my work, whether in Neo-Romantic paintings of mood-drenched ruins, or in the creepy filmed sequences of interiors I made for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.
Soon there is to be a little tribute to the Gorgon, in all her basilisk-eyed venomousness, in a little project I currently have on the go. Watch this space.
Those who deserve credit:
Director: Terence Fisher
Music: James Bernard
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Editor: Eric Boyd Perkins
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Make-up: Roy Ashton
And lastly, Prudence herself, who so memorably added to the canon of movie grotesques, and deserves to be better credited and celebrated.