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 here. No living thing survived and the spectre of death hovered in waiting for her next victim.
The above, slightly incoherent, text introduces this beautifully atmospheric but not-quite coherent Hammer horror film about a creature from ancient Greek mythology who, for reasons of her own, has decided to menace early 20th-century Bavaria.
It’s in Vandorf that the story begins, in an artist’s studio with a bit of implied, bareback nudity from the artist’s model. There’s no reason to get attached to these two people, but what happens to them will start the chain of events that leads our main characters into the plot.
The model, Sascha, wants to get married. Bruno, the artist, promises that they will when he gets a bit of money to pay off his debts. But Sascha can’t wait that long; there’s a baby on the way.
This being 1910, Bruno perceives the urgency of the situation. He heads out immediately to speak to Sascha’s father, even though she’s afraid that Daddy will kill him instead of giving them his blessing to get hastily married.
Sascha runs after Bruno as soon as she’s got some clothes on and follows him through the woods during a moonlit night. Eerie music that sounds almost like a woman singing tells us that the pregnancy and Daddy s reaction to it are the least of their problems.
Sure enough, Sascha sees something that makes her scream in terror and fall over.
The next morning, Sascha’s body is brought to the Vandorf Medical Institution, to be examined by Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing) and his assistant Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley).
Dr. Namaroff discusses the dead woman with the police officer in charge of the case, Inspector Kanof (Patrick Troughton–it’s a two-for-one on Doctors Who!)
“This may not be the same as the others,” says Kanof. There have been seven unsolved murders in Vandorf during the last 5 years, but he would prefer to believe that in this particular instance, Sascha’s boyfriend is responsible. “Lovers sometimes quarrel.”
Maybe so, but how lovers manage to turn people into stone isn’t explained–for that is precisely what’s happened to Sascha. A couple of her fingers break off when the cart her body is wheeled in on accidentally bumps into another piece of furniture.
The inspector wants an autopsy performed, but the poor dead woman is a freaking statue.
In spite of the absurdity of it, both the police and the inquest conclude that Bruno killed Sascha. They all know how decadent and irresponsible those artists are.
The police conduct a manhunt through the woods for Bruno, and find him hanging from a tree.
Things might have ended there, if Bruno hadn’t been the son of a distinguished professor of mythology at Berlin University, an old friend of Dr. Namaroff’s from their student days.
Professor Heitz comes to Vandorf for his son’s inquest and protests at the verdict. In spite of violent opposition from the locals and understated threats from the police, he’s determined to investigate the matter for himself and clear his son’s name, especially once he learns about the seven other very similar deaths in the area.
Carla is also upset about the verdict. After the inquest, she asks the doctor why he didn’t say anything about the victim being turned to stone. Sascha’s far from the first person in Vandorf to end up that way, so why does everyone make a secret of it and try to scapegoat the dead artist?
Carla adds that she knows the truth: “She has come back.”
She doesn’t elucidate on who “she” is, but Professor Heitz does.
“Have you every heard of Megaera?” he asks the doctor.
Megaera, for those unfamiliar with Greek mythology, was one of the Gorgons. Like her more famous sister Medusa, she had snakes on her head instead of hair and was so hideous to gaze upon that the mere sight of her would turn a person to stone. So much is actual myth. According to the professor, part of the 2000-plus-year-old legend has it that Megaera came to this part of the world.
The professor sends a telegram to his other son Paul (Richard Pasco) in Berlin, asking Paul to come to Vandorf and assist him.
Alas, Paul doesn’t get there soon enough.
That very night, Professor Heitz is working in the late Bruno’s studio cottage, when he hears that music that’s almost like singing and goes out to locate its source.
He ends up at the castle, which has been long abandoned but is still splendid furnished. There is a broken classical statue featured prominently in the Great Hall, but no sign of actual petrified people around the place.
As the professor explores the castle, he catches a glimpse of a woman in green robes lurking in the shadows, and screams in horror. By the time he gets back to the cottage, he’s already beginning to petrify. He has just enough time to write a letter to his surviving son before he turns entirely to stone.
This time, Dr. Namaroff says that the cause of death was heart failure.
Not that Paul believes it. He’s received his father’s letter, which mentions name of Megaera and refers to “This terrible thing stalking among the people of Vandorf.”
The doctor scoffs, but like his late father, Paul is determined to remain in Vandorf and get to the bottom of this mystery.
On his first night in the studio cottage, he glimpses the reflection of the Gorgon in the water of the decorative pond in the garden.
Actually, this scene very confusing. Paul is out in the garden and sees the reflection. He runs up a flight of stairs, back into the house, where he seems to run straight into Megaera and looks her fully in the face. This should turn him to stone, but instead he runs back outside to see the reflection in the water a second time. Megaera must move really fast.
Paul awakes in the hospital five days later, where Dr. Namaroff has been treating him. Does the doctor have a way to stop the process of petrification (“gorgonized” is the movie’s word for it) if he finds the victim in time? Or was the full-face view of Megaera in the studio another reflection, or perhaps an hallucination?
Whatever it was, the shock of it has turned Paul’s hair gray. He has nightmares about seeing the Gorgon in his hospital room. Fortunately, Carla is there to take care of him.
Unfortunately, Paul missed his father’s inquest while he was ill. They have accepted the doctor’s findings and buried the body.
As soon as he feels up to it, Paul goes out at night to dig up the grave. He finds the statue-like remains of his father inside the coffin.
Morbid question: The professor turned to stone while he was sitting and writing at a desk. The stone body in the coffin appears to be lying flat, but all we see is the head. Did they have to break him into bits to bury him?
Paul has a chat with Carla in the graveyard; she’s been following him since he left the hospital. Even before that, she came to the studio after his first visit to the doctor about his father’s death.
He asks her, “Why did the doctor issue a false death certificate? Who is he trying to shield?”
He doesn’t get an answer, although he will soon suspect the truth.
Carla confesses that she has read part of his father’s letter and reported its contents back to Dr. Namaroff. The doctor was hoping to gain more information and insight about the nature of Megaera. According to Carla, Namaroff believes that the spirit of Megaera roams the woods even though he, like the villagers, won’t admit it. He believes that Megaera has taken human form.
Carla wants Paul to leave before he ends up like his father. He offers to take her away with him when he goes.
Even though the two are in love already–the Florence Nightingale effect kicked in while she was nursing him–Carla says that she can’t leave Dr. Namaroff. “I wish I could.”
Paul takes this to mean that the doctor is in love with her, and jealous. Which is true, but that’s not the problem they have to overcome.
When he returns to his brother’s studio, Paul finds that his mentor at the university, Professor Meister (Christopher Lee) has just arrived. The professor wants to hear what Paul’s been up to since he left Berlin.
Meister is a man of science, but he’s ready to believe Paul’s story in general. Something strange has obviously happened to him. He agrees to help Paul find out the truth and, to that end, they go to see the police inspector the next morning.
Patrick Troughton wasn’t intimidated by Peter Cushing and I haven’t seen him cowed by anybody since the Time Lords turned him into Jon Pertwee, but he crumbles pretty quickly when Christopher Lee towers over him. Professor Meister threatens to go over the inspector’s head and have a word with his superiors… and the proto-fascist Bavarian policeman agrees to hand over the information he has about all women who have registered to come and live in Vandorf in the past ten years.
Carla Hoffman’s card immediately draws attention. She’s been in living there for 7 years. Megaera began to prowl 5 years ago.
Carla, meanwhile, is having suspicions of her own. She feels sure that Dr. Namaroff knows something about the Gorgon he’s not telling her. Does he know who she is? Was it Martha–a mad patient of Namaroff’s who recently escaped and died? No, says the doctor.
Well, there’s only one other woman in the movie.
At the end of their conversation, Carla does stand up to Dr. Namaroff and protest against his overprotective shielding of her. She tells him she feels like a prisoner.
When they meet at the castle that evening, she tells Paul that she’s ready to leave Vandorf with him. He wants to stay on long enough so that he and the professor can find and destroy Megaera, but Carla wants to go now, before it’s too late.
While the young couple is up at the castle, Professor Meister sneaks into Dr. Namaroff’s office at the Institution and breaks into his locked files to look up Carla. She works as his assistant now and came to the village as a nurse in 1903, but in 1905 she was briefly a patient at the Institution. She was suffering from a loss of memory; according to the doctor’s records, her condition improved with treatment and by 1906 she was working for him again.
The professor brings the information he’s gathered back to Paul at the studio and they discuss it the next day. Meister believes that Carla still has bouts of amnesia when Megaera takes over her and goes roaming through the forest looking for victims. Dr. Namaroff knows this and is covering for her because he’s in love with her.
Paul is horrified and refuses to consider the idea. How can his beautiful Carla be a hideous monster? How can the professor even think it?
“I can,” Meister responds, “because I’m not in love with her.”
He explains that he’s not making a physical comparison between the two. Carla is possessed by the spirit of the long-dead Megaera, which has apparently been hanging around for millennia waiting for just such an opportunity. Like a werewolf, Carla transforms into a Gorgon on nights with a full moon. She has no control over it nor any memory of what she does while she is Megaera.
This is why Carla couldn’t leave Vandorf when Paul first wanted her to come away with him. That was during the full moon, and Megaera’s spirit was too strong for her to resist. She might have been able to leave on another night, says Meister, but there will be a full moon again tonight.
That was a quick month.
Carla confirms this part of the professor’s theory when she comes to the studio and tells Paul, “I could have gone yesterday. Today, I just can’t.”
Paul still doesn’t believe it.
Over at the Institution, Dr. Namaroff has discovered that Carla’s gone out. He soon appears at the studio with the police in tow, claiming that Paul has kidnapped her. Paul says that Carla isn’t there, but Inspector Kanof has a search warrant so his policemen go upstairs to look for her. They don’t find her, even though we last saw Paul and Carla up there. I assume she climbed out of a window before the police arrived.
After the police and Namaroff have gone, Paul confides to his mentor that there’s a train for Leipzig that evening and Carla is going to be on it. Paul plans to follow and join her there after he takes care of Megaera.
Professor Meister doubts that she’ll even be on the train. And of course he’s right; Paul phones hotel in Leipzig where Carla was supposed to be staying later that evening. She’s not there. She never arrived in Leipzig.
In spite of the professor’s efforts to stop him, Paul heads out to find her.
The police have been searching for Carla around the village, but give up when it gets dark. A full moon is rising and they won’t go into the woods during those dangerous nights.
Paul, who doesn’t care about the danger, runs up to the castle and starts shouting for Carla. She doesn’t answer, but the doctor does. He’s been waiting there for her too. The two men get into a fight, one armed with a sword and the other with what looks like a little iron table or perhaps the stand for the fireplace tools.
Unnoticed, Megaera appears on the upper level above the Great Hall.
Things don’t end well for anybody. Not for Namaroff, who tries to take the Gorgon’s head off, but can’t help looking into her eyes as he swings the sword. Not for Paul, who sees her reflection once again in the big mirror on the staircase. And certainly not for poor Carla after Meister sneaks up on the Gorgon and whacks off her head from behind.
It’s deadly to look the Gorgon in the face, and dangerous to see her reflection, but it appears to be okay to see the back of her head. Good to know if one if ever in the same situation as the professor.
Like a werewolf, the severed head of the Gorgon changes after death. The snakes retract into the hair and the ugliness melts away…
On the plus side, it’s a beautiful film to look at. The scenes at the castle are particularly lovely in their spooky way, and the colorful dramatic lighting suggests that the director had seen one or two Mario Bava films. Also, there are four actors in important roles whom I’m extremely fond of, although I can’t say this is the finest work from any of them; they aren’t really given that much to do.
The major problem here is the plot, which doesn’t bear any thinking about. Aside from the central weirdness of a snake-headed lady from the myths of ancient Greece making her way north into Germany to haunt an abandoned medieval castle and possess a hapless young woman, I have to wonder:
Is it meant to be a mystery about who is the Gorgon? The misdirection regarding the madwoman Martha at the Institution suggests that we, like Carla, are meant to suspect her. But this minor character dies halfway through the story, and after that there’s only one other person left to consider.
Or is it meant to be a psychological horror story about Carla’s mind and her connection to the undying spirit of Megaera? Her relationship with Dr. Namaroff and her conversations with Paul, especially their meeting in the graveyard, seem to be leading in that direction, but the writing isn’t up to it.
It’s a short film, little more than an hour and 20 minutes, so it moves very quickly. There’s no time for one to be bored by it, but at the same time, its speed creates a weird collapse of time within the story. Going by the dialog, at least a couple of months pass by, by the rapidity of events make it seem like only a matter of a few days.