Saturday, June 2, 1973: The Gorgon (1964) / Curse of the Voodoo (1965)

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Synopsis: Artist Bruno Heitz is involved with a young woman in the small German village of Vandorf. The woman tells him she is pregnant with his baby, and he immediately stops work in his studio to go talk to her father in an attempt to obtain his blessing for them to be married. The woman doesn’t believe her father will ever approve and tries to stop him, but running under the full Moon near the abandoned castle of Borski, she sees something that makes her stop and scream with fright.

The next day, police commissioner Kanof (Patrick Troughton) visits Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing) of the Vandorf Medical Institute. The young woman has been found dead, her body turned completely to stone; hers is now the seventh mysterious death in Vandorf to occur during the full moon in the last five years. Bruno is soon found in the woods, hanging from a tree.

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The turning-to-stone part is kept out of the public inquest, which is attended by Bruno’s father Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe). The official story is that Bruno killed her in a jealous rage and then hanged himself. This doesn’t sit well with Professor Heitz, who believes a conspiracy of silence is afoot in the town. He pointedly asks Dr. Namaroff if he has ever heard of Mageara — a Gorgon, imbued with the power to turn people to stone by doing nothing more than looking into their eyes. Magaera, according to legend, fled to this part of present-day Germany two millennia earlier. Namaroff scoffs at the idea, but nevertheless warns Professor Heitz to leave the area before it’s too late.

But Professor Heitz chooses to stay. The house he is staying at is attacked by a mob, and Kanof warns him that his police force isn’t large enough to offer round-the-clock protection. But soon Professor Heitz also sees something in the old castle that terrifies him. Returning home, he is able to write a letter to his other son, Paul, (Richard Pasco) in which he describes the situation and says that he himself is turning to stone.

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By the time Paul arrives, his father is dead and the authorities will not allow him to see the body. Dr. Namaroff states the cause of death was heart failure; but Paul reads from his father’s letter, in which he describes his agony and states at the end “I am turning to stone.” Could a man having a heart attack pen a three-page letter?

Namaroff is clearly embarrassed by this, but doesn’t budge, and he suggests that Paul can attend the inquest in a few days’ time.

Searching around the castle, Paul sees the face of Mageara, but he is lucky: because he only sees her reflection in a pool he survives, though he falls very ill and his hair turns gray. At the hospital he is tended by Dr. Namaroff’s beautiful assistant Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley). During his convalescence the two fall in love, to the clear consternation of Dr. Namaroff, who is secretly in love with Carla as well.

Unable to make progress against the tight-lipped Namaroff and Kanof, Paul receives assistance from his mentor, Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee), who arrives in Vandorf determined to solve the mystery that has been plaguing its people for seven years….

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Comments: Having already made good use of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and (to a lesser extent) the Wolf Man in its early Gothic tales, Hammer in the early 1960s was looking for new monsters from folklore that it could transfer to the studio’s paddock. As it turns out, the Gorgon wasn’t the easiest creature to adapt to the Hammer template, and the resulting film is rather unevenly plotted. But it’s still a ripping yarn, one of Hammer’s best from this period.

Christopher Lee’s Professor Meister shows up far later in the film than he ought to, but once he arrives we breathe a sigh of relief: we’ve been waiting for him the whole time and didn’t even know it. As played by Lee, Meister is the Van Helsing character, the man whose fearless pursuit of the truth overwhelms both the stuffy bureaucrats and the dim-witted einfaltspinsel who try to block his way.

The screenplay takes a fairly labored route to get Meister to Vandorf. We must wait until first Bruno, then Professor Heitz and then Paul Heitz all successively fall victim to Mageara. By then we’re halfway through the movie, but to its credit the film’s pace picks up considerably after that.

Lee is splendid here, playing the good-guy role for a change, and Cushing is entirely in his element as the double-dealing Dr. Namaroff. His romantic interest in Carla isn’t foreshadowed very well and his evident jealousy seems to come out of nowhere, but it works about as well as can be expected; unrequited love didn’t tend to figure prominently in Hammer plots, which usually favored simpler motivations such as arrogance, the thirst for revenge, and an overweening enthusiasm for defying the laws of nature.

Barbara Shelley is well-known to Hammer aficionados, having appeared in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Five Million Years to Earth (1967) and Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966). She also starred in Village of the Damned opposite George Sanders in 1960.

 

Curse of the Voodoo:

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Synopsis: Mike Stacey (Bryant Haliday) is a guide to big-game hunters in Africa. During a safari one of the hunters in his party shoots a lion but doesn’t kill it cleanly, so that it crawls away into the territory of the feared Simbaza tribe. Knowing that the animal needs to be dispatched, Stacey prepares to enter Simbaza territory to kill the animal himself. He is warned against this action by native guide Saidi (Dennis Alba Peters), who says that the Simbaza worship the lion as a god. Stacey ignores him and kills the animal anyway.

As the hunters are breaking camp they are visited by Simbaza warriors, one of whom approaches Stacey and hurls a spear into the ground at his feet. At this, the Simbaza tribesman leave.

Upon returning to England, Stacey attempts a reconciliation with his wife Janet, but she is not sure it’s a good idea. At the same time, he is troubled by strange visions: dreams at night of Saidi being tortured by the Simbaza, and visions during the day of Simbaza tribesman following him and appearing at his door. Janet and Dr. Lomas (Dennis Price) believe he is suffering from stress, an injury he sustained in Africa and far too much alcohol in his system, but Stacey believes that what he is seeing is really happening to him.

Janet consults with an expert on African lore (Louis Mahoney) who tells her that the Simbaza have placed a curse upon Stacey that will eventually kill him, and the only way to reverse it is to travel to Africa and kill the one who placed it upon him….

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Comments: Richard Gordon was a British producer known for his output of low-budget horror and exploitation pictures, with a number of interesting titles over the years including Fiend Without a Face (1958), Devil Doll (1961) and Inseminoid (1981). Tonight’s movie had the colorful title Voodoo Blood Death in its native Britain, and was renamed Curse of the Voodoo when it was released in the States on a double-bill with last week’s feature Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.

The opening narration spouts a good deal of gibberish about “the country of Africa” and its dark secrets. It’s a taste of what we’re in for: a lot of stock footage and a lot of lazy screenwriting (Africa, it’s hardly necessary to point out, isn’t a country). Anyone who’s ever seen an old zombie movie knows that voodoo is a practice of the West Indies, particularly Haiti; it was never practiced on the African continent, at least in any form that would be of interest to horror movie producers.

But we start out in Africa anyway, a continent evoked with stock footage mixed with the English countryside. The film starts fairly well with these scenes, staking out the initial conflict with admirable economy.

Then the actions shifts to England, and everything slows down. The main problem with Curse of the Voodoo quickly becomes apparent: there’s a profound and debilitating lack of suspense. In England Stacey keeps seeing Simbaza tribesman and hearing the roar of lions and so forth, but we’re never particularly concerned for his well-being. This is partly because Stacey is an almost entirely unsympathetic character, but also because we quickly gather that what he’s experiencing are hallucinations — no one else can see or hear them, and it’s unlikely they will do him any harm. The idea of a big-game hunter returning to England and being followed back by the spirits he thought he left behind isn’t a bad one, but Curse of the Voodoo fails to achieve the Lewtonesque atmosphere it strives for, and in the end we’re just waiting around for the climax of the movie, which is itself somewhat anticlimactic.

The small cast does well enough. Bryant Haliday was a favorite of producer Richard Gordon and he appeared in Devil Doll and The Projected Man as well as this picture, and it’s likely that the part of Mike Stacey was written with him in mind. Haliday didn’t do a lot of film work but was active on the stage. He was also an avid collector and exhibitor of foreign films, and he went on to co-found Janus films, still an important arthouse distributor today.

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One comment

  1. Two films that never made the rounds on Chiller Theater. For once, Peter Cushing plays an atypical cold fish who knows what is happening but fails to act until it’s too late, and his one scene opposite Christopher Lee is filled with tension. CURSE OF THE VOODOO is one I haven’t seen in over 30 years, rarely screened and no wonder; shot in low budget black and white at the very tail end of second features it had little chance of box office recognition (Edward Judd’s INVASION and John Saxon’s NIGHT CALLER FROM OUTER SPACE are two others that come to mind). Bryant Haliday, not a bad actor, did virtually all his roles for Richard Gordon, and would be reunited with Dennis Price in 1972’s TOWER OF EVIL. I prefer DEVIL DOLL and THE PROJECTED MAN over this one.

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