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.
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.
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….
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.
Pillow of Death
Synopsis: The Kincaids are a proud, old-money family, and the elderly Kincaid spinsters see themselves as the guardians of the family reputation. When niece Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce) begins working a lot of late hours with married attorney Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney, Jr.) they are scandalized, and demand that she quit her job.
Donna refuses. She doesn’t care what they think; she is in love with Fletcher, and knows that he is unhappy in his marriage. In fact, when he drops her off at the Kincaid mansion that night he tells her that he is going to have a “showdown” with his wife Vivian, who has recently fallen under the influence of a psychic named Julian Julian.
But when Fletcher returns home he finds the place swarming with police. His wife has been murdered — smothered with a pillow. A pillow of death!
Police detective McCracken carries out a leisurely investigation, and though there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing at Fletcher, there are other suspects too. What about that table-tipping fake Julian, who is worming his way into the confidence of the Kincaid sisters? Or Bruce Malone (Bernard Thomas), the weaselly peeping Tom who is nursing an infatuation with Donna? Or sour old Belle Kincaid, who was the last person known to have seen Vivian alive?
And as long as we’re asking questions, what about the chain-rattling ghost heard in the attic? Or the secret passage in the house that even Donna doesn’t know about? Or the voice Wayne keeps hearing — the voice of his dead wife that keeps pleading with him to come back to the Fletcher crypt, from which her body has mysteriously disappeared?
Comments: Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, most of the time you can’t judge a film by its title. But in this case, the name Pillow of Death actually does say a lot about this entry in the Inner Sanctum series: that is, it’s a bit sloppy, a bit hurried, and a more than a bit silly.
For example, the film introduces some elements of a haunted house picture — the inhabitants of the Kincaid mansion hear chains rattling and evil laughter from the attic, but no one is there. Squeaky doors open and close by themselves upstairs when no one is near them. But almost as soon as these plot elements are introduced they are explained away, indicating a movie that isn’t sure where it’s going.
We get further evidence of this when we reach the rather far-fetched conclusion, in which Wayne Fletcher turns out to be a schizophrenic serial killer. It had to turn out that way, of course, because the screenwriters had written themselves into a corner. Everyone else had already been outed as red herrings.
Nevertheless Pillow of Death is entertaining — more so than the other Inner Sanctum mysteries we’ve seen — and it’s a bit more like a real horror movie than the others to boot.
Lon Chaney, Jr was 38 when he filmed this movie but thanks to his hard-drinking lifestyle he looked about ten years older than that, and as a result, Donna seems altogether too young for him (of course, we could say the same for all the leading ladies in the series). Nevertheless he really is effective as the beleagured Wayne Fletcher.
J. Edward Bromberg provides some light moments as Julian Julian. He gets most of the best lines and, oddly, speaks directly to the camera when he utters the final line of the film: “The word abracadabra is anathema to the true believer in the occult.” It’s a hard line to deliver with a straight face, and Bromberg, to his credit, doesn’t really try.