"No living thing survived and the spectre of death hovered in waiting for her next victim."
-'The Gorgon,' (1964)
It's only natural that when we think of the ladies of the classic Hammer Horror films, we think of the countless, beautiful women that will forever be as associated with the studio's name as that of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. We think of names such as Ingrid Pitt or, First Lady of Hammer: Hazel Court. However, the first woman to become anything but beautiful for the studio, was the unknown, Prudence Hyman. Subsequently, it was after the release of The Gorgon, that Hammer would begin a long legacy of these dangerous females. And all of it began with an ex-ballerina and ENSA performer named, Prudence Hyman.
Long before she would become Hammer's Gorgon, 'Megaera,' Prudence Hythe was born in London, England on February 2, 1914. She was a classically trained ballerina who studied in England and Paris and made her dancing debut at the age of seventeen in 'Twelfth Night.' Between 1934-1935, she toured with various ballet companies, and during the second World War, she was a member of ENSA; a traveling group of artists whose purpose was to entertain the troops. It was while she was a member of the ENSA group, that Prudence and her fellow members were once flown to safety during a harrowing adventure through a horrible storm. The group's hero was a young, Royal Air Force Lieutenant that, interestingly, she would manage to meet-up with many years later: None other than Christopher Lee.
In 1960, Prudence played a small, uncredited role alongside the once brave pilot in Hammer's, The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll. She played the part of a tavern woman, while Paul Massie took on the dual role of the mad scientist. However, it would be four years later that Prudence Hyman would make horror history: She would be the first female monster in Hammer's long, Gothic-style film legacy.
The Gorgon was one of the last films to have been produced by Hammer during their six-year distribution deal with Columbia Pictures. Seeing as their last two films had been shelved by the distributor, the studio needed something new and exciting that would bring audiences back to the theater. To do so, they went straight to the public itself. An advertisement was placed in 'The Daily Cinema' magazine, in which the film company was soliciting stories from anyone with a good idea.The last line of the advertisement read as follows: "Because good, compulsive selling ideas with the right titles are what Hammer are looking for right now." Of the many submissions, a story by J. Llewellyn Divine was selected. It was a rather involved and lengthy story. But, after a bit of re-writing and initially naming the script, "Supernatural", the script was rewritten a second time and given the name, The Gorgon.
Shooting began in December of 1963 at Bray Studios,where The Evil of Frankenstein had just wrapped production. Due to budget and time constraints,as well as to give the set the look and feel of 1910, many of the same interior sets from The Evil of Frankenstein were redressed and used for The Gorgon. The film starred Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Hammer's most famous female star of the time.The "First Leading Lady of British Horror," Barbara Shelley. On board as director was, in my humble opinion, the man who made Hammer Horror what it is: The legendary Terence Fisher (February 23, 1904-June 18, 1980).
In the role of 'Carla Hoffman', Barbara Shelley had wanted to simultaneously play the role of the title character. As the film's possessed, amnesiac heroine, she felt that the dual role would make the storyline more sensible and fluid; that it should be she who "gorgonized" the film's victims. She also had a few ideas for producer Anthony Nelson Keys on how to make Megaera more frightening and realistic as well. Her idea consisted of using real garden snakes, and to find a way to humanely weave them into a special wig. However, due to the film's budget and short production schedule, Nelson rejected her idea, and chose instead to use another actress to play the part: Prudence Hyman. Nelson also felt that with a different actress playing the part, it would help to conceal the Gorgon's alternate, "human" identity. Although, after seeing The Gorgon herself on screen, the producer had regretted his decision about Shelley's wig idea. It's difficult to say if it was Hyman herself, or the costume which disappointed Nelson. Nonetheless, Christopher Lee's opinion of Megaera was also less-than-flattering: "The only thing wrong with The Gorgon, is The Gorgon!" Fortunately, fans today are less forgiving.
To create the look of The Gorgon and her snakes, makeup man Roy Ashton applied the hideous skin and makeup to Hyman, while special effects engineer, Syd Pearson, had a bit more of a challenge by creating the snakes themselves. Pearson had twelve plaster moulds made, and from each mould he cast latex rubber snakes. Cables were then placed through each of the snakes' bodies for movement, and were then woven through the actress' wig. Each snake was then individually attached to cables which ran down Hyman's back. The cables trailed approximately twenty-five feet behind her where they were controlled by a large contraption which contained pegs. As the pegs were turned, the tension gave the effect of each snake moving individually.
The Gorgon finished production in January, 1964, and was double-billed with Curse Of The Mummy's Tomb. Although we only see The Gorgon herself for less than twenty minutes throughout the entire film, each shot of Prudence Hyman's 'Megaera' is a treat, to say the least. The cinematography of Michael Reed is simply superb and, in true Hammer form, the sets are gorgeous. Hyman herself moves with a grace and elegance that one would expect from a former ballerina. Incredibly, she went back to playing uncredited roles for the studio. She was given small parts in Rasputin: The Mad Monk, and The Witches, which were both were released in 1966.
It is truly interesting to know that an unknown actress with no starring roles, or major parts, made horror film history as one of it's first female monsters; and the first for Hammer. Sadly, the name Prudence Hyman remains rather unknown, and The Gorgon has only recently become appreciated as one of Hammer's lesser known and hidden gems. Very little has been written about Prudence Hyman, or her incredible contribution to the horror genre. As is normally the case with so many important people throughout history, it is not in their lifetimes that they are appreciated, or even understand what they have accomplished while they're alive: such was the case with Prudence Hyman. She died at the age of 81 on June 1, 1995 and was put to rest in her birthplace of London, England.
FEATURE: KB ZORKA@http://theoblongbox10.blogspot.co.uk/
IMAGES: MARCUS BROOKS