While many genre cinema and cult movie fans are familiar with the wealth of titles coming out of European countries like France, Italy, and Spain, Greece is certainly one of the more neglected cinematic locales on the continent. But thanks to the great Mondo Macabro, lovers of weird movies can add a new entry to what it is admittedly a short, but fascinating list with this release of writer-director George Lazopoulos’ Μέδουσα or Medousa (1998), a surprisingly contemporary entry in the label’s roster of obscure but indispensable cult films. A blend of horror, fantasy, and crime drama, Medousa is a dreamlike thriller that nearly defies description and richly deserves a wider audience.
A knife-throwing enthusiast with a complicated past, the young Perseas (Thanos Amorginos) is the leader of a small band of thieves in Athens who habitually rob empty homes when their wealthy owners are temporarily away. His frequently rebuffed girlfriend Katia (Vana Rambota) learns that he is determined to discover what happened to his mother (the mesmerizing though only briefly seen Eleni Filini), who disappeared when he was a young teen. He is disturbed by strange memories of a faceless woman with beautiful black hair and soon locates the countryside home she has been occupying, leading his gang there at the same time that local police discover the apparently petrified bodies of missing men, who all seem to have been turned to stone…
Greek mythology is a fertile ground for genre cinema — replete with monsters, gods, strange supernatural beings, family trauma, and often horrific acts of violence — but it’s sadly underrepresented outside fantasy films. Though there are some fantastic arthouse examples, such as Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) or Pasolini’s Medea (1969), there are few horror films that mine similar territory. Those that do exist, like the underrated The Gorgon (1964) from Britain’s Hammer Studios, bear very little relationship to actual Greek myths. Medousa, on the other hand, attempts a modernized retelling of the myth that pits Perseus, Greek mythology’s greatest early hero, against the Gorgon Medusa. Hideously ugly, winged, and with writhing serpents for hair, she is one of three sisters, underworld beings whose purpose changed throughout the centuries. Later Greeks, such as Ovid, transformed her into a ravishing beauty and wove in a rape-revenge aspect to the tale, while Freud described her as being the physical manifestation of castration anxiety.
Medousa’s chief strength is perhaps that it makes the most of its strange, surreal tone and striking visuals. The film has a compelling sense of mystery and even if — like I assume most people do — you know the mythic story, it’s often not clear what will unfold. The film’s plot is pleasingly hard to get a solid grasp on. As a child, Perseas’s father figure seems to be a knife thrower in a cabaret-like carnival and as an adult, he takes up this practice, throwing blades at poster reproductions of famous paintings. Medousa’s cast boasts a number of distractingly beautiful women, though Perseas’s relationship with them is generally fraught. His memories of his mother are tinged with erotic longing, while his girlfriend is coldly neglected for much of the running time.
Admittedly, it is quite different from other Greek genre cinema, in the sense that it makes Medousa hard to place within a specific national tradition. It’s (thankfully) a far cry from Kostas Karagiannis’s Land of the Minotaur (1976), a Greek production shot in English with British actors like Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence, which is essentially a campy riff on British folk horror with a cult of minotaur worshippers standing in for Satanists. It’s similarly unlike Nico Mastorakis’s spin on Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Island of Death (1976), an exploitation film also shot in English about tourists who travel to the Greek isles to indulge in an orgy of torture and violence. If it has any loose Greek contemporaries, a film like Crystal Nights (1992) — a WWII-set surreal romance with themes of telepathy and reincarnation — comes closest.
Like Crystal Nights, Medousa is short on exposition and there is plenty about the film that will frustrate viewers looking for a more straightforward plot and conclusion. Some things are never explained — such as the origin of the creature or why male and female victims are affected differently — and characters come and go with little resolution. Figures like a woman whose face is never seen keeps masks hanging in her closet, a young girl obsessed with taking Polaroids leaves Perseas the only keepsake of his mother, and the knife thrower who helped raise him are barely sketched out in the script. But this is the source of much of the film’s charm and it’s rare to come across a genre effort that’s so delightfully difficult to define.
And if Medousa reminds me of any other horror films at all, it’s actually the small wave of strange, surreal, occult-themed movies from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, several of which involved Clive Barker, titles like Angel Heart (1987), Nightbreed (1990), Candyman (1992), Nadja (1994), or Lord of Illusions (1995). Like a lot of those films, there are many leather jackets on display and the characters tend to be young adults existing in a subculture and/or on the fringes of society. The collection of misfits that surround Perseas is strangely fascinating, despite the fact that they have little dialogue or screen time, and director George Lazopoulos builds a convincing, if shadowy world that seems to exist just beneath the surface of our own.
Medousa comes highly recommended and though it won’t be for everyone, I’ve really fallen in love with it. Mondo Macabro have done a wonderful job rescuing it from obscurity, though it was produced a bit later than their typical fare, and I hope they manage to unearth more unusual Greek cinema in the future. There are some nice special features included with the disc, such as an interview on the making of the film with Lazopoulos and another with lead actor Thanos Amorginos, who is a musician that Lazopoulos discovered in a bar and convinced to star in the film. Despite his obvious lack of experience, he’s strangely perfect for the role. Also included is a trailer for the film.