Screenplay by John Gilling, based on an original story by J. Llewellyn Devine
Directed by Terence Fisher
Christopher Lee: Professor Karl Meister
Peter Cushing: Dr. Namaroff
Barbara Shelley: Carla Hoffman
Patrick Troughton: Inspector Kanof
Prudence Hyman: The Gorgon
When Christopher Lee died, several of the remembrances that I read online mentioned that he was persuaded to play Dracula for Hammer Studios several times by reminding him of all the people that would be out of work if he didn't put the cape and fangs on one more time. Movies are a collaborative art form; there's costumers, set dressers, lighting and sound crew, cameramen, choreographers, effects men, stuntmen (though Lee reportedly did all his own stunts, up to and including the light saber fights in the Star Wars prequels), and of course the musicians that score the movie and the dude who paints the sweet castle-on-a-mounting matte painting shown during the opening credits of this film. Even though nobody was going to confuse Hammer for Warner Brothers, they were a thriving studio for many years and it's because of the efforts of lifelong friends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing that they were able to stay that way.
I'm guessing--though I don't have any actual information about this--that both actors were starting to chafe a little bit under the requirements of making two or three horror movies a year. In this one, Lee plays the hero and Cushing the antagonist, and that had to have been interesting for each man (for the novelty value alone, if nothing else). It's the only movie I know of where they switched roles like that. Interested Lee and Cushing fans should track down Nothing But the Night if they can; it's the only film I know of where the two actors played characters on the same side (and both on the side of law and order, for that matter). Anyway, this is Lee's eleventh (!) movie for Hammer, and this time he gets to be the protagonist.
The credits run over that aforementioned totally boss matte painting of the castle by the village of Vandorf while a woman vocalizes over the score (my guess is that the composer had a 45 of "Johnny Remember Me" lying around when writing this piece of music). A scrolling text bar zips by, telling us the name of the castle and that there's a monster lurking around at the turn of the century waiting for another victim. Thank goodness for that; that's why we're here.
In a house located in one of the remotest spots of the matte painting, an artist is drawing a topless model (we, the audience, only see her back or from the shoulders up as she poses; Hammer was always the classiest of exploitation studios). The artist says he'll marry her as soon as he's financially stable. This is the wrong thing to say and the woman's face falls; Bruno the artist compounds his errors by trying to find out why the model is crying. I'm betting even the kids in 1964 figured out that he'd knocked his friend and life-study model up before she tells him. Bruno says he's going to her father and tell him he's going to live up to his obligations. That's the crappiest proposal I've ever even heard of. Bruno stomps off into the woods at night to find the unnamed model's dad and tell him the good news. She follows him, sees something terrible by the light of the full moon and screams. I'm not sure if she's the Expository Casualty or Bruno is, or if it's actually both of them.
The next morning, at Doctor Namaroff's hospital, Peter Cushing is looking at some purple stuff under a microscope. By the way, Christopher Lee was always jealous of Cushing's ability to act with props and always look like he knows what he's doing; watch Cushing in this scene. I believe he knows how to prepare a slide for a microscope that would have been really high tech in the gaslight age. His assistant Carla lets him know that "they" are bringing a body in. That seems to happen to Cushing a lot when he plays a doctor. Before the body can be delivered, Inspector Kanof stops by to let the audience know that the authority figures in Vandorf know a hell of a lot more about what's going on than they're letting on. It also means that viewers get to see the second Doctor wearing a Prussian helmet spike. This movie is an embarrassment of riches.
Kanof and Namaroff talk about the number of unsolved deaths over the last half-decade or so and
obliquely hint at framing Bruno for it; the artist is missing in the wake of the unspecified tragedy. Operation: This Guy Is From Out Of Town So Let's Blame Him hits a snag immediately when Namaroff learns who the artist is (was?): the son of someone he went to university with, and who is now a doctor of literature. Namaroff only wants to tear his old friend's heart out once, so he's going to wait until Bruno's body is found before notifying his father of the tragedy rather than tell him his son's missing and then update him with news of Bruno's death.
Meanwhile, Carla's bringing in that body for Namaroff to look at; the hand hanging off the gurney is greyish and when she bonks it into a piece of ironwork, one of the fingers snaps clean off, accompanied by a musical sting. A nearby unrelated madwoman shrieks and tries to escape the hospital; Namaroff prescribes a straitjacket for her and antiseptic for the cuts and scrapes that a nurse and orderly sustained while dealing with the crazy person. Then it's time for him to notice Carla's silent freakout over the statue / corpse of the artist's model on her gurney and for the good doctor to ask how he's supposed to perform an autopsy on what amounts to a statue.
In the nearby forest, Kanof and his men find Bruno, but they're going to need a Ouija board if they want to interrogate him. He's hanging from a tree limb with his face all scraped and scratched. There's a jump cut to an inquest blaming Bruno for Sascha's death, and also letting the audience know that the dead girl from the start of the film was named Sascha. Kanof and Sacha's father tell the presiding coroner all kinds of things about Bruno's alcoholism and violent temper, while Namaroff is only asked to testify about the wounds on Sascha's body (not on anything about Bruno). When it's Professor Heitz's chance to testify about his son he mentions the local unsolved murders and accuses the town's movers and shakers of rigging up a show trial to blame a dead person for everything that's been going wrong for the last half decade. Professor Heitz has a great tirade here, capping it off with the prediction that the verdict will be murder and suicide, ruining Bruno's name in order to declare that everything's all right now and that everyone can stop worrying about the previous killings. The professor dedicates the rest of his life, if that's what it takes, to clearing Bruno's name.
As predicted, Sascha's death is blamed on Bruno, who then presumably killed himself in a spasm of remorse. There's a great silent reaction shot on Heitz in this scene, and then everyone files out of the courtroom, the grieving father leaving last. Back at Namaroff's mansion / clinic / asylum / comic book store, Carla asks--with some justifiable anger--why Namaroff didn't point out that the other murder victims in the area had been turned to stone. I don't care how drunk you are, it's hard to petrify your fiancee in a fit of inebriated rage. Carla says she's positive that Bruno was innocent "because she has come back". Before that can be explained any further, Heitz's arrival is announced and Namaroff dismisses his assistant so he can have a private talk. Namaroff understands where his old friend and classmate is coming from, but also says that if things work out just the right way--or the wrong one--anyone could become a murderer.
Heitz says that he's going to find out whatever it is that's going on in Vandorf. He suspects a variation on Bad Day at Black Rock--something bad in the past is being covered up in the present. Namaroff is facing away from him when Heitz talks about how everyone's living in terrified denial so only the audience gets to see the sick horror passing over Peter Cushing's face when Namaroff thinks about the past coming to light. Looks like Heitz is cruising to get his suspicions confirmed over the next act, I'd say. Namaroff says he can't add anything to his testimony; Heitz blindsides him with a question about someone or something named Megaera (which, happily enough, reminds me of the incredibly cruddy robot from The Mysterians).
This is Moguera. Christopher Lee could destroy it without breaking a sweat.
Heitz, of course, is playing a character in 1903 or thereabouts; he has no idea that Japan thought MechaGonzo should be presented as a credible threat. No, he's talking about one of three sisters from ancient Greek myths. In the myth cycle, the three Gorgons were the immortal Stheno and Euryale, while Medusa (the most famous one) was revealed to be completely mortal when Perseus gave her a haircut from the neck up. Speaking of hair, of course, one must mention that the Gorgons had poisonous serpents instead of hair, and were supposed to be hideous enough to turn men or women to stone as a side effect of beholding their hideous countenances.
Megaera is supposed to be the last Gorgon, fleeing to the matte painting of a European castle in a forest after her two sisters were slain (according to Heitz). Whether she's replacing Stheno or Euryale is never revealed; one can assume that Medusa would always be on the list because she's the one everyone knows about. Namaroff claims that old legends of gods and monsters are just stories the ignorant tell each other to explain the world; Heitz says until something is disproven, it must be assumed to exist. I'm not sure I buy that, but then again this movie is called The Gorgon so Heitz is almost certainly right. Dr. Namaroff tells his old friend to leave; he's afraid Heitz is going to die if he stays. Heitz says he's clearing his son's name and that's that.
The first step in proving Bruno Heitz didn't kill anyone involves the professor--staying in the house that his son had rented as an art studio--reading up on the Vandorf legend in a book called The Vandorf Legend. He doesn't get much past the title page when a crowd of Vandorfers smashes a window, throws a torch in to burn the place down (his butler demonstrates textbook aplomb by just fetching a broom to beat the flames out) and a crowd jostles inside to slap Heitz around. They don't get much farther than that when Kanof arrives and frightens the crowd off. The top cop in town says that Heitz should leave since he's not welcome and the small police force won't be able to protect him every time someone tries to burn his place down and murder him. Heitz refuses to bow to societal pressure and Kanof says that now that he's warned the professor, his responsibilities have ended.
Heitz figures it's time for backup, instructing his butler to contact Professor Meister of Leipzig University. That turns out to be Sir Christopher Lee, visibly uncomfortable with the prop artwork he's supposed to be studying (check out the "what the hell do I do with this thing?" look on his face after he says to give his regards to Paul Heitz's father over in Vandorf). He sends Professor Heitz's other son off to join the main plot at the end of this short interlude.
That's all we're getting of Lee for the time being; back in Vandorf, Heitz is working his way through some research (with the window behind him boarded up to prevent another arson attempt) when he hears a woman singing faintly in the distance. Since he's in a Hammer movie he decides to investigate. In the dark night. When he suspects that an immortal monster is claiming victims, and he knows that a mob of human antagonists wants him dead. Clouds pull away from the full moon, and while Heitz walks through the forest and towards that castle from the matte painting the music gets all suspenseful. Several false jump scares are detonated in close succession. Then Heitz sees a snake-haired woman in a flowing green gown behind a pillar and screams, running out of the castle and back to the house that Bruno rented.
Back at Heitz-Haus, the professor calls for his butler and there's a quite boss "grey skin and hair" petrification makeup effect to show that Heitz is soon going to be as dead as his son. He writes a letter to his son Paul, telling his butler Hans that only Paul is to read it. He gets through the entire letter before succumbing to the Gorgon's stare. The next morning, Paul Heitz gets to see the death certificate from Dr. Namaroff but the police won't let him view his father's body (Namaroff: "It's a police state. They don't have to give reasons."). Turns out the officially recorded cause of death was heart failure, but Paul has the three-page (!) letter from his father that says he's turning to stone.
Paul is smart enough not to hand that letter over to Namaroff, and also points out quite sensibly that people don't keep writing through heart failure (and obviously they do keep on scribbling as they turn to stone cell by cell). Namaroff tries to play the "you don't really think that an ancient mythological character killed your dad" card, but Paul isn't having any of it whatsoever. And since nobody's letting Paul look at his father's body, there's no easy way to disprove any of Paul's claims via his father's dying declarations. Namaroff tells Paul that he'll get a chance to voice all his objections at the inquest into his father's death, whenever that happens to be. Then he politely shows the young man out of his office.
Paul goes wandering about the house and courtyard of the rented house that's probably still paid up till the end of the month (in the daylight, because he's not openly suicidal). A figure moves around behind him, but we're only in the second act so it can't be Megaera yet. Instead, it's Carla, waiting for him. She offers to help Paul with his quest, and says that Namaroff doesn't know that she's trying to help Paul and he'd be furious (or as furious as Peter Cushing at his most mannered could be) if he found out. Paul isn't sure he buys the "it's a gorgon" answer but he can tell minutes after arriving in town that something's up; Carla says that she knows Megaera is out there and that she sometimes entered the very house that they're in. The doctors and other authority figures in Vandorf try to pretend that everything's copacetic and Namaroff himself refuses to admit that weird creatures from millennia past haunt the forests and ruins of East Prussia because he can't accept that the world is anything less than orderly clockwork.
Carla leaves as Paul says he hopes they'll meet again; then it's time for another scene at night where Paul reads notes about what he's up against--out loud for the benefit of the audience. Meanwhile, at Namaroff's institute, Carla recites all kinds of facts about the Gorgons as the doctor listens. It's pretty dull, but at least we learn that in the Hammerverse, the term "gorgonized" is used to describe anyone turned to stone. I choose to believe you can use it for any case of petrifaction, not just Gorgon-specific ones. Kind of like saying "Xerox" as a verb rather than "photocopy". It turns out that Carla was reciting as much of the late Professor Heitz's hidden letter as she could memorize before Paul got back to the rented house.
This scene is interrupted by the chief orderly announcing that the madwoman from earlier in the film has escaped, and that he's gonna kill her when he finds her. Namaroff is less than thrilled with this declaration and demands that the woman be brought back alive. And that night there's yet another full moon, another gust of wind, and all that kind of thing. Like an utter dumbass, Paul goes out into the night when he hears singing and gets drenched in an Instant Downpour(TM). He sees the reflection of Megaera in the reflecting pool in his courtyard (and man alive, does that snake wig look awful when it's threatening him) and staggers off to the house. He catches another glimpse of her in the mirror and carefully flails his way down the rain-slick steps to try and escape.
He does not get turned to stone; instead, he wakes up in a hospital bed with Carla looking down at him and smiling as he comes out of his sweaty coma. Dr. Namaroff comes to visit him, fresh from the examining room where he was looking at the corpse of the madwoman that escaped earlier. He tells Paul that he's been out cold for five solid days and that he was found next to the reflecting pool in his courtyard after an apparent fall. Paul says he saw a Gorgon face in the pool before he collapsed, but if he did really see it he's the first person who lived through that experience.
Namaroff shows Paul a mirror (the poor cat's hair has gone grey and he looks absolutely awful) as a way to demonstrate that he's still in a bad way and should listen to medical advice re: resting up and not trying to find out about Gorgons in the forest. That night Paul wakes up from a nightmare in one of the most ridiculous "flail around and wake up screaming" displays I have witnessed in three and a half decades of watching monster movies. Carla runs in to comfort him and the music goes more romantic than I was expecting--maybe she likes the silent type, because if Paul was in a five day coma immediately after arriving in town there wouldn't be a chance for her to get to know him and fall in love.
Namaroff tries to give Paul the brush off and send him out of town--at least partly out of concern for the man's safety, I think--but the younger man resolves to stick around and see what's going on. And to kill the monster, because he's refusing to live in terror of it and doesn't want any future victims on his conscience. Namaroff is concerned about this; he calls in his bruiser of an orderly and says not to let "her" out of his sight since it's a full moon that night. ANOTHER full moon. The orderly wonders if there's any danger to Carla (the only remaining female character in the film that doesn't have snakes for hair) and the doctor says she's "close to death". Well, it's a horror film and it's got a female monster that only shows up on the increasingly frequent nights of the full moon; there's also only one other woman in the whole damn movie...looks like we're dealing with a were-Gorgon here. That's a concept so dumb and awesome that this deliberately paced stately movie cannot hope to live up to it.
It wouldn't be a Hammer movie without a little grave-robbing, so Paul goes to exhume dear old Dad. They bury 'em shallow in East Hammervania, as it turns out, so Paul doesn't even risk his shoeshine before finding the coffin. And inside, of course, is a solid statue that looks like his father. He realizes that the professor's death was no boating accident. And just as soon as he gets that fact past his suspension of disbelief Carla shows up in a full body cloak and hood. She reveals that she read the letter from Paul's father (as a way to get information to Dr. Namaroff). Since the revelations are coming fast and furious, Carla tells Paul that Dr. Namaroff is in love with her and jealous of anyone that might win her heart. Like Paul already has.
The pair pledge their love to each other (after all, they've known each other a whole day and a half or so) but Carla says she can't leave Vandorf, though she doesn't explain why. Unless the were-gorgon is also shifting genders, it's because there aren't any other living female characters in the film. She flees from Paul by the light of yet another full moon and Paul goes back to his rented dining room to feel bad about things. The door bell (an actual bell) rings, and it's Professor Meister. I'm even happier to see this arrival than Paul is, because I was promised Christopher Lee and the movie's two-thirds of the way over before he showed up for anything more substantial than a five line scene in an office.
Meister is irascible, ill-tempered and an utterly welcome sight after everyone else was so mannered and underplayed. He's also instantly concerned for Paul, who forgot that he looks like death warmed over. Meister was worried for his student and wants to know what the heck Paul's been up to for so long in Vandorf. Thankfully, the camera cuts to Namaroff examining the dead madwoman in his autopsy chamber rather than catch the audience up on the five or six events that have happened over the last fifty minutes of movie.
Namaroff and Carla talk for a bit while the doctor removes the madwoman's brain (in a probable sop to censors as well as a function of the limitations of the movie's budget, Cushing's hands are out of frame while he opens the autopsy subject's skull and removes the brain, but we do get to see him put it into a beaker full of preservative fluid like the world's nastiest cocktail garnish). The conversation between doctor and assistant reveals that Carla has no idea that she's the one turning into Megaera on full moon nights and turning random victims into agonized statues. Namaroff refuses to tell Carla if she's the one turning into the Gorgon until he's "sure", whatever form that would take.
Over in the courtyard, Meister is going over Paul's story and tells the younger man that he must have lived through seeing Megaera because he only caught sight of her reflection, which was debilitating but not fatal. It's amazing how much Lee's vocal bass tones make the viewer accept this torrent of bullshit. He just sounds so authoritative. There's still some wheel-spinning in the dialogue about whether or not the sight of the Gorgon in the water feature was a hallucination but it's still just a treat to listen to Lee work through the dialogue.
At Kanof's office, he refuses to do whatever it is Meister and Paul want him to do (Meister: "Don't use long words, Inspector. They don't suit you.") Meister, like all academics, is politically connected and cheerfully informs Kanof that the Foreign Secretary is a friend of his brothers, and he could cause all kinds of difficulties for the police chief without even trying. Kanof, like most authoritarian bullies, folds instantly and fetches the citizenship cards and guest visas of every non-citizen woman who registered to live in Vandorf over the last decade. There's only a few files to go through, and Meister immediately fixes on Carla Hoffman's citizenship application. He also notes that the spate of supernatural killings started since Hoffman arrived in town, although two years after she moved to Vandorf. Armed with this piece of information, Meister takes his leave of Inspector Kanof after warning him that any mobs of democratic citizens will get beaten down like chumps if they try any foolishness with him.
Meister's next plan is to talk to Namaroff, but the doctor says he is unavailable. Before sending Carla back to act as his social secretary, he tries to find out if she went walking with Paul Heitz the previous night. This conversation reveals that he uses Ratoff the chief orderly to follow her around from time to time and Carla's fed up with what she interprets as his neurotic jealousy of any man that might show interest in her (and it's not really the rather miscast Cushing's fault, but I'd really have loved to see Donald Pleasence play the good doctor because he'd be fantastic at showing the concern, fear, lust, denial, guilt and self-loathing moving through Namaroff's personality). Carla relays the doctor's message to Heitz, but also tells the young man to meet her at the local ruined castle at seven the next morning.
When Heitz gets there it's still ruined, but at least there isn't the eighth consecutive full moon in a row shining down (I'm guessing that Carla has started to put two and two together about whether or not she's got adult-onset lycanthropy). But everyone else in Vandorf is frightened of the castle so she can talk privately with Paul. She says she will skip town with him, and they share an embrace that can only be described as "early 60s British levels of passion". Carla wants to leave that very moment but Paul and Meister are sticking around in order to find Megaera and stop her. He's too dense to realize that Carla's the focus for the Gorgon attacks (though, to be fair, he's been in town for maybe two weeks and was in a coma for one of them).
When Paul leaves the castle, Ratoff follows him without the other man noticing. But Meister sneaks up on Ratoff, who wasn't expecting his target to have backup. Heitz survives the assassination attempt and now Meister isn't willing to take "I'm too busy" for an answer when booking an appointment with Namaroff. Meister sneaks into the clinic and breaks into a locked filing cabinet (the lock signals to him which drawer has the really important papers, of course). Carla sneaks out while Meister boosts Carla's HR report from Namaroff's file cabinet; Meister and Heitz know that Carla suffers from periodic recurring episodes of amnesia (which should have shut her nursing career down instantly). Every time there's a full moon Carla experiences a fugue state when Megaera's spirit takes her over and anyone that encounters her risks being turned into a statue. Bonus points to Meister for instantly realizing that every "Carla loses her wits" episode matches to a full moon. That dude is sharp.
Meister tries to get Paul to accept the workings of the curse that's afflicted Carla, but it's a bit too much to swallow for the younger, love-struck man. And to be fair it's also completely ridiculous. Meister also mentions that there's another full moon that night, so whatever's going to happen with Miss Hoffman will be going down that very night. Paul's argument with Meister gets interrupted when Carla, being attacked by Ratoff, calls for his help (putting something like sixty-five percent of the main cast on screen at the same time). Meister discreetly wanders off so Carla and Paul can look deeply into each others' eyes and Carla says she could have fled Vandorf yesterday but she can't bring herself to leave today for some odd unexplainable reason.
Then the door rings and Namaroff and Kanof are outside with a couple of goon squad cops (meaning that everyone but Ratoff from the main cast is in the same house). Namaroff wants to know where Carla is and Paul lies to his face. Kanof goes to search the place (he bothered to get a warrant because he knows that he's got to stay legit thanks to Meister's political clout). And finally it's time for Cushing and Lee to play off each other in the third-act revelations about Carla and Dr. Namaroff. The highlight of their exchange is Meister returning the knife that Ratoff threw at Paul, but missed.
During their argument, Meister grabs Namaroff with one hand and has a blade in the other; when Kanof comes down the stairs sans Carla he pulls his gun, which outranks Ratoff's knife by at least fifty points. However, since the person the cops are looking for is nowhere to be found, Namaroff and the police leave. Nobody even kicks a table over or anything on the way out in a fit of pique--these British movies are classy. It turns out that Paul got a train ticket to Leipzig for his new girlfriend, and she'd already fled the house with a suitcase when the police arrived.
Meister knows more about what's going on than Paul does, and tells his student that Carla won't make it to Leipzig. Paul takes it badly, but it turns out that Carla's perfectly safe--she's the victim of the curse so she can't be turned to stone, and none of the police are willing to search for her outside because they all know what happens in Vandorf on nights when the moon is full and some poor sucker has to go outside. Paul calls the hotel in Leipzig that Carla was supposed to stay at, but she hasn't arrived. Paul tries to go out looking for her but Meister slaps the plan right out of him (he's very concerned for Heitz, but damn if that didn't look like a slap that would kill an unprotected man).
Later, when it's completely dark out, Paul absconds out a second-floor window and goes looking for Carla. The police arrive shortly after he leaves with an arrest warrant for kidnapping; Meister goes looking for him and it turns out that whenever Kanof is looking for someone at that rented house they've already left. Meister refuses to go to the police station and goes out the second-floor window himself.
That's as good a way as any to get Paul and Meister to the ruined castle (Namaroff is already there, armed with a saber--though I'm not sure if even he knows if he's planning to use it on Carla, Megaera, Paul, Meister or his own throat). Paul grabs a candlestick and starts flailing at Namaroff while Meister makes his way through the dark woods. During the melee, Megaera shows up (and that snake wig doesn't look any better this time). Both Paul and Dr. Namaroff lose hold of their weapons by the end of the fight, but Namaroff picks the sword back up and goes looking for Megaera. Unfortunately for him he takes a quick peek to see where she's gone and the answer is "right in front of you, and goodbye". Paul goes to the doctor's body (right by a conveniently placed gigantic mirror) as the Gorgon sneaks up behind him; once again, the person creeping up on Paul doesn't notice Meister behind them and Megaera gets herself decapitated. Paul got a good look in her eyes before Meister sliced the monster's head off, though, and is turning to stone even as the "dead lycanthrope turns back into their human form" phenomenon takes effect on Carla's severed head. He dies reaching for her while Meister says that she's free of the curse; roll credits on quite the bummer ending. I'm guessing that Hammer didn't see the potential for lots of Gorgon movies the way they went for Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy pictures.
Woof. I'd seen this one eight years ago or so, and I forgot how dull and poorly paced it was; it's fitting that I watched it as a tribute to the recently deceased Christopher Lee because he enlivens every frame of the film that he's in (although he does look faintly ridiculous with the prop he's examining in his first scene). The stone makeup is decently chilling, the performers all do a nice job, and there's glimmers of something neat in the movie but overall it's a lesser effort from Hammer. I wish I could say otherwise, but I've got to be accurate. The monster's ridiculous (apparently there was an actress who said she'd be willing to wear a wig made of live snakes as the effect but the producers decided not to do that), the characters are all marched around by the demands of the plot, barely anything happens for huge swaths of the film and it's not until the very end that we even find out the ruined castle is called Castle Borski. Several more passes over the script were needed to beat this one into shape. For Hammer completists and the novelty value of Cushing and Lee switching parts only.
Checkpoint Telstar and several other blogs are paying tribute to the late Sir Christopher Lee with a roundtable.
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