mon 20/05/2024

DVD/Blu-ray: Gothic | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Gothic

DVD/Blu-ray: Gothic

Ken Russell's febrile fantasy about the night Mary Shelley conceived 'Frankenstein'

Welcome to Villa Diodati: Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson, and Timothy Spall in 'Gothic'BFI

Ken Russell’s horror comedy Gothic (1986) compresses into one nightmarish night the fabled three days in June 1816 when Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) entertained at his retreat Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva his fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands), Shelley’s partner Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson), and her half-sister Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr).

Already in situ, Byron’s friend and physician John William Polidori, played by Timothy Spall as a sycophantic worm enamoured of his host but capable of kindness to Mary, made up the party.

Both women are 18 and in thrall to their lovers. The Dionysian wild child Claire has dragged the unwed Shelley and his devoted Mary, with whom she’s involved in a ménage à trois, to Switzerland hoping the dismissive Byron will provide for her and the baby she’s carrying following their affair in London. Byron is incestuously in thrall to his married older half-sister Augusta Leigh and accordingly exiled from England. When his kitchen maid visits his room at night she's required to wear a plaster mask of Augusta's face.

Stephen Volk’s screenplay pays its dues to formative Gothic fiction. After Byron marvels how “we’ve all been weaned on blood” and cited such texts as The Castle of Otranto (1764), Vathek (1782), and The Monk (1796), it’s Claire who suggests they write ghost stories and Polidori who says they should make a competition of them. The future Mrs Shelley gets the first glimmerings of her novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Byron gives Polidori the idea for his short story The Vampyre (1819). 

Gothic coverThe film’s clever conceit is that none of the five do any actual writing, but – variously under the influence of laudanum, opium, wine, and mortal terror (in Claire’s case after suffering a “horror” fit) – all do plenty of hallucinating and dreaming, Russell delivering an initially powerful but increasingly absurd phantasmagoria.

By the time a plastic skeleton draped by a window spooks Mary and she runs through a plate glass door, Gothic has cast off its gravitas and became a horror film parody as daft as the Vincent Price vehicle House on Haunted Hill (1959). Woo-hooing "scary movie" sound effects, complemented by Claire’s tiresome offscreen giggling, embroider Thomas Dolby's score.

Such bathos doesn’t erase the fim’s serious theme, which analogises the God-defying perils of scientific creation with literary creation and childbirth. Mary’s anxious statement, ”Our punishment is that we have created – but created what?”, is pertinent in the year in which AI has been publicised as our new Pandora’s Box or Sword of Damocles. 

Mary slowly emerges as the film’s protagonist and the Byronic snakepit’s moral conscience. If she’s a fragile and passive Mary compared with the miscast Elle Fanning in 2017’s Mary Shelley, Richardson invests with convincing anguish her memory of her and Shelley’s dead baby daughter and her fears of losing five-month-old William – absent here but imagined by Mary in the coffin he’ll occupy three years later. 

Gothic’s feminist strain is more subtle and perhaps more sincere than Mary Shelley’s: Mary loathing Byron when she hears him make a casually misogynistic remark to Shelley before planting a homoerotic kiss on his neck. Richardson also shows how miffed Mary is with the ménage, pulling away from Shelley when, fretting about Claire, he starts rationalising like a proto-hippy about “free love”; Gothic does not celebrate sexual self-indulgence and the Georgian equivalent of rock 'n' roll hedonism but critiques them.

As an essay in the BFI Blu-ray/DVD's booklet emphasises, Russell vulgarised his pictorialism in his 1980s films. Gothic lacked the finesse of Clouds of Glory (1978), the excellent TV diptych he and writer Melvyn Bragg made about the Lake poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but that’s not to underestimate the power of Gothic's images: the animated suit of armour with a huge metal codpiece dreamed by Claire; a discarded pig’s head reimagined by Byron as Polidori’s disembodied head; Byron trailing his hands in a pool of amniotic fluid in a cell within his rat-invested wine cellar, and rising from the sleeping Claire’s loins with blood on his mouth. (Pictured below: Miriam Cyr and Gabriel Byrne)When an erotic sketch idly made by Shelley is later transmogrified into Claire’s exposed areolae opening over a pair of eyes as she orders Byron to look into them, his exploitative male gaze is returned with spades. Mike Bradsell’s cutting from cinematographer Mark Southon’s wide angle master shots to closeups, which make expressive use of extreme angles, maintains the lurid-vivid ambience. 

When Russell was promoting Gothic for its US release in the spring of 1987, I interviewed him for a New York newspaper in a hotel room seemingly darkened for dramatic effect. Asked about Gothic’s more shocking images the snowy haired enfant terrible grumbed: “I don’t set out to shock. If that’s the effect my films have then it’s because their subject matter, which is generally something I don’t choose, is shocking in itself. I didn’t go knocking on people’s doors to do Altered States, Crimes of Passion, or Gothic – they came to me. I actually toned down Crimes of Passion, because there’s a limit to what an audience can take. I censored it for them.”

He said he kept a storehouse of images and waited for an opportunity to use them. He had contemplated a film about the Villa Diodati events when the actor Robert Powell (who had played Shelley in a 1972 drama and would be Victor Frankenstein in a movie, both made for TV) brought him a script based on Derek Marlowe’s 1973 novel A Single Summer With Lord B. But he was more impressed with Volk’s. 

“It reminded me of a script I would have written myself.” Russell said. “You don’t get many scripts sent to you with which you feel immediate sympathy, where you can see every scene in your mind’s eye, and which also flow very well… The only other script I’ve ever had as good as this one is Crimes of Passion.

Volk’s script is especially deft in its foreshadowing, Mary glimpsing not only her young son’s death but her husband’s – the drowned poet’s corpse entangled with a sail and ropes off the Tuscan coast in July 1822, then on its funeral pyre. Following Richardson’s premature death from a skiing accident in 2009, Sands’s death this year adds a tragic resonance to his and Richardson’s beautiful blond(e) embraces.

Extras on the disc include Russell’s short Amelia and the Angel (1958) and his late Poe wotsit The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002), which co-stars the director and his wife Lisi; a 2017 short in which Sands talks about playing Shelley; and a new film about Volk and his Gothic screenplay. The audio version of Derek Malcolm’s 1987 Guardian lecture with Russell reminds us how much both are missed.

I don’t set out to shock. If that’s the effect my films have then it’s because their subject matter is shocking in itself


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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