50. GOTHIC (1986)

“I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than anything I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.  The weather, however, suddenly became serene; and my two friends left me on a journey among the Alps, and lost, in the magnificent scenes which they present, all memory of their ghostly visions. The following tale is the only one which has been completed.”–Mary Shelley, preface to Frankenstein

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Natasha Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Myriam Cyr, Timothy Spall

PLOT: Romantic poet Percy Shelley takes his lover, Mary, and her stepsister Claire to visit Lord Byron and his biographer, Dr. Polidori, at the poet’s sprawling Swiss estate.  The fivesome spend the evening playing games and drinking laudanum, until the topic of conversation turns to ghost stories.  They decide to hold a seance to materialize their worst fear, with unanticipated success: or, are they just having a group hallucination?

Still from Gothic (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • The meeting in the film between Percy Shelley, Byron, Mary Godwin Shelley, Dr. Polidori and Claire Clairmont did take place, though the party actually spent the entire summer of 1816 together, not just a single night.  Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) did conceive the idea for her novel Frankenstein there, after Byron suggested that each member of the party write their own supernatural tale.  Many other details of the character’s backstories are accurate: Byron did impregnate Claire, and Mary did bear a stillborn child by Percy.
  • The story of Frankenstein‘s genesis was mentioned in the prologue to The Bride of Frankenstein, and similar stories of the meeting between Byron and the Shelleys were told in the movies The Haunted Summer (1988) and Rowing in the Wind (1988).
  • The painting which hangs over the mantelpiece in the guest bedroom, which is recreated in live action in a dream sequence, in is based on John Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.”
  • The movie was the first major feature produced by a division of Virgin Media (known for producing and distributing their pop music).  Many of the technical crew had a music video background.  Virgin shut down its motion picture production and distribution operations after 1990.
  • Julian Sands came to Gothic fresh off a prominent role in Merchant-Ivory’s Oscar-winning A Room with a View.  After this role he wound up specializing in horror films like Warlock (1989) and its sequels.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Breasts with eyes.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  After setting up its premise, Gothic becomes a series of


Trailer for Gothic

phantasmagorical set pieces that allow Ken Russell to indulge his penchant for perverse visuals and excessive Freudian symbolism.

COMMENTS: For better and worse, Gothic‘s hallucinatory structure allows director Ken Russell to jettison narrative coherence and focus on what interests him: filling his frame as full of images of knights with giant pointy phalluses, stripteasing Turkish automatons, self-stigmatizing masochists, all-seeing bosoms, and naked girls covered in muck chewing on rats as he can think of. This is a very bad thing if you go into Gothic looking for some insight into the creative processes of Romantic poets and novelists, and potentially a very good thing if you just like to see Russell going hog wild, shamelessly playing out his psychedelic sex fantasies with typical campiness against a luxurious, decadent background.

The loose story of Gothic has the five literary revelers drinking laudanum, telling ghost stories, and holding seances. They secret themselves away inside the mansion with its cavernous rooms draped with velvet curtains, hung with oil paintings and lit by fireplaces and candelabras, far away from the conventional world, until the villa itself becomes a prison for them, with a host of waking nightmares and paranoid delusions as their cellmates. Supposedly they physically manifest some sort of monster or monsters through their meddling in the occult, but their demonic adversary remains vague and shadowy. The main conflicts are between the characters, and in particular between the Sadean Lord Byron and the his guests. The poet amuses himself by jabbing verbal knives directly into his guests’ insecurities. In between visions, the partiers fights amongst themselves and screech hard-to-take-seriously lines such as “…like God, we have created. And perhaps God, like us, wants to destroy his creatures before they destroy their creator.”

There isn’t much plot to organize the goings-on, but there are strong characters and characterizations to keep us grounded. Though Gothic plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for its own ends, Steven Volk’s screenplay is intricately researched andfull of tiny biographical details that pump blood to these pale aristocratic visages, from references to Mary’s miscarriage to Byron’s clubfoot to Claire’s singing voice. The characters, each of whom harbors a hidden fear or shameful secret, take the place of events in driving the story; learning about their individual psychologies and relationships to each other is what keeps our interest in the spaces between episodes of delirious depravity.

Lord Byron is the dominating character, and Gabriel Byrne dives into character with Mephistophelian glee. Pale as a ghost and devious as a crocodile, dressed to the nines with a rapier wit his main accessory, Byron is a character who begs to be overacted, and Byrne delivers in sinister spades. He acts as the host and principal instigator, feeding his guests drugs, demanding they play his mind games so long as they are guests in his house, sowing discord and generally leading the party into damnation. He loves only his literary peer Shelley, though much of the time his touchy-feely interest seems more erotic than poetic. Polidori, his biographer “with no biography of his own,” serves as his primary verbal punching bag. He treats Claire as a sexual plaything, with all the romantic tenderness of a frat boy at a kegger. (Twice, the two perform love scenes with a thin sheet of fabric between them, obscuring her face). He is hostile towards Mary, who he sees as a rival for Shelley’s attention. He sows doubts in her mind about Shelley’s devotion to her, but he does show Mary the respect of a worthy adversary by attempting to frighten her, rather than simply dismissing her as he does Polidori and Claire. No character is capable of getting the better of Byron—though Polidori tries by playing on his irrational fear of leeches—but Byron may be capable of getting the better of himself; the only time he appears vulnerable and ridiculous is when he is acting out an odd fetish involving a Roman mask with a servant girl.

Miriam Cyr’s Claire is the least developed character; at times, she seems there only for nudity’s sake. She spends much of the movie in a swoon. She throws herself at Byron, gratifying his ego, but seems blissfully unaware of his lack of serious intentions towards her. The intellectual lightweight of the group, she makes her presence felt by howling occasionally. Polidori largely ignores her, Mary has little to say to her, and she doesn’t interact much with Shelley, though there are rumors of an improper relations between the two. Claire is a thankless role, but Cyr gives her all, even when her big topless scene is upstaged by an eye-popping special effect.

Dr. Polidori, the unaccompanied male, is the fifth wheel. As the loner and outcast of the party, he’s given the chance to exhibit odd and geeky behavior, drinking from a glass full of leeches and banging his hand repeatedly against a nail in the wall. He also inexplicably loses his hair halfway through the movie. The least mentally stable of the group, he’s not so secretly in lust with the contemptuous Byron, jealous of Shelley, not much interested in the ladies, and tortured by his homosexual urges. Timothy Spall makes the most of his opportunities for overwrought hysterics as he’s driven insane by jealously, inadequacy and suicidal thoughts, playing the weirdo amongst the weirdos.

Julian Sands plays Shelley as a naif poet, so easily enraptured by nature that he traipses out naked onto the slick rooftop in a thunderstorm to commune with the lightning. A good and faithful lover to Mary, his admiration for Byron’s skill with a line of verse causes him to deliberately overlook his comrade’s evil. He’s also the guy at the party who can’t hold his laudanum, developing the shakes early on and dissolving into a quivering puddle of fear. The eternal quaver in Sands’ voice can get annoying, but it’s a memorable characterization, and the decent but flighty Shelley is a necessary contrast to the conniving Byron. (As a side note, with his curly blond locks and Apollonian good looks, Sands looks more than a little like Jan in Malpertuis, another weird movie with an ensemble of decadent aristocrats trapped in a spooky old mansion).

Natasha Richardson’s Mary is the most normal member of the assembly, the character we identify with. In some ways, she serves as the standard Gothic horror heroine in a white nightgown, harassed by demonic forces until she pulls herself together and banishes Evil. But Richardson’s performance as the beacon of sanity amidst the madness is richer than that. She has a sorrowful backstory that she handles with a quiet stoic dignity, and overall she is quite affecting and grounds the film. After all, this is Mary’s story: she is the one who takes something from this mad night, in the form of the idea for Frankenstein.

Thematically, the movie is confused. The supposed revelation is that Mary’s stillborn child, and her desire to “resurrect” him, was the real impetus behind the character of Frankenstein and his monster. That’s not a very satisfying literary interpretation; it hardly elucidates the novel’s major theme of the hubris of science. Gothic discourses a lot about creation: there’s the literal creation of the evil force through seance, the main characters are poets who are driven to create, there are important subplots involving the creation of human life through sex, and there is the constant background that the film is about the concept for Frankenstein, a novel about the forbidden creation of life. In a moment of group hysteria, the entire party obsesses that they are becoming like gods, and losing control of their creations. But there’s no real exploration of creativity in the movie; the idea of the madness of creation here simply a romanticized ideal, atmosphere, ultimately no more important to the movie than a gout of blood or a heaving bosom.

Though Russell usually throws out some bit of philosophy in his movies, he’s hardly a deep thinker, and can in fact appear to be an embarrassingly shallow one who hides his lack of ideas behind a sheen of ironic exaggeration; you can never be sure he means to be taken seriously. But Russell is also a fine stylist who creates memorable images and whose shameless devotion to excess can be, quite frankly, tremendous fun. The title of the movie, which refers to a literary style and not to a plot element, should give us a hint that the film intends to evoke a genre rather than tell a story. Some of the recurring motifs of Gothic literature are castles or mansions, decay, demonic (and Byronic) figures, skulls, stormy nights, dreams and portents, and romantic love, all of which make cameos in the movie Gothic. The hallmarks of Gothic literature are the exploration of terror and other extreme emotions, melodrama that can rise to the level of self-parody, and the elevation of atmosphere and mysterious emotion above all else. In this respect, it looks as if Ken Russell has always been Gothic at heart, and the moody, deliberately clichéd, insulated, and wondrous Gothic may be the world he was born to conjure.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weird exercise in bizarre excess by Ken Russell… seems more appropriate for the spaced-out Sixties, in which this kind of psychedelic excess hadn’t yet become so overexposed, so overdone, and I must say… so boring.”–Roger Ebert, “At the Movies” (contemporaneous)

“Russell, the man who gave the phrase ‘too much’ new meaning, outdoes himself.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“Russell applies his trademark excess to this surreal, experimental examination of the creative dementia which shaped Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein… The raging Romantics are also given to lengthy discourse on the nature of fear and the fine line between creative genius and insanity; by the film’s end, viewers may find themselves wondering the same thing about the director.”–Cavet Binion, All Movie Guide (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Gothic (1986)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Gothic – At the Movies – New York Times piece about the movie with quotes from co-star Julian Sands.

Gothic Horror – composer Thomas Dolby describes his experiences working on the Gothic soundtrack, including some unflattering and humorous anecdotes about director Russell.

Gothic B-movie review – semi-comic reader review by “Fautso” from badmovies.org.  The entry contains stills, soundbites and a 30 second movie clip.

DVD INFOGothic has been poorly distributed on video, possibly due to the fact that it’s original distributor, Virgin, decided to get out of the movie distribution business.  Gothic was a mom n’ pop video store VHS favorite for a while, but has suffered on DVD.  The original Artisan/Lionsgate 2002 edition, which is still available (buy), contained no special features, and to make matters worse the movie was presented in pan-and-scan fullscreen. At the time of this writing, Artisan/Lionsgate is offering the film for online rental/download for a very reasonable $2.99 (buy/rent ), which may be a viable alternative considering the lackluster nature of the DVD.

Somehow, the rights to Gothic were either sold for a song, or Virgin decided not to enforce their copyright. A French company called Synergy Archives is selling DVD-R copies of the movie that have been described as of unacceptable quality. Mill Creek, a company that specializes in releasing public-domain movies in bargain “50 packs” acquired the rights for the movie for their “Chilling Classics 50-pack” (buy). Although the picture quality is doubtlessly bad and the presentation full-frame (widescreen is not a word in Mill Creek’s lexicon), there are several other interesting low budget films included in this bargain collection, such as Peter Jackson‘s Bad Taste, Roger Corman‘s A Bucket of Blood, Dario Argento’s Deep Red, the surreal Mexican cheapie Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon, and the certified weird Horrors of Spider Island. Since there are no high-quality versions of the film out there, Mill Creek may be the best road to take.

As one of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made, and one made by a director with a cult following, the lack of a decent video release for Gothic is confounding. Gothic often plays on the cable channel FearNet, so there’s still an audience for the movie. We are left scratching our heads as to why there is no proper DVD version on the market.

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “DamienBfromBLOK .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

2 thoughts on “50. GOTHIC (1986)”

  1. I have always had a problem with Ken Russell’s films; I never want them to end. Even if the action sags or the dialog becomes soporific, one gets strangely drawn in. This is one of Russell’s great gifts: the totally bizarre and sometimes horrific seems comfy and commonplace.

    I really want to hang out with the people in Gothic. Yeah, some of them are wankers, but then I know a lot of wankers. “The Lair of the White Worm” has the same effect. And Hugh Grant is cool before it was cool for Hugh Grant to be cool even though it’s not as cool as it once was.

    Russell makes all these strange happenings seem real and commonplace. You fight them or ignore them at your peril.

  2. It’s not just a “strange fetish with a Roman mask.” The mask is labeled “Augusta,” Byron’s half-sister, with whom he was obsessed; Russell has him using the servant to act out his incest fantasy.

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