I’m one of the very few people you’ll find (worldwide) who’ll admit to liking this movie. It’s an ostensible historical rendering of the night Mary Shelley conceived the idea for FRANKENSTEIN, filtered through the mad vision of the one and only Ken Russell.
The subject of GOTHIC (1986) is one of apparently endless fascination to writers and filmmakers (Ivan Passar’s more stately 1988 film HAUNTED SUMMER covers the same territory), and seems a natural for Ken Russell, the British “bad boy” behind bizarre and flamboyant masterpieces like THE DEVILS (1971), TOMMY (1975) and LISZTOMANIA (1976). GOTHIC, the first in a four-picture deal Russell had with the now defunct Vestron Pictures back in the eighties (which would come to include SALOME’S LAST DANCE, THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM and THE RAINBOW), fits in well with the above films: it’s completely nuts from start to finish and plays hard and loose with the facts.
The “facts” as we know them are these: Mary Shelley, (then known as Mary Godwin) on the night of June 16, 1816 (although many scholars claim the following events actually took place over a period of several nights), accompanied her future husband Percy Shelley to a séance at the Geneva home of Lord Byron. Also in attendance were Dr. Polidori, Byron’s physician/full-time hanger-on, and Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont, who was carrying on an affair with Byron. According to most accounts Byron read from a book of horror stories that unnerved Percy to such an extent he had a vision of a woman with eyes in place of nipples. Byron then decreed that everyone at the gathering write his or her own scary story. Based on his suggestion, and a horrific vision she experienced later that night, Mary Shelley penned what is probably the most enduring horror/science fiction tale of all time: FRANKENSTEIN.
Percy Shelley and his future wife Mary arrive at the villa of their hedonistic friend Lord Byron. Together with Byron’s equally nutty companions, Percy and Mary imbibe liquid opium and let Byron take control of the proceedings. He reads a creepy story and scares them all, causing Percy to seriously freak out and hallucinate a woman with nipple eyes. Up to this point (about the half hour mark) the story more or less conforms to the facts…but not the rest of the film!
Byron encourages everyone to conjure up their greatest fears and call them to life. A bad idea, as it turns out: before long Claire is crawling through mud with a rat in her mouth, a vampire dwarf visits Mary in her sleep and Percy experiences a second vision of the nipple eye lady. Also on hand is a headless piano playing mannequin, a horny mechanical woman, a particularly “animated” skeleton and a monstrous undead fetus.
GOTHIC will never be counted as one of Ken Russell’s best films, but it is a FREAKY one. The opening scene, in which two young women swarm Percy as he steps off a boat, is edited and scored like the climax of a LETHAL WEAPON movie…and that’s just a taste of the unfettered insanity to come. Russell, making his first all-out horror movie, succeeds in creating a frenzied atmosphere of druggy, subconscious fear, bolstered by an outrageously insistent synthesizer score by Thomas Dolby.
From a narrative standpoint the film isn’t anything to shout about (and no wonder: screenwriter Stephen Volk’s other major writing credit is on William Friedkin’s awful horror pastiche THE GUARDIAN), and it certainly won’t please those looking for a straightforward history lesson. Such things don’t seem to interest Russell, however, who makes no apologies for his love of shock and excess. It seems it’s those qualities that have inspired so many mainstream critics to dismiss his work, which is, in truth, damned impressive. The filmmaking has a slick, confident sheen and a real personality (something you definitely don’t see too much of these days). The authentically surreal, disturbing images Russell conjures are as startling as those of David Lynch. As one critic said of Russell’s TOMMY, it’s probably best to simply sit back and let the film assault you.
The cast, for its part, is as spastic and apparently lobotomized as you might expect if you’ve read the above plot synopsis. Still, Gabriel Byrne makes quite an impression as the demonic Lord Byron, and the gorgeous Natasha Richardson, in her film debut, carries the film with grace and confidence, making for a good counterpoint to all the craziness.
Virgin Vision/Artisan Entertainment
Director: Ken Russell Producer: Penny Corke Screenplay: Stephen Volk Cinematography: Mike Southon Editor: Michael Bradsell Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson, Myriam Cyr, Timothy Spall, Alec Mango, Andreas Wisniewski, Dexter Fletcher, Pascal King, Tom Hickey, Linda Coggin, Chris Chappel, Ken Russell