Plot: the Shelleys visit Byron and compete to write the scariest story they can.
Even the most talented and serious of directors like to unwind from time to time and indulge themselves in what by all accounts should be considered pulp. For British filmmaker Ken Russell that was Gothic. To avoid any and all possible confusion Gothic is, well, uh, a gothic. Albeit one that may just be a tad intellectual, overwritten and verbose for the average moviegoer. Based upon a well-documented event in the life of British poet Lord Byron and bearing poster art based on Henry Fuseli's 1781 painting The Nightmare, Gothic is a grand triumph of style over substance and form over function. What inspired Russell to do Gothic? Who knows? If the official history is to be believed Russell received a similar script from actor Robert Powell some ten years before but the project failed to find backing. Gothic was attractive to Russell because of its comedic overtones and satirical nature. Russell is known around these parts as being the man behind the Oscar-winning film Women in Love (1969), the inventor of nunsploitation with The Devils (1971), The Who rock opera Tommy (1975) and the psychotronic sci-fi epic Altered States (1980). He famously had directed a number of biopics from classical composers of the Romantic era as Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Gustav Mahler, and Franz Liszt. Gothic was made after Altered States (1980) and the erotic thriller Crimes of Passion (1984) in a period when Russell had directed music videos (a nascent artform with the formation and rise of MTV in 1981) for Elton John and Cliff Richard with his Sitting Duck production company.
The basis for the screenplay were the frequent visits of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as well as Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont to Lord Byron and his personal physician Dr. John William Polidori and valet William Fletcher at the Villa Diodati estate on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland during the summer of 1816. Lord Byron rented the mansion from 10 June to 1 November 1816 to get away from various scandals (separation from his half-sister Augusta Leigh and later Annabella Millbanke) and pressure from creditors and ever-mounting debt. Kept indoors due to the "incessant rain" of The Year Without a Summer (Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted a year earlier) the five aspiring poets challenged each other to conjure up the most fantastic horror tales they could think of. Shelley commited Julian and Maddalo, Prometheus Unbound, and The Cenci to paper, Godwin produced Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus; Polidori came up with The Vampyre, or the ancestor to the modern vampire horror, and Byron contributed Don Juan, Fragment of a Novel, and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. That Frankenstein and The Vampyre both have become timeless horror classics speaks to the imagination of what exactly transpired that night. With Gothic Ken Russell takes a few liberties and posits one possible scenario of what such a visit could have entalled. Haunted Summer (1988) told largely the same story (albeit without the horror overtones and religious allusions/iconography) and it was used as a framing device for the monochrome Universal Pictures horror classic Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
The Year Without a Summer, 1816. After his contentious separation from Annabella Millbanke, rumours about his scandalous, incestual relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh and with pressure from creditors as his debts mount English nobleman and Romantic poet George Gordon Byron (Gabriel Byrne) has fled to Switzerland (“a selfish, cursed, swinish country of brutes. It just happens to be placed in the most romantic region in the world," if the Lord is to be believed). He has settled at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva with his eccentric personal physician Dr. John William Polidori (Timothy Spall) and valet William Fletcher (Andreas Wisniewski). He has befriended Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands) and has taken to inviting him, his soon-to-be wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Natasha Richardson) as well as her stepsister (and one of his previous conquests), Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) for a relaxing getaway at his opulent estate. On the night of 16 June the five the bohémiens indulge on a feast of food and drink while debating philosophy, religion and humanistic logic. The five engage in a playful game of hide-and-seek, read excerpts from Fantasmagoriana and conduct a séance around a human skull. The guests are beckoned by Lord Byron, who’s clearly in a state of visible hallucinatory ecstasy and madder than ever, to abandon all vestiges of morality, civility and decorum by drinking Laudenaum-laced wine as he challenges them to devise the most macabre and scariest stories they possibly can…
It’s easy to see why Russell, ever the master stylist and technician, would be attracted to this particular script. There’s barely a premise and an absolute dearth of characterization, and that is putting it mildly. Since there isn’t a whole lot of story to tell this allows Russell to indulge in all his visual quirks and all of his usual distractions. You’d imagine that Russell saw Gothic as a stylistic exercise and a satirical deconstruction of gothic horror and its myriad conventions and contrivances. As such Gothic is awash with grandiloquent philosophical debates, pregnant with religious allusions and full of the deepest of cleavage and gallons of blood. Which should count for something because all of the horrors here are mere figments of the fevered imaginations of a bunch of privileged debauched aristocrats. In other words, Gothic is a horror wherein literally nothing happens but does so breathtakingly beautifully. With this being pretty much a genre exercise Gothic is custodian to Russell’s usual visual experimentation. Him and director of photography Mike Southon make full use of Gaddesden Place and Wrotham Park in Herfordshire. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the interior and exterior (however limited they are) that Russell was working on a drastically lower budget than usual. When the camera is not gliding across the plains of the rural English countryside it’s lingering on Natasha Richardson. The score by Thomas Dolby is fittingly schizophrenic. Dolby was the man behind the 1982 novelty hit single 'She Blinded Me with Science' and by 1986 he was on to his third solo album with "The Flat Earth" which had its own hit single with 'Hyperactive!'. Dolby had his own brush with acting in Howard the Duck (1986) and the vampire horror spoof Rockula (1990). Contrary to popular belief it was not him but engineer Ray Dolby who founded Dolby Laboratories that was the main driving force behind all Dolby-related audio innovations from the mid-1960s onward.
You’d almost think that Ken Russell saw Renato Polselli’s showcase in psychotronica Black Magic Rites (1973) and wanted to do something similar with this. It might not have the rapid-fire editing, three different timelines, the acres of skin or a rough equivalent to Rita Calderoni but his spirit certainly dwells here. Gothic answers the question what Frankenstein Unbound (1990) would’ve looked like if it focused more on the amourous liaisons between Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Lord Byron instead of the misadventures of Dr. Joe Buchanan and his nominal adversary and his colleague in the scientific arts Baron Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. This has the hallmarks of a director indulging in a low-effort diversion or creative distraction. Historically it’s interesting for being the debut of Natasha Richardson (who was married to Liam Neeson from 1994 to 2009 when she died in a skiing accident) and the camera obviously loves her. Byrne and Sands are their usual mad selves and it’s always good seeing Dexter Fletcher and Timothy Spall in supporting roles. Nothing much may happen in Gothic but it does it oh so very beautifully. If nothing else, Gothic is what a Jean Rollin or old Hammer horror could have looked like on a modest Hollywood budget.