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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.

Plot: brillant scientist is thrown in time and meets Dr. Victor Frankenstein…

Frankenstein Unbound was part of a brief gothic horror revival with the likes of big budget features as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) as well as The Haunting (1999) and House on Haunted Hill (1999). That none have really stood the test of time speaks volumes in and of itself. No matter how you spin it, Hollywood’s attempt to resuscitate the old school gothic horror was met by audience distinterest. The most notorious of said revival was probably Frankenstein Unbound. Frankenstein Unbound, true to its nature as a down-market kitschy 1960s gothic throwback, is far closer to something as The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963) than to the more serious (and pretentious, if we’re being the least bit honest) Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh gothics of the day. Twenty years after his failed World War I epic Von Richthofen and Brown (1971), at the ripe age of 64, Corman was lured back to directing and paid a handsome $1 million for his trouble. History would record Frankenstein Unbound as Corman’s final directorial effort. The Haunting Of Morella (1990) and Huntress: Spirit Of the Night (1995) had the decency to plaster everything with acres of skin whenever the plot stalled. Frankenstein Unbound has no such exploitative inclinations – and is much the worse for it.

There’s no real historical precedent to explain the sudden and brief resurgence of the gothic in the nineties other than that amidst the slasher, cannibal and zombie craze of the 80s an old school ghost flick seemed more than a bit redundant. By the dawning of the new decade the slasher, cannibal and zombie subgenres themselves were on the verge of extinction – and, within context of no other subgenre having risen to the occassion of replacing them, it’s almost logical that directors would look to the past for inspiration. Considering that science fiction was having something of a revival Brian Wilson Aldiss’ Monster trilogy was a gift from the gods. Frankenstein Unbound was the first of the trilogy that also included Moreau’s Other Island (1980) and Dracula Unbound (1991). The title of Aldiss’ novel being a portmanteau of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Producer Thom Mount from The Mount Company had set his sights on adapting Frankenstein Unbound. Who better than the man who produced all those Edgar Allan Poe gothics? Thus he approached Roger Corman with a budget of $11.5 million ($1 million entirely for Corman), some of the hottest stars of the day and a leisurely seven weeks which to shoot it in. Frankenstein Unbound was produced in alliance with Trimark Pictures and to be distributed domestically and abroad by 20th Century Fox. Part science-fiction, part gothic horror, and all camp Frankenstein Unbound fared poor at the box office making a meager $335,000. 20th Century Fox, in their infinite wisdom, canned all sequels.

The year is 2031. In New Los Angeles brilliant scientist Dr. Joseph Buchanan (John Hurt) is demonstrating the prototype of a state-of-the-art particle beam weapon at the Hawkings Institute in California that he’s currently developing for the military. He assures observer General Reade (Mickey Knox) that his laser weapon will make enemy troops disappear. Buchanan’s own motives are more humanitarian in nature as he seeks to devise a weapon that will rid the world of all wars. The only side-effect is that the weapon causes massive atmospheric disturbances and time-slips. Driving home one day Buchanan becomes engulfed in one such disturbance and is whisked back to 19th century Geneva, Switzerland shortly after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. In the village tavern he barters with the innkeeper (Geoffrey Copleston) for a meal and gleans from a newspaper that he’s in the year 1817. The man reading said newspaper is local nobleman Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raúl Juliá) and shortly thereafter Buchanan makes his acquaintance with budding novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon-to-be Shelley) (Bridget Fonda). Godwin is attending a trial where Frankenstein’s maidservant Justine Moritz (Catherine Corman) is found guilty of murdering the Baron’s younger brother. Orbiting around Godwin at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva are fellow writers Lord Byron (Jason Patric) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Michael Hutchence), the latter with whom Mary is romantically involved.

Unable to save Justine from the gallows Buchanan wows Mary with his computer-equipped sentient 1988 ItalDesign Aztec Roadster and shows her a copy of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus – the very manuscript she has just begun writing. Mary is backs away frightened by Joe’s vast knowledge of the future. One night Joe makes his acquaintance with Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth Lavenza (Catherine Rabett) and that same night happens upon Victor in the middle of a heated argument with his monster (Nick Brimble). The creature threatens to kill the entire village if its demands for a mate aren’t met. In retaliation the creature kills Catherine to force Victor into making her into a potential mate. Instead Frankenstein claims the reanimated Catherine as his own, sending the creature into a fit of rage. During its rampage Buchanan is able to blast it into the far future. After an arduous journey through a frozen wasteland Joe happens upon his abandoned laboratory where it dawns upon him that he is a Frankenstein of his own and that the very monster that he warned Victor against is one of his own making. His monster has become unbound and has turned the world he knew, or remembered, into a desolate frozen hellscape.

How Corman was able to rope in this many respectable A-list performers is anybody’s guess. The biggest names in the cast are John Hurt, Raúl Juliá, and Bridget Fonda. Hurt was in Alien (1979), The Elephant Man (1980), Night Crossing (1982), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and Scandal (1989) and at the turn of the century he could be seen in, among many others, Lost Souls (2000), Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), V for Vendetta (2005) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). Juliá would break into the mainstream with The Addams Family (1991), Addams Family Values (1993) and the lamentable Street Fighter (1994). Fonda on her part was on the verge of making it big with Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather Part III (1990), the hit comedy Doc Hollywood (1991) (with Michael J. Fox), the thriller Single White Female (1992) (opposite of Jennifer Jason Leigh), the Sam Raimi horror comedy Army of Darkness (1992), It Could Happen to You (1994) (with Nicholas Cage) and the Quentin Tarantino blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown (1997).

In supporting roles there are Jason Patric from The Lost Boys (1987), Sleepers (1996) and Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997); Catherine Rabett from The Living Daylights (1987), Michael Hutchence from Australian new wave/pop rock band INXS (he would be found dead from an apparent suicide in a Sydney Ritz-Carlton hotel room some seven years later), Geoffrey Copleston from Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969), Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976), the poliziottesco A Man Called Magnum (1977), Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-advised The Godfather: Part III (1990); as well as John Karlsen from Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory (1961), Terror in the Crypt (1964), the Barbara Steele gothic The She Beast (1966), The Insatiables (1969), The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (1971), Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).

No matter how much Frankenstein Unbound might pretend to be a throwback to the Edgar Allan Poe gothics of old that Corman made a name in, it’s very much a product of its time. What that means in practice is that it for long stretches at a time focuses more on the science fiction than the gothic horror that arguably was its strong suit. Instead of a bodice-ripping, blood-drenched gothic full of ancient family curses and decaying castles for some inexplicable reason it’s more interested in fancy cars, computers and green lasers. For all bad things that can be said about Kenneth Branagh’s pretentious Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) at least it had the guts to actually spill some actual guts (even if it were Helena Bonham Carter’s) when and where it mattered. It’s a sad day indeed when Jim Wynorski made the better gothic horror that year with his Corman produced The Haunting Of Morella (1990). Corman’s offering had the respectable A-listers but, more importantly, Wynorski had Lana Clarkson and Nicole Eggert and neither were shy about baring their boobs at every possible turn. Special effects man Nick Dudman and his crew were wise in keeping the grotesque monster design faithful to the book no matter how ridiculous it looked. The dialogue is campy, the visual effects have dated badly and the monster is defeated by handclap activated laser beams. You can’t get any cheesier than that. Frankenstein Unbound might have been pulp of the highest order but clearly everybody was having fun.

Frankenstein Unbound is both an anomaly and a curio for and in the decade it was produced in. It wasn’t as over-the-top, comedic nor gory as any of the slashers, zombie and cannibal flicks of the preceding decade; neither was it for that matter self-aware and meta enough to deconstruct the old Frankenstein story or how blatantly ridiculous Brian Wilson Aldiss’ upon which it based was. In a post-Hardware (1990) world Frankenstein Unbound is just a wee bit silly and for a modest budget Hollywood feature this could have been a whole lot worse. Corman’s direction is purely functional and doesn’t possess a whole lot of flair or individual style, but Corman as always more of a “behind the scenes” kind of guy. And who wouldn’t jump on the chance of getting a decent paycheck for something that he had perfected decades earlier? If Frankenstein Unbound is remembered for anything, it’s for Roger Corman directing for the last time. And maybe for the better too. Corman excelled at producing and recognizing young talent early on. As a director he isn’t bad, he just isn’t very special either. For once you’re better off checking out Jim Wynorski’s The Haunting Of Morella (1990). It might be equally as silly as a free-for-all gothic horror pastiche, but at least it’s not burdened by a completely unnecessary science fiction wrap-around story. Sometimes less is more.