Skip to content

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: secret agent investigates disappearances in Scotland. Hilarity ensues!

Hailed as the ultimate in 60s kitsch and camp Zeta One had disaster written all over it. Produced by Tigon on an estimated budget of £60,000 Zeta One was a genre hybrid that could only have materialized in the late sixties. Written and directed by first timer Michael Cort and based on a story from Michael Glassman’s shortlived 1968 “photo fantasy” magazine Zeta – a publication somewhere between a glamour photography magazine and a science fiction serial – it largely was a preamble to get the assembled starlets out of their clothes with the thinnest veneer of a story. In all likelihood Zeta One is the single most memorable and bonkers gathering of future Hammer babes. Imagine what Pete Walker, Norman J. Warren, or Jesús Franco could have conjured up with that budget, a truckload of expensive Saarinen designer furniture, art-deco sets and about every bosomy British starlet of note at their disposal. This should, by all accounts, have been the ultimate knickers and knockers sexploitation romp of the decade. Zeta One lampoons not only the nascent James Bond franchise, it also spoofs science-fiction from a decade before, and is a psychotronic take on that old Mexican romp Planet of the Female Invaders (1966) or a gender-swapped variation on the Larry Buchanan space romp Mars Needs Women (1967). The abundance of skin, Valerie Leon in next to nothing, and the sheer concentration of British pulp celebrity cannot mask that Zeta One is virtually plotless, frequently incomprehensible, and terminally boring.

The late sixties were a unique time in the history of British cinema. The studio system of the prior decade had collapsed, the Summer Of Love heralded a new era of permissiveness and the porno chic was the latest vogue. The little players were forcing the hand of the old houses and daring them to follow brazen new directions they wouldn’t otherwise. Pete Walker, Norman J. Warren, and Tigon shepherded horror and exploitation into a new era of excess, where any story could be improved by adding a gratuitous helping of blood and boobs. Some ideas look good on paper but don’t hold up under closer scrutiny. Zeta One is one such case where all elements for a theoretical box office smash are present, but for some reason they never quite gelled and the production never became more than the sum of its various parts. Helmed by Michael Cort and Alistair McKenzie, first-time director and writer, respectively – Zeta One was anchored by a bevy of bosomy British belles in a permanent state of undress. Yet the promise of so much naked flesh wasn’t enough. Zeta One sank to the murky depths of imagination from whence it came. Zeta One is the Holy Grail of British exploitation and not to be missed.

In the late sixties Tigon British Film Productions had some minor successes with Witchfinder General (1968) and the Lovecraft adaptation Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) and would have in the following years with The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), Au Pair Girls (1972), and The Creeping Flesh (1973). Zeta One capitalized on three cinematic trends of the day: the burgeoning Eurospy cycle that followed in the wake of the James Bond episodes Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965); the renewed interest in all things science fiction following Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Roger Vadim’s sexy space romp Barbarella (1968) from the Jean-Claude Forest comic of the same name (which was particularly successful in the UK); and bawdy sex comedies as School For Sex (1969) made in response to the laxer censorship regulations and the permissive sexual mores following the Sexual Revolution. If all of that wasn’t a crazy enough combination by itself Zeta One tops it off by being a brief feminist fable and women’s liberation fantasy in tradition of British spy romps as The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967), and Deadlier Than the Male (1967). Under the auspices of a better filmmaker Zeta One could have worked as a delicate balancing act. Alas, Michael Cort was furthest from an experienced director and he would never direct anything again. Ever. Without Zeta One the world would never have known The Girl From Rio (1969), or lovably zany excursions into science fiction pulp as Luigi Cozzi’s candy-colored StarCrash (1979) or William Sach’s equally insane spoof Galaxina (1980).

Returning home from an undisclosed mission Section 5 secret agent James Word (Robin Hawdon) is surprised to find company secretary Ann Olsen (Yutte Stensgaard) waiting to debrief him. The two engage in friendly banter, a good amount of drinking and smoking, and a bout of strip poker ensues wherein Ann ends up disrobing completely. The two inevitably end up between the sheets and Ann at long last comes around to inquiring about the more salient details of Word’s most recent investigation in Scotland. W (Lionel Murton) assigned Word the case of Major Bourdon (James Robertson Justice), an underground figure, who himself was conducting an investigation into a string of disappearances around London. In order to find the abductors whereabouts Bourdon learns from his second-in-command Swyne (Charles Hawtrey) that the next intended target is burlesque dancer Edwina 'Ted' Strain (Wendy Lingham).

W orders Wordon to protect Ted by all means necessary and thus discovers that most of the abductions are conducted by Atropos (Valerie Leon) and Lachesis (Brigitte Skay). Word deduces that the Angvians abduct terrestrial women to repopulate their own dimension as they have no biological manner of reproduction. What Word doesn’t know is that a deep undercover agent named Clotho (Anna Gaël) is using her womanly wiles to manipulate the intelligence community. Bourdon’s goons figure that the only way to lure the agents from the interdimensional realm of Angvia to Earth is by using Edwina as bait. With various Angvians minions taken prisoner over the course of the operation queen Zeta (Dawn Addams) is left with no other option but to initiate “Action 69” and let her armies of war descend screaming for the heavens upon the Scottish estate where the stately Bourdon manor is located. Word relays to Clotho how he showed up just in time to witness the aftermath of said fierce battle which prompts her to reveal her true motives. Clotho teleports James back to Angvia where he’s rewarded for his bravery with an eternity of fornication with all of the realm’s most carefully selected and perfectly proportioned belles.

No matter how nonsensical or ridiculous Zeta One gets it’s custodian to some truly outstanding production design from Martin Gascoigne. A better director would have made better use of Gascoigne’s combination of high-end Finnish plastic vacuform furniture from the Knoll line, shimmering foil walls and flashing multi-coloured chequer-board lights. Zeta One was filmed at a semi-converted wallpaper factory that was Euroscan’s Camden Studios in North London owned by producer George Maynard and Michael Cort. When production wrapped as Cort went over-budget and over time Tigon had around an hour’s worth of incoherent material in the can. Zeta One was buried in the Tigon vaults about 18 months before an attempt was made to salvage the project. A 20-minute long framing story was shot with a returning Robin Hawdon and Yutte Stensgaard as the company secretary tasked with debriefing him. It was a decent enough attempt to make something out of nothing but it’s a sad day indeed when not even a bare naked Yutte Stensgaard can manage to liven up proceedings this dreadfully dull. Like the remainder of the cast in the main portion of the feature Stensgaard was never shy about disrobing. As disjointed and detached from the main portion as it feels the 20 minute opening at least is halfway entertaining despite its static nature. Which brings us to the only reason to even bother tracking down a copy of Zeta One

The women are universally and uniformly delectable and can be seen almost wearing suede mini-dresses and white, thigh-high boots whereas the storm troops wear nothing but long black wigs, the skimpiest purple knickers and nipple tassels. It truly looks as insane as it sounds. Yutte Stensgaard, Brigitte Skay, Valerie Leon, Kirsten Lindholm, Gilly Grant and Anna Gaël all can be seen in various stages of undress with Dawn Addams appearing peripherally. First, there are the three girls that went on to become Hammer Film babes. Yutte Stensgaard featured in If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969), and Some Girls Do (1969) the same year and would go to star in Lust for a Vampire (1971). Brigitte Skay debuted in Sexy Baby (1968) and her post-Zeta One resumé includes the Mario Bava giallo A Bay Of Blood (1971), the Italian blockbuster Homo Eroticus (1971), and the Luigi Batzella giallo Blackmail (1974) and his il sadiconazista The Beast In Heat (1977). Valerie Leon would famously star in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), as well as the popular Carry On (1958-1992) comedies, and was at one point tipped to play Vampirella. Dawn Addams was the elder stateswoman who had starred in Fritz Lang’s murder mystery The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) and The Vampire Lovers (1970). Of the many Angvia extras Kirsten Lindholm (then still Kirsten Betts) and Gilly Grant are by far the most retroactively famous. Lindholm went on to play supporting roles in the Karnstein trilogy The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971). Grant was a veteran of Pete Walker sexploitation with roles in The Big Switch (1968) and School For Sex (1969). Gilly would end up in the Lindsay Shonteff actioner Clegg (1970) as well as the considerably more high profile Carry On Matron (1972). Second, none pulled off quite the trajectory as Hungarian import Anna Gaël.

Anna Gaël was born in September 1943 in Budapest, Hungary as Anna Abigail Gyarmarthy. Gaël debuted in 1962 and starred in a number of Hungarian, German, and French films before landing in the art film Therese and Isabelle (1968) and the World War II epic The Bridge at Remagen (1969) before starring in Zeta One. Most notably she could be seen in the terror film The Woman Is a Stranger (1968), the forgotten giallo The Rage Within (1969), and the French vampire spoof Dracula and Son (1976). Gaël first met Alexander Thynn, Viscount Weymouth in Paris, France in 1959 and would remain his mistress even though she herself was married to French film director Gilbert Pineau at the time. Gaël married Thynn at a London registry office in 1969 and in the process became Anna Thynn, the Marchioness of Bath. Gaël semi-retired from acting in 1970 and reinvented herself as a war correspondent covering conflicts in Vietnam, South Africa, and Northern Ireland. Thynn continued acting sporadically until retiring officially in 1981 after which she disappeared completely from the silver screen. Charles Hawtrey was another veteran of the British screen with credits dating as far back as 1922. From the middle until the end of his career Hawtrey was another regular in the Carry On (1958-1992) franchise with which he remained until 1972. More tragic is seeing James Robertson Justice in pseudo-softcore dreck as this. Justice had a long and storied career on both sides of the Atlantic and appeared in Vice Versa (1948), The Black Rose (1950), Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), David and Bathsheba (1951), Anne of the Indies (1951), the Doctor franchise (1954-1970), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), the multi Academy Award-winning World War II epic The Guns of Navarone (1961), and the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

Alistair McKenzie never wrote anything again, and who can blame him? A race of comically large-breasted, Amazon women abduct terrestrial women to repopulate their dimension and are aided in doing so by a bumbling, clumsy, womanizing secret agent. It’s practically a science fiction riff on Jess Franco’s Red Lips two-parter Two Undercover Angels (1969) and Kiss Me, Monster (1969). By 1969 James Bond was a veritable cultural juggernaut, Sean Connery’s tenure as the secret agent had come to a close after 5 movies and On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) saw George Lazenby taking over the role. Casino Royale (1967) was the earliest Bond spoof and for a while Italy and Spain took the lead in ridiculing the very target-rich spy-action genre. There’s an M character named W, there’s James Word (“his word is our bond!”) and the usual bevy of bosomy British beauties. In a bout of typically British humour the dimension the women hail from is called Angvia (an anagram of, yes, you guessed it, vagina).

For no discernable reason Anna Gaël, Brigitte Skay, and Valerie Leon play characters named after the Greek goddesses of fate and destiny, the Moirai, or the Three Fates. While they constitute principal players in the plot their Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos bear no meaningful semblance to their mythological counterparts. The idea is certainly present but McKenzie never fleshes out (there’s plenty of opportunity to ogle their bared flesh, though) their, or any other, character enough to truly amount to anything. Yet as completely and utterly bonkers as Zeta One is most of the time, it’s quite unbelievable just how boring it is seeing Yutte Stensgaard lose her clothes in the world’s most artificially protracted game of strip poker. At least you get a gander at Stensgaard’s perfectly-shaped ass as a well-deserved bonus. You’d imagine that seeing top-heavy Valerie Leon (who just like her fellow Vampirella prospect Caroline Munro never did any on-screen nudity) strut around the English woodside in the tiniest purple bikini bottoms and pasties would elicit more fireworks, yet no sparks erupt. Likewise is it easy, and completely understandable, to confuse Yutte Stensgaard with Anna Gaël. Neither really has much in the way of defining characteristics. Granted, there’s definitely something about seeing this many UK starlets disrobed so frequently. Zeta One is the kind of production that could only have been greenlit in the late sixties…

Zeta One puts exploitation back in exploitation movie. There are more than enough funbags for any warmblooded male but none of it is particularly fun. Had director Michael Cort and scriptwriter Alistair McKenzie actually had any clue this could have served as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of all the cheap science fiction and spy-action productions masquerading as alternatives to James Bond, Bulldog Drummond, and their lesser imitators. What should have been a British counterpart to the popart decadence, unbridled sensuality, and boundless swagger of Piero Schivazappa's The Laughing Woman (1969) (with Dagmar Lassander) instead became, more than anything, a cautionary tale of everything that could go wrong during film production. Not even a flamethrower, a chainsaw, or Valerie Leon’s barely-there war bikini could salvage the flaming hot mess that is Zeta One.

If Zeta One is anything (it’s a whole lot of nothing the rest of the time), it’s a spiritual precursor to Pete Walker’s hugely entertaining proto-slasher The Flesh and Blood Show (1972). If the late Russ Meyer or Andy Sidaris ever came around to making a science fiction romp it would probably have looked something like this. It’s seldom that exploitationers are boring, but Zeta One charts new highs… or lows, rather. In a post-Barbarella (1968) world the most natural response to the James Bond spoof craze was something as thoroughly and unflinchingly British as Zeta One. And the craziest thing of all? Italy didn’t try to imitate it en masse by the very next month. Germany would duly attempt such a thing with the mildly insane 2069 – A Sex Odyssey (1974) prompting Britain to its own with The Girl From Starship Venus (1975). Somebody had to lay the groundwork and Michael Cort was the one to do it.