This Thursday, July 3, would have been Ken Russell’s 87th birthday. I have yet to adapt to not being able to call him on his birthday, so I decided to mark the day by scheduling his 1986 film Gothic (a film on which he celebrated his 59th birthday on the crypt set) for the Thursday Horror Picture Show on that day. This was also the first Ken Russell film shown by either the THPS, or the Asheville Film Society — only this time, it will be shown from a much-improved copy. It was — when it was run a little over four years ago — a film that perplexed a great many in the audience. Afterwards, Justin Souther told me, “You realize that someone who had never seen a Ken Russell movie was apt to be pretty lost, don’t you?” Actually, I hadn’t. I thought Gothic was reasonably accessible, but then I’d seen a lot of Ken Russell movies by the time I drove 200 miles to see this one. And then I remembered friends of mine who were seasoned Russell campaigners complaining that it was “just so weird” when they saw it. I had kind of thought that was part of the point of this phantasmagorical movie.
“Conjure your deepest, darkest fear … now call that fear to life,” claimed the ad campaign for Ken Russell’s Gothic, an unusual and extremely wild film in which gothic horror meets the biographical film head on. The results are an explosion of sex, drugs and horror—with the accent on the latter. The movie is built around the famous — or infamous — house party with Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) and Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) that resulted in Mary writing Frankenstein. In Russell’s vision, the inspiration was a wild weekend marked with very real horrors grounded in the hallucinatory fears of the protagonists. (If you were around in the 1960s or 1970s, you may have been to parties not entirely unlike this one.)
In some ways, Gothic is of a piece with Russell’s Lisztomania (1975). Where the earlier — and more elaborate — film presented its 19th-century musicians as rock stars, Gothic does much the same with its poets. The tone is a little different, though. Where the earlier film was playful with a sinister undertone, this one is sinister with a playful undertone. The movies are brothers under the skin, but Gothic and its allegorical rock-star poets smack of a kind of despair that’s nowhere to be found in Lisztomania — perhaps it’s a reflection of the difference in the eras the films were made. Or perhaps it’s a difference in Russell. Or both.
On its simplest level, Gothic is the story of a few talented people and their hangers-on getting wasted on drugs in splendid isolation. The setup finds Byron — plus, his entourage and menagerie — ensconced in a palatial house in Switzerland, where he’s something of a local attraction. Tour guides point out his residence, tout his infamy (“mad, bad and dangerous to know”), and offer “knowledgeable” peeps (“Bedroom top right”) into it all through a telescope from the other side of the lake. Groupies loiter about the grounds, but Byron is awaiting the arrival of the Shelleys — and, unbeknownst to him, a conveniently discarded (and inconveniently pregnant) admirer, Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr), Mary’s half-sister. Once they arrive, the party can begin.
At first, it’s pretty harmless — a little in-fighting, hints of jealousies, amusing each other with ghost stories—but as the evening wears on and most of the party continues to indulge in laudanum, it becomes less so. (Interestingly, the one who sees the most and fears the most is Mary, who is also the only one who never takes the drug. This makes her rather like Glenda Jackson’s Nina in 1970’s The Music Lover — the one person least capable of handling reality being the only one who actually has to face it.) Soon, the idea of holding a seance comes into play — with unexpected results.
“They have it in mind to raise the dead,” Mary tells Byron’s physician/biographer/lover/whipping-boy Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall in a fearless performance). But it’s not that simple — instead they raise a composite of all their fears, a monster that contains the worst in all of them. The question becomes whether or not they can send this creature back to wherever it came from — if indeed it did. The line between reality and hallucinatory nightmare is constantly being crossed in ways that are as unsettling for the viewer as they are for the characters.
Since the film does use historical characters and is grounded in an historical event, it’s fair to ask how accurate all this is. Well, I think it would be best to say — as Russell once said of his autobiography — that it’s true “in spirit.” This isn’t an attempt at a history lesson. It’s a psychological portrait of these people told in terms of a horror movie. And make no mistake, Gothic very much is a horror film. It has all the trappings its title suggests. It has a monster of the characters’ own making (the genesis for Frankenstein’s monster) — and it has a nightmarish feel few films have ever equaled. All this and a pretty fine score from Thomas Dolby, too. (Russell was himself of two minds about the score, once telling me, “It’s better when he’s trying to be Stravinsky than when he’s trying to be Bernard Herrmann.”)
It also represents an interesting shift in the way Russell views his characters. There’s no question but that Russell was always more drawn to the troubled, difficult, tormented, or just plain outrageous artists — and this is no different. But his approach to them has — for want of a better word — mellowed. (The alterations between his stances on such earlier subjects as Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, and D.H. Lawrence in his later years are striking.) Where once he would probably have approached these same people in a state of wonderment over what they managed to create despite being so monumentally screwed up, he seems to here be considering the possibility that they accomplished what they did because they were so monumentally screwed up.
On quite another level, it’s worth noting that this was the late Natasha Richardson’s first theatrical film, though you’d never guess that from her assured performance as Mary Shelley. How assured is that performance? Well, it was the film Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, requested be shown at her daughter’s memorial. That’s a pretty good endorsement.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Gothic Thursday, July 3 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.