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Gothic

Movie Information

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Gothic Thursday, May 20, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: Ken Russell
Starring: Natasha Richardson, Julian Sands, Gabriel Byrne, Myriam Cyr, Timothy Spall
Rated: R

“Conjure your deepest, darkest fear … now call that fear to life,” claimed the ad campaign for Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), 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.

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 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.) 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.

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 film will be preceded (starting at 7:40 p.m.) by “The House in the Hills,” chapter two of the 1934 Bela Lugosi serial The Return of Chandu and the 1933 Betty Boop cartoon “The Old Man on the Mountain.”

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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21 thoughts on “Gothic

  1. According to Google Maps ( http://maps.google.com.au/maps?oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&ie=UTF8&q=marsfield+nsw&fb=1&gl=au&ei=OHTzS-W5B5aijQOUw-TpBA&ved=0CBQQpQY&hl=en&view=map&geocode=FV1__P0d4YMBCQ&split=0&sll;=-33.777425,151.105060&sspn=0.032434,0.023543&iwloc=A&sa=X ), it will take me 210 days 11 hours to walk the 25,613km from my place to Asheville. Do you think the Thursday Horror Picture Show will still be running then?

    Of course, that’s if I take the Stuart Highway. If I end up on US-12 E, that adds another 7 hours to the trip.

  2. Ken Hanke

    it will take me 210 days 11 hours to walk the 25,613km from my place to Asheville

    What’s that in miles? I don’t translate this metric babble.

    Do you think the Thursday Horror Picture Show will still be running then?

    I hope so, but probably Gothic will be over by then. However, if you walk that far (I’m trying to figure out how you plan on handling the watery bits), we will run anything you want.

  3. What’s that in miles?
    15,916 miles.

    I’m trying to figure out how you plan on handling the watery bits
    Google Maps provides these Walking directions:
    154. Turn left at Gilruth Ave
    155. At the roundabout, take the 2nd exit onto Kahlin Ave
    156. Slight right to stay on Kahlin Ave
    157. At the roundabout, take the 1st exit onto Myilly Tce
    158. Kayak across the Pacific Ocean
    Entering Japan
    159. Turn right
    160. Turn left towards ??384??

    And so on…

  4. Ken Hanke

    15,916 miles.

    See how much shorter that is?

    158. Kayak across the Pacific Ocean

    Maybe you should try Mapquest.

  5. Chip Kaufmann

    I’m looking forward to seeing GOTHIC with a receptive and sympathetic audience. When I saw it on its initial release (shown here by the soon to be Asheville Film Society’s ancestor Cinematique), I didn’t care for it much as I found it overwrought in all the wrong ways and the annoying Thomas Dolby score (I thought it was by Rick Wakeman) made things even worse..

    Revisiting it when it came out on video didn’t change my opinion although I am not always the best audience when I am by myself. But hope springs eternal and maybe the third time will be the charm (especially with the appreciative TNHPS audience). If not, then it’s three strikes and you’re out. As Dick De Bartolo once said in Mad Magazine (ca. 1962), “they can’t all be gems”.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I didn’t care for it much as I found it overwrought

    That’s the way some of us like our Ken Russell! (Yes, I know — you added “in all the wrong ways.”)

    But hope springs eternal and maybe the third time will be the charm (especially with the appreciative TNHPS audience).

    Audiences do make a difference. I think a lot of people who didn’t like the film were put off because they weren’t expecting a horror movie, but an “art movie.” It’s really both, but if you’re not wanting — or fond of — a horror movie…

    As Dick De Bartolo once said in Mad Magazine (ca. 1962), “they can’t all be gems”.

    I always liked Groucho’s “Well, all the jokes can’t be good — you gotta expect that sometimes.”

  7. Ken Hanke

    They’d probably tell me to snorkel it.

    But in my experience, they’re more likely to get you somewhere near your destination than Google.

  8. Dionysis

    I’ve not seen this movie, and will try hard to make it to tomorrow’s showing. I’m curious if anyone also saw ‘Haunted Summer’ about the same event, and how it compares?

  9. Ken Hanke

    I’m curious if anyone also saw ‘Haunted Summer’ about the same event, and how it compares?

    I saw Haunted Summer and didn’t care much for it, but it’s in a very different key. When it came out, I remember some critic writing that Haunted Summer “won’t get you as high as Ken Russell’s Gothic,” but that this was perhaps more accurate. The first part is true. The second part may be.

  10. contentpersephone

    soo excited to see this movie again…it’s probably been 15 years or so since last (video) viewing, longer than that since I got to enjoy on the big screen.

    scored a babysitter too! huzzah!
    see you tomorrow night!

  11. Ken Hanke

    scored a babysitter too! huzzah!

    Huzzah indeed. I look forward to you being there!

  12. Ken Hanke

    Stuck at a band recital, but plan on zooming in late

    We’ll save you a seat — or the bean bag chair.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Delighted to see so many turn out for this — the second best attended screening yet, and that’s even counting the four people who walked out. (It’s not really a Ken Russell movie if no one walks out.)

    I should, however, note — if anyone found this a little rarefied or impenetrable, they’ll probably find The Lair of the White Worm a lot more accessible.

  14. john r

    Tonight was my first, I was not overly immpressed with the film, but I enjoyed the crowd. I don’t think my schedule will let me attend regularly, but it was a very comfortable setting (and the Guinness on tap was great).

  15. Ken Hanke

    Tonight was my first, I was not overly immpressed with the film, but I enjoyed the crowd.

    Of course not every film is going to suit every taste. That’s going to be the nature of anything where you run a broad cross-section of movies. There are even some things in the offing — like the Argento movie that was suggested — that I don’t especially like. But at least you enjoyed the crowd and the draught Guinness. Maybe next time you’ll like the movie better, too.

  16. Tonberry

    The Mandolin said he will never look at nipples the same again after watching this.

    Wish I could have been there.

  17. Ken Hanke

    The Mandolin said he will never look at nipples the same again after watching this

    You know, there are so many things I could say to that — and every one of them is inappropriate.

  18. john r

    The Mandolin said he will never look at nipples the same again after watching this. Let’s just say, they may never look at you the same way either.

  19. Ken Hanke

    Let’s just say, they may never look at you the same way either

    That could well be true.

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