“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.”