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A review of the MGM DVD. It has decent picture quality - not spectacular, but perfectly watchable - and no extra features whatsoever. It costs less than £5 on amazon.
Ken Russell rather petered out in the 80s. His trip to Hollywood was unsuccessful, and after that he made very few watchable films. Gothic (1986) is one of the better of his 80s films - it's probably the last film of Russell's that I'd watch - but it's a long way from his best work.
It tells the story of the night when Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin and various hangers-on had a party that ended with them all trying to write ghost stories. Only Mary's really endured (Frankenstein), although Byron's physician, Polidori, also wrote one of the first vampire stories that night. According to the film it was a wild evening of laudanum-fuelled hallucination and hysteria.
This is maybe the last of the archetypal Ken Russell films. Like his better known 70s films, it deals with famous artistic figures and uses bizarrely obvious but staggeringly odd visual metaphors to illuminate their lives and work. In this case he uses the trappings of the horror film to illustrate the night that created one of the most famous horror stories of all. While this is successful in terms of being entertaining, I'm not sure how much it really tells us about Byron or the Shelleys.
Perhaps I shouldn't worry too much about that. Russell had lost none of his ability to frame a shot, and there are some beautifully composed images in the film. Some are surreal, although a couple of the stranger images don't quite work. The cover image for the DVD, a recreation of Fuseli's famous painting The Nightmare, falls down because the little fella they've got sat on top of the girl doesn't look right at all. And the gyrating automaton is too obviously a human in a body stocking, body popping. But other bits work well, including the eyeballs-in-nipples scene that's probably the film's most notorious moment.
As with all Russell's better films, it's an odd mix of highbrow pretension with lowbrow imagery, creating a mix that I don't think any other director has ever come close to (probably through choice). Whether you think it's a good or bad thing is up to you; while I usually enjoy Russell's style of making serious films in non-serious ways, I found that Gothic tested my patience somewhat. Perhaps it's that a couple of the characters were seriously annoying, perhaps it's that it isn't quite funny enough. Perhaps it's because, by making the whole night's events a feverish series of drug-induced hallucinations, it rather weakens the effect. Lisztomania had Roger Daltrey ride round on a giant penis just for the hell of it. Gothic almost feels like it's justifying its silly excesses by explaining them, and that's a fatal dilution of the Russell formula. It feels like Russell's struggling over things he used to do effortlessly.
Anyway, not to worry. There are only five characters to speak of. Gabriel Byrne camps it up a storm as Byron, which is probably the only way it could be played as the character is self-consciously theatrical. Going even further over the top is Timothy Spall as Polidori. Always a class act, Spall gives a very unrestrained performance. Myriam Cyr, who is sexy but didn't make many other films, is also on cracking form as Byron's lover and Mary's half-sister Claire.
That leaves the Shelleys. The late Natasha Richardson does what she can with Mary, but the character is the ultimate killjoy, and it's difficult not to wish she'd just go to bed and let the boys have their fun. Julian Sands plays Shelley, and unfortunately I find him as irritating in this as in everything else. Shelley probably was quite irritating in real life, but that doesn't make me want to watch Julian Sands play him. One of the servants is a young Dexter Fletcher, who seems to have got everywhere.
It's all very 80s, both in its visual style and its slightly pretentious, Film-4 style subject matter. It doesn't much help that everyone looks like New Romantics. Adam Ant wouldn't be out of place in this movie - he might have improved it, actually.
I'm not quite sure why the film has an 18 certificate; possibly just because it hasn't been re-submitted to the BBFC for a while. I can't see anything in it that warrants that harsh a rating. Although there's some fairly queasy imagery (a lot of stuff about leeches), nothing terribly violent or gory happens. The drug use is all so old-fashioned that no one is going to copy it now (laudanum is hardly the street drug of choice these days). Although it uses horror trappings, it's no more a real horror film than Northanger Abbey is a real gothic novel. It's hard to say exactly what it is, genre wise, but that's true of most of Russell's movies. The music can't seem to decide - at times it goes for slightly ponderous costume drama orchestrals, at others tacky 80s slasher movie synth.
That probably sums up the film. It falls between two stools. While it's too horrific for the costume drama crowd, it's probably a bit too unfocused for horror fans. And for Ken Russell fans it's a reminder of how much better The Music Lovers or Lisztomania are. It's not a bad film - it's well made and well directed and all that - but it's probably as far as I'm going to go in my re-watching of Ken Russell's films following his death. His best work benefits from the tension between the lowbrow, bawdy, often comic style of filming, and the high art subject matter. While that tension is present in Gothic to an extent, it never really sparks into life like it should.
Gothic used to turn up on TV quite often, and I guess Film4 might show it. The DVD is cheap, but its lack of extras means I can't really recommend it.
Gothic mixes fact and fiction, following the fateful night when Frankenstein was first conceived. The film makes little mention of this, but it's set on that night, in the house of Lord Byron with Percy and Mary Shelly, and the quite mad Claire Claremont.
The four of them challenge eachother in what begins with the telling of ghost stories, and escalates through increasingly depraved and dangerous acts as the horror grips them, each of them egging on the others. Personal tragedies are revealed, adding a human element to a very demonic story, giving some connection as the characters become increasingly disconnected from reality.
It's a very eighties film and it shows - the special effects have not worn well with time. But that's easily forgivable, the film doesn't feel as though it's meant to be taken "seriously" - though whether that's true or not is hard to tell.
The acting is very, very panto, which adds to the fun - with the exception of Mary, none of the characters are intended to be sane, and the actors don't make the mistake of playing them straight.
It takes a big suspension of disbelief - to enjoy the film, you really have to let yourself be caught up in it, the way the characters are caught up in their game - but if you can do that, it's good fun.
Star Gabriel Byrne, who played Lord Byron, was fairly unknown at the time, it's interesting to see a now-known actor in an early role. Julian Sands stars as Percy Shelly, three years before his now-famous role in Warlock, and Natasha Richardson performs well as Mary. There's little that can be said about Ken Russell that hasn't already been said - those familiar with his directing style will not be surprised here.