Gothic (1986)

Director: Ken Russell

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Over the past two days, as the news got worse and worse about Natasha Richardson, one thought kept running through my head. The last movie of hers I’d seen, on Monday, was Blow Dry, a barely watchable bit of fluff that suited my distracted mind at the time. “I can’t know she’s dead with that floating around in my mind about her,” I thought. So last evening, before we got the official news of her passing, I watched Gothic.

The hubby and I tried to watch Gothic some months ago, but the library copy was damaged beyond use. We settled for Haunted Summer (1988), Ivan Passer’s attempt at the same story (and now having seen Gothic, I’m tempted to call it a ripoff of Russell) while waiting for our purchased copy of Gothic to arrive. Where Haunted Summer was a bland and rather adolescent foray into the dark recesses of creativity (as a rule, casting Eric Stoltz in anything will do that), Gothic tells of the genesis of Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein—a laudanum-soaked night of hallucinations with free-love poets Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands), Mary (Richardson), Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont (Miriam Cyr), and drug dealer to these literary stars, Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall)—the way only Ken Russell can. Gothic is the perfect description for this dark, lush film—a horror story about the making of a horror story.

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As the story begins, tourists set up across from Lord Byron’s estate on the shores of Lake Geneva are using telescopes to try to catch a glimpse of the scandalous Byron, hopefully behaving scandalously. The tour guide redirects the gaze of one of the tourists to his bedroom, where Byron is spying back. His attention is diverted to a boat moving toward him, and he runs to greet his great friend Shelley. Shelley, on the other hand, runs to evade two young women who have pursued him from Geneva. A dash through the woods, barking dogs from where and in pursuit of what not clearly spelled out, and a hop over a wall secures Shelley’s safety. Cuts back to Claire, who falls into the water with a maniacal giggle, and Mary, who seems lost, signal their characters beautifully—impetuous, desirable, passionate Shelley; mad, elemental Claire; conventional Mary who seems wholly unsuited to a bohemian lifestyle. The lush music and full orchestration of Thomas Dolby lift us effortlessly into the realm of high art and continue to punctuate the film flawlessly.

Byron is delighted to see Shelley, whom he calls “Shiloh,” but is mildly annoyed that Claire, his most recent lover, has come along. Heedless, Claire runs up the long staircase to find a bed—clearly an invitation to Byron. Mary, who has been greeted with great solicitude by Byron’s servants, is insulted by Byron, who calls her “Mrs. Shelley,” then corrects himself by using the surname “Godwin;” Shelley is still married, though living with Mary and their young son William. Mary ascends the stairs to her room, where she encounters a goat, udder full to bursting (Russell loves breasts of all kinds!), on the landing. “I wouldn’t dream of traveling without my menagerie,” Byron calls out, as a servant leads the beast away. Mary’s impression of Byron is that he is not only bizarre, but cruel, as she can plainly see that he has grown bored with Claire, who is carrying his child.

The theme of the night is established when the guests are invited to read aloud from a book of ghost stories and then to devise their own tales of the uncanny. To this they add a conjuring séance and continuous consumption of laudanum, an opiate that fuels their horrifying visions. The rest of the movie is a fever dream that is a sensuous acid trip for some of them—the professional creatives Byron and Shelley, as well as sensualist Claire—and a very dark night of the soul for tormented, homosexual Catholic Polidori and Mary, who remains haunted by a stillborn son she had with Shelley.

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How well you relate to this film may depend on how deeply you care to immerse yourself in Russell’s gothic visions—and perhaps there is a generation gap as well. As a long-time fan of Ken Russell’s perverse and intuitive explorations of religion, sexuality, and creativity, I rate Gothic among his best. It is certainly not without some hackneyed images—for example, Byron calling Polidori a pig repeatedly and then spying a pig’s head on the floor that changes into the good doctor’s head and back again. I’ve also heard some criticism from younger viewers that the breasts with nipples that turn into blinking eyes, an apparent fear of Shelley’s, is a page out of the Pan’s Labyrinth effects book—though, of course, it’s the other way around, seeing as Gothic was made 20 years earlier.

Yet, I find the imagery and circumstances subtle in suggesting the elements of Frankenstein, which is, after all, the reason this historical incident lives on. For example, the night is storming, and lightning strikes a tree. All of the assembled see a shadow that appears alive. They discover the tree burning and sort out what happened—yet, Mary still believes they conjured an evil being standing tall and blazing in the field. Later, when Byron, Shelley, and Mary go to look for Claire, Byron tears his shirt off, wraps it around a stick, and uses it as a torch. The theme of bringing something dead to life runs through Mary’s nightmare evening, as she pictures dead and deformed babies.

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Mary sees Byron as a monster, and in one morbidly effective scene, the audience sees Byron as Mary sees him. Finding Claire sleeping, Byron draws a veil over her face like a shroud and appears to perform oral sex on her. When he comes back into view, his mouth is covered in blood. Has Claire been lying about being pregnant, and is the blood menstrual blood? Or has Byron torn the fetus from her womb, acting upon his suggestion of an abortion earlier in the day? Mary’s bourgeois morality fuses with ours and creates an image of innocence crushed, a process she is experiencing and that she speaks out against in cataloguing Byron’s predatory deeds—including seducing his own sister—when he questions her about her belief in free love.

Gabriel Byrne is very effective as a man who lives over the edge but remains in control. Rather than suppress his bisexual urges and upper-class privileges, he renounces England and goes off to do exactly as he pleases. He’s a perfect hedonist and image of a poet who believes in his own truth and his ability to expand it to all humanity through his poetry. Is he a shit? Well, that’s the conventional wisdom about legendary artists, and Russell seems to suggest that while there’s some truth to it, the scourge is a bit overblown. In point of fact, the two most tormented souls of the night, Mary and Polidori, both of whom try to kill themselves, are the ones who produce horror stories that have lasted to this day—Frankenstein and The Vampyre. Suffering, another artistic conceit, seems to have unlocked their dormant creativity.

Spall is genuinely creepy and generally unsympathetic as Polidori, a type of role he has reprised in increasingly shallow characters (the Beadle in Sweeney Todd, for example) as his career has progressed. Sands is fine as Shelley, handsome, romantic, passionate; he lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. Cyr hasn’t got much to do, but she commits her all to a role that requires her to cover her naked body in mud and crouch with a rat in her mouth.

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Finally, Natasha Richardson projects the bourgeois trying to break free from convention and finding the creative process the horror that keeps most middle-class individuals safely in their cozy lives. Her creation of Frankenstein is made plausible by the lavish nightmare Russell has constructed, but she isn’t convincing as a woman raised by a feminist and flouting social mores. Here Mary is not complex, and she’s rather a prude as well. Nonetheless, her final panic, during which she attempts to leap from a balcony, is raw in its intensity; her rueful account of what her horror story will be the morning after the night before is filled with a sad wisdom, bringing an unintended note of tragedy to this film from one who has left us too soon.

  • ARBOGAST spoke:
    19th/03/2009 to 2:07 pm

    I need to see this again because I despised it in 1987 for the juvenilia of its sexual imagery (the armored knight with the big tin cock was so Lisztomania). But it’s been over 20 years and my tastes have changed – perhaps I’ll find something else in there to focus on and your review encourages me, as you wouldn’t go out of your way to praise a big tin cock for its own sake. I think.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/03/2009 to 2:30 pm

    Well, I think the point is that Mary Shelley in this film is very conventional and uptight. She kind of represents the audience to me, and so her imagery – like the tin cock, as you so eloquently express it, or even the snake on the suit of armor – is pretty conventional. Opening the film with the tourists watching the villa is pretty much what Russell thinks about the audiences watching this movie: “Where’s the bedroom?” Byron’s erotic repertoire is definitely more interesting.

  • Pat spoke:
    19th/03/2009 to 2:57 pm

    This makes me nostalgic for Ken Russell movies in general – haven’t seen one in years, but now I feel like renting this. Or “The Devils.” Or even the dreadful “Music Lovers” if it’s available somehwere.
    And, like you, my most recent Natasha Richardson experience was the forgettable “Blow Dry.” I feel the need to seek out “The Handmaid’s Tale” this weekend to erase the fleeting memories I have of “Blow Dry.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/03/2009 to 3:04 pm

    Pat – I’ve always been quite fond of Russell. I love The Devils, of course, but Women in Love and Valentino, the latter of which I’ve reviewed on this site, are really wonderful as well. He has, more than anything, a way of creating atmosphere. He didn’t title this “Mary” or “Shelley” or something specific; he named it for its atmosphere. He creates milieus, sometimes at the expense of character, but that’s what I love. I feel like I’ve been to an historical “happening.” I don’t think I can recall another director who does so distinctly.

  • Rod spoke:
    19th/03/2009 to 8:26 pm

    Big fan of The Music Lovers myself.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 7:59 am

    I’ve noticed that Senses of Cinema doesn’t have Russell in their Great Directors series. I think I might give it a go.

  • Greg F. spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 8:19 am

    As a long-time fan of Ken Russell’s perverse and intuitive explorations of religion, sexuality, and creativity, I rate Gothic among his best.
    That’s good enough for me. This is one Russell I’ve never seen (actually there are several I haven’t seen) but it feels like something I’m in the mood to watch now. I’d also like to see The Handmaid’s Tale again because, like Arbo with Gothic, I was dissatisfied with Handmaid when I saw it upon release (directed by The Tin Drum director of all people). Maybe now I’d view it different. Any thoughts on that one?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 8:42 am

    I haven’t seen it, Greg. I’ve generally liked Schlondorff’s films, and Margaret Atwood is a favorite of mine. And with Pinter as the screenwriter, it certainly has a lot going for it. But, as we both know, things that look good on paper sometimes aren’t.

  • Greg F. spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 10:25 am

    Yes, I believe my dissatisfaction came in some way from not thinking it was as powerful as the book if I recall. To this day, whenever I see a Fundy (as Rick calls them) seeking political power or read a story about some local Fundy trying to get a state to amend its constitution to follow Biblical Law I get a chill and think, “Republic of Gilead.”

  • Fox spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 11:55 am

    Marilyn-
    I think it would be great if you gave a Ken Russell entry for Senses of Cinema “a go”. I can’t believe he isn’t on there.
    But, maybe I do… as Arbo kinda hinted at, I first saw some of Ken Russell’s films with a dismissive eye, but then I saw Whore, and something in me clicked with him. I’ve still got a lot of watching to do, and I still don’t like everything he does, but I’m kind of obsessed with trying to wrap my brain around him.
    Speaking of brains, have y’all seen his movie Billion Dollar Brain starring Karl Malden and Michael Caine?? The only way I can descrive it is : weirdness… TOTAL WEIRDNESS.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 12:02 pm

    Thanks, Fox. I’m noodling an article I was invited to submit on Religion and Popular Culture. After that, I think I’ll propose an article to Senses of Cinema.
    I haven’t seen that one – I need to see more. There has always been something about Russell that I love, right from the start. He’s kind of like Kubrick in his lavish ambition, but with more emotion. And Kubrick and Bunuel are my favorite directors. I guess Russell kind of combines them in a way.

  • Pat spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 2:55 pm

    Re: “Handmaid’s Tale”: I read an interesting article somewhere online yesterday with quotes from Richardson at the time of the film’s release. She actually was unhappy with Pinter’s adaptation, and considered Atwood’s novel – not Pinter’s script – her source material for her performance.
    I love Atwood and love the book, but had a mixed reaction to the film. I guess, like Greg, I’d like to see it again just to see if I liked it better now. I’d forgotten than Volker Schlondorff directed, so after seeing “The Tin Drum,” it’d be especially interesting to revisit.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 3:05 pm

    Enjoyed reading this, Marilyn! This is one of my favorite Ken Russell films along with The Devils, The Music Lovers, Women in Love, Altered States, Valentino, The Rainbow and Lair of the White Worm, even though I have some problems with it.
    I don’t know if we’ve discussed this before, but I’m a bit of an independent scholar when it comes to the Shelley’s and their circle. I became obsessed with Frankenstein as a kid and from there I started collecting books about Mary, Percy, Byron, etc. and I’ve been a member of the Byron society and the Shelley/Keats Association (on and off again) for over 20 years.
    My main problem with the film is the way Polidori is portrayed, which is just silly even if it works in the film. “Pretty Poli” was a smart and incredibly handsome Italian doctor that managed to seduce Byron and became one of Mary’s close confidents for a brief time. He’s been vilified over the years though and the film totally plays into this strange image of the doctor that’s permeated popular culture.
    By all accounts Mary was uptight, somewhat conservative and became progressively more so as she got older so I think Natasha Richardson does a really fine job of portraying her in Gothic. Her performance as Mary is the best I’ve seen and it’s my favorite Richardson role with her performance in The Comfort of Strangers coming in a close second.
    Russell’s long been one of my favorite film directors. I highly recommend his autobiography Altered States if you haven’t read it yet but he has written a new one, which is getting published in a month or two.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 3:42 pm

    Pat – Now that y’all are talking about it, I’m becoming more curious about The Handmaid’s Tale.
    Well, if that is the real Mary, Natasha nailed her, Kimberly. She professes to be a believer in free love in the film, so the disconnect was a bit jarring for me, but I see where it was coming from now. As for Polidori, well, it’s a real shame. The young man who plays him in Haunted Summer is very attractive, but rather dull-witted. And I will read Altered States. I’m getting more jazzed about writing that director article.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 4:28 pm

    I actually like some aspects of Haunted Summer since they get a few historical things right that a lot of other films miss, but overall it’s just not a very entertaining film unless you’re a history obsessed nerd like myself who happens to be interested in the real characters the film portrays. While Gothic is just plain entertaining!
    Mary was a really conflicted individual who turned to religion as she got older. I have mixed feelings about her as a person from everything I’ve read, but she lived a fascinating life, as did her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. Thankfully her mother remained a radical liberal until she died.
    I’ll be looking forward to reading your piece on Ken Russell!
    On a side not I recently asked Eclipse/Criterion on their Auteurs chat boards to please consider releasing all the Russell films on DVD that are not available or out of print. It’s a real shame that so many of his films are so hard to see.

  • Mrs Polidori spoke:
    28th/02/2010 to 7:57 pm

    I am totally ashamed of Gothic for portraying John Polidori in that way. In reality, he was an unbelievably handsome young man and amazingly clever for such a young age, but in this film, he is portrayed as an imbecile, horrible and repulsive. I hate portrayals like that. It gives people the wrong idea.

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