Ken Russell remains one of the most fascinating directors who ever lived. His films have polarized audiences and critics alike for years. That hasn’t changed.
I first discovered Russell years ago, as I was flipping through the channels instead of doing my homework, and stumbled upon Tommy. I’ve always been a sucker for musicals, but this was unlike anything that I had ever seen. At first, I didn’t know what to make of it. I returned to it not long after my first viewing and decided that I loved it. Years later, I would return to Russell’s work after reading a synopsis for his 1986 masterpiece, Gothic. A horror film from Ken Russell! A must-see, indeed. I found the film on DVD. The cover art on the DVD sold me. I purchased it immediately and watched it. Not surprisingly, I became obsessed with it. Gothic is Ken Russell’s account of the “haunted summer”, in which Mary Shelley was inspired to write “Frankenstein”.
The American version of the film opens with a title card, which reads: “People have often asked me how a girl of such tender years came to write ‘Frankenstein’. In the summer of 1816, I visited Switzerland with my future husband Percy Shelley and my half-sister Claire Clairmont. We spent many evenings at the Villa Diodati in the company of Lord Byron and his physician, Dr. John Polidori, who was later to write ‘The Vampyre’. To amuse ourselves, we told ghost stories while the storm raged outside. Thus out of electricity and apparitions, my monster came to me…”
Since Gothic, I’ve purchased most of Russell’s films. I cherish each and every one of them, but I would say that Gothic is my favorite. In fact, it is one of the best films ever made. Let me tell you why.
1. The Setting: The summer of 1816, at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland. Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and Mary Shelley spend the night telling ghost stories, playing hide and seek, and conjuring up a monster borne of their own fears as a storm rages outside. After they take a few doses of laudanum (all except for dear little Mary), they wander aimlessly through the labyrinthine manor, as their imaginations get the best of them. The Villa Diodati becomes a character in and of itself, due to Russell’s perfect sense of mood and atmosphere.
2. The Creature: We never really completely see the monster that the group manages to bring to life, but every now and again, we catch a glimpse that sets our nerves on edge. This is a smart move on Russell’s part. Our own imaginations begin to work overtime, heightening the suspense.
3. The Score: If I were asked to sum up Thomas Dolby’s score for this film, I’d probably say that it was a strange blend of the music of John Carpenter and Igor Stravinsky. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, before or since. It is totally unique, and I absolutely adore it. (Ken Russell called the score a mix of Stravisnky and Bernard Herrmann).
4. The Cast: Gabriel Byrne. The late, great Natasha Richardson. Julian Sands. Myriam Cyr. Timothy Spall. All perfect. They work together to give their best in this film. I couldn’t imagine a better cast if I wanted to. Gabriel Byrne is deliciously slimy as Lord Byron, Natasha Richardson is beautiful and mysterious as Mary Shelley, Julian Sands is – well – Julian Sands, Myriam Cyr is both sexy and scary, and Timothy Spall goes absolutely bonkers. As far as Spall is concerned, I think that he has never been better!
5. Ken Russell: Yes. This is a Ken Russell film, after all. You should watch it for this reason alone, if nothing else. It’s fun, it’s over-the-top, off the hinges, and downright goofy at times. And, yes, certain moments are genuinely frightening. Oh, and this is the only film that I can think of which features a pair of breasts with blinking eyes.
Gothic is available on a piss-poor pan and scan DVD from Artisan Entertainment. It is also available on a region 2 DVD from MGM, which features the film in its original aspect ratio with a superior transfer. If you have a region-free player, go with that one, but if not, go ahead and buy the Artisan edition. You don’t want to miss this film, even if it means that you’ll have to settle for a crummy transfer.
*Special thanks to Ken Hanke for bringing a few small details to my attention!