Friday, October 15, 2010

Gothic (1986)

Being Film #5 in Hail Horror 5. Thanks to Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder for the recommendation.

"Russell provides you with your money's worth. Why he would have wanted to make this film is another matter. This is the kind of movie that Roger Corman was making for American-International back in the early 1960s, when AIP was plundering the shelves of out-of-copyright horror tales, looking for cheap story ideas."

-Roger Ebert, in his review of Russell's LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)
A similar thought ran through my head as I sat and "experienced" the hallucinatory nightmare that is Ken Russell's GOTHIC, a film loosely based one of the most famous events in horror history - the night poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dr. John William Polidori, and Mary Shelley spent at Lord Byron's estate, and the challenge to create a work of horror that ultimately led to the creation of Polidori's Vampyre and, more famously, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  That thought was that this would have been perfect fodder for Corman and AIP, or even Hammer Films back in the early 60s.  The pairing of this type of story, told with the visual flair and camp that is a signature of Russell's work, must have seemed to be a perfect match to the film's producers.

I wish I was as taken with the pairing.  Russell wanted to portray Byron and his guests as he felt they would truly be at the time, not the refined, cultured gentleman typical of a Corman or Hammer production, but as hedonistic satyrs, consuming life with a savagery that was more in keeping with history and perhaps his own interests.  So GOTHIC plays out like a campy nightmare: plenty of vibrant colors and religious iconography, twisted sexual imagery both real and imagined, and acting that veers from lethargic to histrionic in a nanosecond.  Upon their arrival at the Villa Diodati, Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and Polidori (an outlandishly foppish Timothy Spall) serve their guests laudanum, and later on instead of challenging each other to write a horror story, he proposes they conjure their own horror through mysticism and séance.   The results, largely viewed through the eyes of Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson in one of her first roles), is a series of events as each person comes into contact with their innermost terrors, including snakes, leeches, suit of armor with enormous spiked codpieces, and - lest we forget - a belly-dancing robot whose nipples turn into a pair of eyes.

It's all presented in your face and with barely a pause, so watching GOTHIC for me was more of a challenge to my stamina than my sensibilities.  Without a coherent plot to fall back on GOTHIC is really nothing more than a series of loosely-connected vignettes that ultimately go nowhere.  The acting is all around pretty terrible - Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands as Percy Shelley in particular both spend much of the time either crying or storming around speaking in melodramatic sound bytes (one scene even has Shelley naked on the roof during a thunderstorm proclaiming, rather obviously, that lightning is the key to life or something, with Mary looking on)  I can't help but like Timothy Spall, and he has a few good moments: in the beginning he's framed in silhouette, commenting in a very dandified voice upon the arrival of the guests to what appears to be a stuffed parrot.  Later on he nicks himself on the crucifix above his bed, and then later removes it to impale his hand again and again upon the nail.  Richardson's beauty goes a long way to elevate her in a largely thankless, reactive role; most of the juicy female parts (ew, poor choice of words there) belong to Myriam Cyr as Claire, who winds up with a dead rat in her mouth at one point in the film.

I think if you're a fan of Russell's visual style you can forgive the poor script and simply relish in the singular madness he depicts on screen.  Having only seen a few of his films (TOMMY, ALTERED STATES, LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM), I was initially taken with the pace and style but about halfway through just became disinterested.  GOTHIC doesn't really touch on the points that made this momentous meeting so important, and feels instead like an opportunity for Russell to put to screen many of the mad things he had dancing in his head at the time.  Not even remotely frightening, and boasting an out-of-place and forgettable score by Thomas Dolby, I was left thinking about the film's poster, and how hard it must have been to market this thing when it came out.  To be honest I can't even remember what the ending was all about - I know it goes to the present, and there's a disturbing image of a baby floating in the water, but I couldn't tell you what it was supposed to mean.

Oh, well.  Maybe I'm not supposed to know.  At any rate, while I wouldn't recommend the film (especially in its current incarnation, a muddy, washed-out VHS transfer), I can certainly see the appeal, and maybe if I had some more of his films under my belt, there would be more to discuss.  But based on GOTHIC, I don't think I'll be checking them out any time soon.


  1. GOTHIC is "okay" but for me, his best film is LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. Loads of gonzo horror mixed with absurd, darkly humorous moments. Plus, you get someone hissing venom on a crucifix! Crazy stuff.... But GOTHIC I can take or leave depending on my mood.

  2. Not his best, but I love GOTHIC because it his Russell at his most mad and campy. I thinkit plays better if you're familiar with Russell's range and work. Thanks for giving it a try.

    I must disagree with J.D. I love LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, but THE DEVILS and ALTERED STATES are my favorites and genuinely horrifying.

  3. Tony - that's probably the case. It's been a long time since I saw ALTERED STATES but since it's on Netflix Instant Streaming I might give it another go.

    On an odd note, I am in the process of writing up Dario Argento's STENDHAL SYNDROME, and it occurred to me Argento shares a similar visual sense with Russell, forsaking at times a more linear narrative for visual punch. Might be a matter of personal preference, but do you see the similarity and does Argento's stuff work for you?

  4. The only Argento I've seen is SUSPIRIA and it didn't really do much for me. But its been years so revisiting it and his work is called for.