gothic poster

Tomorrow’s Halloween, and I thought it a fine time to do an article I’d been planning to do for a while: a review of the bizarre 1986 horror film Gothic, directed by Ken Russell. I’ve seen this film many times over the years and my husband and I watched it again last night on DVD; I also saw it in high-definition on Netflix Streaming during my research trip to Boston. Gothic, which is a fictionalized account of the genesis of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel Frankenstein, is a film with particular resonance to me: it depicts certain events and conditions that are the subject of my academic research on climate change in the early 19th century, for my dissertation entitled Ten Years of Winter.

Here’s the backstory, which the movie doesn’t get into. A series of volcanic eruptions beginning in 1809 pumped a lot of stuff–sulfur dioxide, particularly–into the Earth’s atmosphere. This stuff scattered solar radiation, cooled the surface and turned the weather over much of the world cold and disagreeable. The summer of 1816 was the height of this effect. In June that year, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his girlfriend (later wife) Mary, Byron’s lover Claire Clairmont, and his doctor John Polidori rented a luxury villa on Lake Geneva called the Villa Diodati for summer vacation. Because the weather conditions were so bad, their plans of picnicing and yachting were ruined. They were forced to stay indoors with fires blazing, and to amuse themselves they told ghost stories. This was how Mary came up with Frankenstein, Polidori hatched The Vampyr and Lord Byron came up with his poem “Darkness.”

Gothic begins with the arrival of Percy (Julian Sands), Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Claire (Miriam Cyr) to the villa by boat, in gloomy weather. Gawkers following the scandals of this literary circle–Byron had exiled himself from England after a series of sex scandals, some of them homosexual in nature–watch through telescopes across the lake. Byron (played by Gabriel Byrne) and Polidori (Timothy Spall, later famous for the Harry Potter films) are already there. After a lurid dinner scene which establishes that the friends are morally depraved and also somewhat distrustful of each other, night falls and the fun really begins.

As thunder crackles and candle flames flicker, the friends hold a seance over the skull of the “Black Monk” and try, on Byron’s dare, to realize their worst fears. The movie doesn’t make entirely clear what happens next, except some sort of entity, which can evidently change form, is unleashed somewhere in the house. Whatever it is, it stalks them for most of the movie, playing on their fears. Mary, traumatized by the death of a child, fears losing another one; the entity appears as various dead or dying children. Percy, a raging laudanum addict, is having a bad trip and for some reason dreads seeing a spectral woman with eyes on her breasts. Poledori, who is gay, is terrified of divine judgment for his moral decay. It’s anyone’s guess what Claire is afraid of. She spends most of the movie screaming, flopping on the floor, foaming at the mouth, eating rats, and writhing around in perverse pleasure. Despite being white, Claire has a colossal 80s Afro that is the rival of anything Pam Grier wore a decade earlier.

Beyond its basic premise, the movie is pretty disjointed. Ken Russell prided himself on an over the top style, and he seems to have established the movie as mainly an opportunity for the cast to chew the scenery as much as possible. They rage, scream, shout, wrestle, threaten each other with revolvers, knives and leeches, and sometimes have sex. For good measure Russell throws into the mix a mechanical belly-dancer robot, a knight in armor wrapped in a boa constrictor, Percy’s dreaded eyes-on-the-tits gag, and even a live goat. How does this all fit together? I have no idea, but it’s at least interesting to watch.

Gothic is not very scary, but it is atmospheric. There are lots of great gloomy shots and terrifying images, much like horror imagery from the Georgian period really was (the famous Henri Fuseli painting The Nightmare from 1781 is recreated in the picture, and serves as the basis of the film’s poster), and it’s interesting to see a depiction of this romantic period as dark, moody and terrifying. When I watched the HD version on streaming I was surprised how pretty the movie was, especially the color palette; this is totally lost on my generally poor-quality DVD version. Still, it was a low budget film and, while they pulled off the period pretty well, there are some foibles. It was filmed in a mansion that probably dates from the Victorian or perhaps even Edwardian era, 100 years later than the period depicted, so there are some anachronistic details–like light bulbs clearly visible in the lamps above the billiard table–and parts of the set are draped in sheets to hide various aspects of it. The cheesy My-First-Casio style 80s synth music score by Thomas Dolby (“She Blinded Me With Science!”) is also especially annoying. On the whole, though, Russell did a pretty good job.

Forget about the movie being historically accurate. There are some nods to real events, such as Shelley’s “Viking funeral” from 1822 and the death of Byron in the Greek War in 1824, both depicted in flash-forwards. But the story is heavily fictionalized. But as it’s one of the few movies set in the era I study and actually deals with some aspects of my research, it’s a welcome favorite. It’s perfect for a rainy, chilly Halloween eve, especially if you have a good glass of wine at hand!

Grade: B plus.

The poster for Gothic is presumably copyright (C) 1986 by Virgin Films and/or Artisan Entertainment (not sure who the copyright holder is). This particular one is the German release version. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use.