"Gothic": Ken Russell's 1986’s tribute to drug-fueled creativity

The late enfant terrible of British film-making, Ken Russell, is perhaps best remembered for bringing nude male wrestling to the movie-going masses (Women in Love) and for producing a film so profane it was virtually impossible to see unexpurgated for 40 years (The Devils). Never a man for half measures, Russell’s last feature film was the inelegantly titled Whore (1991), after which he rode off into the sunset via a legendary (and abbreviated) appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007.

His November, 2011 passing is acknowledged by Pacific Film Archive this Thursday, June 14th at 7:30 pm with a rare screening of one of Russell’s late period indulgences, 1986’s tribute to drug-fueled creativity Gothic. The film will be preceded by a performance by Brale, a musical group described as “the world’s only Ken Russell tribute band”.

Filmed at Hertfordshire’s magnificent Gaddesden Place, Gothic relates the mythic meeting of minds that helped spawn Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel ‘Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus’.

Set at Villa Diodati, the Swiss manor the incestuous, adulterous, and very, very bad Lord Byron called home, the film imagines an 1816 summer’s evening during which our priapic anti-hero and his guests (poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his lovers Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont, and unhappy physician John Polidori) cook up the mother of all horror stories.

Fueled by laudanum — an alcohol and opium cocktail popular during the 1800s — Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and company conduct a séance that ushers a demonic spirit into their presence. When the flighty Clair (Miriam Cyr, bearing a striking resemblance to The Bride of Frankenstein’s Elsa Lanchester) suffers a seizure, the sensitive Shelley (Julian Sands) descends into a drug-addled panic and tortured Catholic and repressed homosexual Polidori (a surprisingly svelte Timothy Spall) does penance by gouging homemade stigmata into his palms. It falls to the sensible Mary (Natasha Richardson) to try and keep matters under control.

This being a Russell film, however, things are rarely in a state that could be considered ‘under control’. Instead, we’re treated to a generous serving of the director’s characteristic grotesqueries—among them, a fish expiring in a birdbath, a ghoul with a massive phallus, leeches on a dinner plate, and a pair of breasts with eyes in place of nipples. Blended with more traditional gothic elements — rain, thunder, and shadowy hallways aplenty — the result is a heady and relentless concoction spoiled only by a ridiculous (studio-enforced?) coda.

Gothic is accompanied by Thomas Dolby’s grandiose and dissonant electronic score, which despite its obvious ‘80s provenance seems entirely in sympathy with the events unfolding onscreen. The film, however, is not short of contemporaneous trappings — in addition to references to Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’, Henry Fuseli’s then recent painting ‘Nightmares’ glowers from a bedroom wall, presumably a gift from one tortured artist to another.

Though the case cannot be made that Gothic is a highlight of Russell’s career, it remains one of his most entertaining works and a scandalous good time for those so inclined. One suspects Russell saw himself reflected in one of the lines screenwriter Stephen Volk wrote for Lord Byron — “blind them with our wickedness if that is what they want.” Mission accomplished.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...