Film review by Thomas M. Sipos




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Gothic  (1986, dir: Ken Russell, scp: Stephen Volk, cast: Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson, Miriam Cyr, Timothy Spall)




In 1816 the Englishwoman Mary Godwin summered in the Villa Diodati on the shore of Switzerland's Lake Geneva. With her were the romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (her future husband) and George Gordon Byron, her half-sister Claire Clairmont, and Byron's physician Dr. John Polidori. At night they invented ghost stories to pass the time. Polidori wrote The Vampyre.  Mary wrote Frankenstein.

This, the historic genesis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, is well-known to horror fans, literature scholars, and feminists (Mary's mother was an early feminist philosopher). An extensively researched chronicle of this historic summer is related in E. Michael Jones's Monsters From the Id: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film. A dramatization of these events, albeit one "inspired by history" rather than a scholarly adhering to facts, is Ken Russell's horror-art film, Gothic.

Gothic opens as Mary, Shelley, and Claire arrive at Byron's Lake Geneva villa. Gabriel Byrne portrays Byron as an embittered bully, alternately mocking, teasing, daring, and threatening both his guests and physician. Such are passionate poets, ridden with angst. The passionate Shelley (Julian Sands) celebrates a lightning storm by striding a rooftop nude. And yes, we get it.

Mary (Natasha Richardson) may have gotten her idea for an angst-riddden mad scientist glorifying electricity by seeing her buff future husband (possibly) do likewise. Everyone in Gothic is passionate and angst-ridden, their passions and angst intensifying all through the night as they get progressively drunk and drugged.

Gothic is a loopy film, messy and pretentious. Its story is impossible to follow because, being so intensely passionate and angst-ridden and drunk and stoned, the characters defy motivation. Their behavior is erratic and arbitrary. Furthermore, we never know if what they're seeing is real or the result of their inebriation or stoned state of mind, or even insanity.

Sands is unremittingly hysterical and hyperactive, at one point whimpering that he's losing his mind, clinging to Mary for strength and comfort. Gothic is a non-sequitur of fantasmagorical images, lurid and sordid, sensuous and repulsive, and often just dull.



Richardson appears older that the 19-year-old Mary. Of course, people matured faster back then, often graduating university and marrying at an age when today's youth are still goofing off in high school. Mary would likely have appeared a mature twentysomething to us, rather than the teenager she was.

Timothy Spall's Dr. Polidori is oily and repulsive, played largely for cruel comic relief. He variably snickers and giggles about leeches, plays with maggots, and bawls like an obese baby. If Gothic is to be taken as history, Dr. Polidori was much like Renfield, and Byron (like Dracula) drew much satisfaction from tormenting him.

Miriam Cyr's Claire Clairmont is a trollop, her chief purpose being to provide a lewd contrast to Richardson's proper Mary. When Byron accuses Mary of loose morals, attempting to drag her down to his level of debauchery, Richardson justifies her "free love" with Shelley (who was then married to another) as done in the name of love and liberty, in contrast to Byron's wanton loveless orgies.

Ken Russell goes to great effort to fill Gothic with scenes of debauchery and depravity. Yet rather than shock, Gothic bores. Perhaps Byron's orgies would have shocked in 1816. Then again, perhaps not. Napoleon had just been defeated the year before, and the French Revolution was still fresh in everyone's mind. Female aristocrats had been eviscerated in the streets of Paris during the Terror, all before cheerful mobs that included gleeful women and children. If Byron's affairs "shocked" some of his English contemporaries, perhaps they only claimed so because they thought it was the proper thing to feel.

Historical note: Gothic portrays Shelley as a hypersensitive victim of Byron's manipulations, whereas E. Michael Jones's research indicates that it was Shelley and Clairmont who were attempting to manipulate Byron.




Gothic is a mess, and thus, boring. Its characters lack motivation and consistency. Its events may or may not be real or imagined. We never know if anything we had previously seen is still valid. Mary is intended as the sane center of the story, but the events swirling around her are as much a mystery to her as to us. There's much talk of evil souls resurrected. There's much talk of a lot of nonsense, none of which is ever pursued or resolved. Characters rush from room to room, hysterical about ghosts and leeches, about gods and vampires, about injuries and suicide.

Mary awakes the next morning to a beautiful day. Everyone is cordial and serene. Was it all a dream?

Do you care?

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos


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