Monday, April 20, 2015

Gothic (1986)

Its often said that the inspiration behind a horror story, or “the horror beneath the horror” as author John McCarty described it in his 1990 book The Modern Horror Film, is often just as fascinating as the horror story itself. There couldn’t be a more perfect example than the inspiration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. As interesting as it is thinking of how many films have been born out of Shelly’s story of the modern Prometheus and how many other genre stories have borrowed from it, what really makes the origin of Shelly’s novel so intriguing, particularly to fans of classic genre literature is the cast of characters involved. During the “year without a summer” in 1816, Shelly (then Godwin), her fiancé, the poet Percy Shelly and half-sister Claire Clairmont spent some leisurely time at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati in Switzerland along with Byron’s personal physician John William Polidori. After entertaining themselves with ghost stores the group made a challenge to each other to write a horror story and thus Frankenstein, along with Polidori’s The Vampyre was born. Considering the personalities involved, it’s the type of story that was prime for its own horror story and who better to tell the tale than Ken Russell? Unsurprisingly with Russell at the helm 1986’s Gothic is certainly the most outlandish re-imagining of the events along with being one of the most original horror films from the 80’s.

Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson) along with her soon to be husband poet Percy Shelly (Julian Sands) and half-sister Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) arrive at Villa Diodati, the home of Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) whom had been banished from England. Upon arriving they are introduced to Bryon’s personal physician John Polodori (Timothy Spall) and soon after their games begin with the group indulging in select vices. Fueled by drink, opium and ghost stories, Byron suggests they hold a séance of sorts and create their own monsters. As a storm rages on outside, the group find themselves trapped in an increasingly horrifying nightmare, terrorized by their inner-most fears.  

Shortly after the opening credits Russell features two of the characters running around like lunatics which gives a good idea of the type of insanity that’s in store for the rest of the film. What’s important to know going into Gothic is that despite dealing with historical literary figures, Russell isn’t interested in historical fact, merely using the get-together of Bryon, the Shelly’s and Polodori as a primer for something much more surreal than a simple presenting of the facts. Really what Gothic is about is a celebration of the imagination and an embracing of the irrational when the imagination, especially when dealing with the personal fears of characters such as these, is inflamed. This also gives Russell license to muse on his own fixations on sex and religion particularly as it relates to Polodori’s repressed homosexuality and fear of god, Byron’s not so repressed homosexual attraction to Shelly as well as his incestuous transgressions. The collective anxieties of all involved also lead to some of the most arresting and at times startling visuals Russell ever conjured up which are atmospherically aided by Thomas Dolby’s oddly appropriate electronic score. What really sells the film though is the manic performances of the entire cast with Sands, Cyr and Spall having complete mental breakdowns throughout the entire film and Byrne making for a moody and brooding Byron. It’s the late and sorely missed Richardson though who gives the most brilliant and ultimately emotionally resonant performance as Mary, constantly haunted by the death of her child.

Along with simply being a Ken Russell film, Gothic has a connection to Russell’s The Devils (1971) in that Natasha Richardson was the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave who was of course astounding in her performance as Sister Jeanne in The Devils. Even cooler, Richardson was also the stepdaughter of Franco Nero! Her role as Mary Shelly in Gothic was actually her first major staring role, one that lead to a great career that was tragically cut short in 2009. Just a phenomenal, irreplaceable talent who checked out way to soon. Its also interesting to note that at the time of filming, Gabriel Byrne was 36 years old, the same age as Byron when he died. Again, accuracy wasn’t exactly what Russell was going for but there are some fragments of facts peppered throughout the film, namely Byron’s scandalous personality and Mary’s grieving over the loss of children. Gothic was hit for Vestron Video, so much so that they wanted another horror film from Russell which would end up being The Lair of the White Worm (1988) loosely based on Bram Stoker’s final novel, although it would appear that Gothic has become one of Russell’s more neglected films especially when compared to Russell’s other horror films. Gothic is a startlingly original piece of horror, one that proves that Russell, much like the individuals depicted in the film, was a true hero of the imagination.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

One of the oldest legends in English folklore, the story of the Lambton Worm, or “wyrm”, a dragon like creature, is also one of the most interesting and creative. Like most folktales, the story has been told in many ways over the years with variations on several details, but the basic gist of the tale revolves around John Lambton, a rebellious youngster who skips church to go fishing and catches a strange worm like creature. Discarding it, Lambton throws the worm down a well where it eventually grows to a monstrous size and begins to wreak havoc in the surrounding areas until John Lambton returns and finally kills the worm. The story partially served as the basis for what was to be Bram Stoker’s final novel The Lair of the White Worm, published in 1911. According to some, Stoker was quite ill with syphilis while writing the book which would account for the often delirious tone of the writing and the books overall bizarreness. The perfect type of material for Ken Russell to base a film around and the perfect follow up his previous insane piece of literature inspired horror Gothic (1986), a fantastic imagining of the night the premise of Frankenstein came to Mary Shelly, The Lair of the White Worm is Russell at his most outrageous and a film that is in a class all its own within the horror genre.

While digging around a farmhouse inn operated by sisters Mary and Eve Trent, archeologist Angus Flint unearths an odd, dragon-esque skull which is soon followed by a mosaic featuring a portrait of Dionin, an ancient Pagan snake god. The site of the excavation is owned by James d'Ampton (Hugh Grant), a descendant of John d’Ampton who according to local legend killed the d’Ampton worm, a giant snake like creature who terrorized the village. Coinciding with the excavation is arrival of Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a seasonal resident whose estate is located near the farmhouse as well as the cave which was said to be the d’Ampton worms lair. Not long after the skull and the deeply religious Eve go missing, prompting James to suspect the legend of the d’Ampton worm to be true and in some way connected to the Pagan mosaic and Lady Sylvia.

Unapologetically blasphemous, often ridiculous, always absurdly humorous and at times jarringly frightening, there’s no question about it, The Lair of the White Worm is a Russell film through and through. This film is a shining example of how to properly blend horror and humor with both elements perfectly balancing off each other resulting in one very entertaining and bizarre film, one that combines bits and pieces of the Lambton Worm legend, Stoker’s novel and Russell’s own unique personal touches. On first viewing and possibly even on subsequent viewings the film may seem incomprehensible from a narrative standpoint and indeed there is quite a bit in the plot to digest, with Russell making no attempt to avoid what may come across as randomness (including a surreal dream sequence on an airplane that seems to come out of nowhere even for Russell) however in the end the film ultimately does come full circle and the way Russell has the story play out makes the seemingly convoluted plot all the more interesting. Visually the film is ripe with Russell‘s flamboyant excessiveness including two instantly memorable hallucinations that provide a nice shock in the way Russell has them just appear out of the blue. Both feature what most would probably consider dated video effects but have an endearing quality to them and give them a standout look. The actual look of Dionin is quite effective as well containing just the right amount camp and if that weren’t enough Russell also throws in some striking vampyric snake/human hybrids!

Russell originally wanted Tilda Swinton to play the role of Lady Sylvia Marsh however according to producer Dan Ireland in a Trailers from Hell commentary after Swinton read the script she felt so insulted she wouldn’t even return Russell’s phone calls. No offence to Swinton who is a great talent but thankfully Russell met Amanda Donohoe who for all intensive purposes owns the film. Donohoe IS Lady Sylvia and simply oozes sexuality and brings the right amount of campiness to the role while also never loosing the characters sense of mystique. The film just wouldn’t have been the same without her. Donohoe would go onto to co-star in Russell’s The Rainbow (1989), a prequel to his classic Women in Love (1969). Interestingly enough, The Lair of the White Worm was a holdover film of sorts in order for Russell to get the funding for The Rainbow. The casting of Hugh Grant is almost hysterical in itself considering the kind of roles he would become famous for in the 90’s but he’s really good here, clearly in the on the joke so to speak and it’s a joke well worth being in on. While it may not be as full-on as The Devils (1971) or as visually excessive as Altered States (1980), The Lair of the White Worm is nonetheless one of Russell’s most entertaining genre entries and an unforgettable horror film in general.