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.

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