87 min., 1986
Written by Lord Byron/Percy Bysshe Shelley/Stephen Volk
Directed by Ken Russell
My rating: ★★★
As long as you are a guest in my house, you’ll play my games.
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Even if you’re only casually interested in horror, you probably know about that one fateful night in 1816 when Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and his wife Mary gathered together to tell ghost stories. This, of course, led to the creation of FRANKENSTEIN (and if you’re a bit more than casually interested, you know it also led to THE VAMPYRE).
GOTHIC takes this real life story and tries to turn it into a horror movie. In all actuality, it might actually have happened, kind of. But if you take it literally, you will be disappointed. As with all other fiction that tries to take a non-fiction situation and turn it into fancy, this falls far short of the mark. Sorry, folks. Cthulhu isn’t real, and Edgar Allan Poe never investigated serial killers.
BUT! Lord Byron and Percy Shelley did a lot of drugs. A LOT.
Here’s what director Ken Russell tried to do: he took this very famous literary night and tried to turn it into a supernatural event. According to his version, the trio (joined by Dr. Polidori, who wrote THE VAMPYRE, and Mary’s stepsister Claire, who was supposed to be fucking Lord Byron) decide to call up their darkest fears with the aid of a human skull Byron just happened to have in his villa. As a result, they are harried by ghosts and insanity beyond belief.
It sounds like it could be interesting. Unfortunately, it comes off as a combination of two things: a party gone awry at Hunter S. Thompson’s compound and a group of drunken teenagers partying in a house they’d just broken into.
The problem is, Russell tries to hard. The music is over the top, almost to the point of a STAR WARS score. Characters do things for no discernible reason, except to throw a spook into the viewers. Transitions are terribly clunky. In short, it’s kind of a disaster.
But it’s a disaster with some really good points. The first thing that he got right was casting. Who can imagine an actor better suited for Lord Byron than Gabriel Byrne? He does a perfect mixture of hedonism and cruelty. In one scene, Claire playfully goes to lick his feet, and he kicks her in the face. He holds her head near a blazing fireplace until she swears to never do it again. When she later has a seizure, he stands coldly by and watches, almost amused. On the other hand of that particular coin, he has an overpowering desire to fuck everything that moves. In addition to the idea that he’s fucking Claire, it is strongly suggested that he fucked Dr. Polidori. In one scene he tries to fuck Mary Shelley and stops just short of rape. In another scene, he very actively tries to seduce Percy Shelley, and it would seem that Shelley is open to the idea, since it very obviously seems that he’s entranced by his fellow poet.
Russell scores even more points by casting Julian Sands as Shelley. Let’s face it, Sands was a beautiful man in his youth, which matches perfectly with Shelley’s boyishly good looks. He is vibrant with life and free love. It is very easy to imagine Shelley exactly as Sands portrays him, especially when he walks naked out onto Byron’s roof in the middle of a raging storm, shouting at the heavens.
Timothy Spall as Dr. Polidori is also wonderful. Before he spirals down into lunacy, he comes off like a younger brother, always wanting to tag along. THE VAMPYRE is a fairly important part of horror’s heritage, but it is mostly glossed over because FRANKENSTEIN completely outshone it. Ask anyone who was there at Villa Diodati that night, and they’ll name the top three. Very few will remember Polidori (which speaks poorly of Claire, who almost no one will mention).
Miriam Cyr also deserves mention as Claire because she had to do a lot of crazy shit in this film. Her wide, insane eyes are very memorable. She’s perfect at playing lunacy, and if anyone doubts this, take one look at the scene where she’s naked in the cellar, covered in mud, gnawing at a rat.
The only clunker in the cast is Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley. She comes off too bland. Even when she’s trapped in the throes of insanity near the end of the film, she’s too vanilla.
If you’re going to make a movie about that particular night, this is pretty much the dream team. But casting isn’t the only thing Russell has on his side: he also has great imagery. There is a scene when Shelley discovers a striptease robot in Byron’s home. He starts it up and watches it strip. When he touches a breast, the dress falls, and it thrusts its robotic pussy at him. In another scene, Dr. Polidori is seen drinking water full of leeches. Slightly later, he’s laughing, crazed, slapping his open hand onto a nail sticking out of the wall. The same leeches are seen later, covering Byron’s body. In a dream, Mary experiences a demonic imp crouching on her chest. Shelley is seduced by an image of Claire when she reveals that she has breasts with eyes for nipples. Mary dreams that she sees Shelley being buried alive, and then she sees him burning on a funeral pyre. Powerful stuff.
But the most memorable image involves Byron and Claire. You see, Claire is pregnant with Byron’s child, and he wants Polidori to abort it. However, Polidori has mentally checked out, so Byron tries an alternative method: he comes upon Claire while she’s half-asleep and starts going down on her. However, while she’s lost in the throes of passion, he sucks the fetus out of her in a glut of blood. With a crimson chin, Byron kisses her.
So . . . how many of you believe that this really happened? Zero, right? It has no credibility, so it’s hard to get into it. BUT! As I said earlier, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley did a lot of drugs. A LOT. If you take the movie in another way, it’s very clear what happened: everyone loaded up on high-grade drugs and hallucinated the whole thing (although the orgy with Byron, Shelley, Mary and Claire probably did happen, considering the reputations of Byron and Shelley). Judging by the ending, it would seem that this is indeed what Russell had intended, in which case it is an accurate description of what COULD HAVE really happened. Unfortunately, even with this interpretation the story loses its power. This is akin to the it-was-all-a-dream ending.
If you’re OK with that, then you’ll probably derive some enjoyment from this movie. Even with the great casting and the wonderful imagery, it’s still hard to like this movie. It’s hard to say whether it’s worth watching or not, but at the very least, you’ll see something you’ve probably not seen before. That might be worth the price of admission. Your mileage may vary.Have You Read...?