1986 - R - 87 Mins.
|Director: Ken Russell
|Producer: Penny Corke
|Written By: Stephen Volk
|Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson, Myriam Cyr, Timothy Spall
|Review by: James O'Ehley
Watching GOTHIC (1986) I realised that I had forgotten just how plain weird its director Ken Russell can get.
Eewww . . . halitosis . . .
After all, this is the man who made two full-grown nude men wrestle in front of a burning fireplace in WOMEN IN LOVE (1969) – one of them being that über symbol of male macho-ness, Oliver Reed! In TOMMY (1975, yes, based on the rock opera by ‘Sixties band The Who) he had Ann-Margret writhe in ecstasy in an ocean of Heinz baked beans. MAHLER (1974) had a Cosima Wagner as a Nazi dominatrix replete with bullwhip make the late-19th century composer perform circus tricks and finally eat pork! (Mahler was Jewish.)
However, modern audiences would probably know Russell from ALTERED STATES (1980) – William Hurt’s film debut, which featured real-time acid trips!
By Russell’s own standards, GOTHIC may probably be restrained but most audiences might find it over-the-top. Neither really a horror nor biopic, GOTHIC tells the tale of what happened on the night of 16 June 1816 in Lord Byron’s Swiss villa, apparently the night in which Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) came up with the idea for her Frankenstein novel.
If you’re an English Lit type you’ll know that Byron (Gabriel Byrne) was a “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Romantic era poet. So was Mary’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands), except Shelley is probably best-known for dying tragically young: he was 30 when he died in a boating accident during a storm, in the process becoming a sort of nineteenth century Kurt Cobain even though nobody wore T-shirts back then.
If GOTHIC is to be believed, on this particular eve they (along with Claire Clairmont, Mary’s half-sister and Timothy Spall as Byron’s personal physician) did what most poets of the era did in their free time, namely:
(a) imbibe hallucinogens
(b) play hide-and-seek
(c) have orgies, and
(d) call forth a demon from Hell.
All in a day’s work, I suppose.
The problem with GOTHIC is that it wouldn’t appeal to either dedicated horror fans or English Majors who seek insight into any of these literary legends’ life. Russell’s wildly over-the-top directorial style would also strike most people as either overdone or simply pretentious. The electronica soundtrack by Thomas Dolby (the 1980s synth pop star, not the guy who invented Dolby stereo) also doesn’t help matters.
Still, the actors all do an admirable job under the circumstances and there are a few good bits. Ultimately regular Ken Russell viewers will realise that there isn’t a lot going on as the movie lapses into meaningless hallucinatory scenes and anyone who has never even heard of Lord Byron or Shelley would probably think that they were all just a bunch of freaky deranged weirdoes (which they were), but in their defence it must be said that they were all quite young at the time – something people often forget.