Deep Cuts: Gothic (1986)

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Mar 8, 2018

The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. This time, we're looking at 1986's Gothic, the surreal and somewhat extremist horror film from Ken Russell.

The night that Mary Shelley later described as the moment she came up with the idea for Frankenstein, rightfully regarded as one of the greatest horror stories of all time, has become so infamous in and of itself that it has been referenced by several films, including Bride of Frankenstein and Haunted Summer. The general premise is that Lord Byron, at this point living in exile due to his famously hedonistic lifestyle, is visited by Claire Clairmont, who is romantically obsessed with him. Along for the ride are Mary and Percy Shelley. From the very start, Percy is more into the vacation than Mary, who is desperately worried for Claire's obviously unstable emotional state. The weather turns cold, so the crew, along with Byron's physician and lover, John Polidori, have a competition to create the best ghost story. In Gothic, their wanton opium use and hedonism gives birth to an actual monster, who haunts them throughout the film.

Gothic is directed by Ken Russell, and if you've seen any Ken Russell movie, you know that this is a guy with a very specific and very distinctive style, no matter what kind of story he's telling — although he does tend to lean into the macabre. There are very few directors who master a sense of constant hysteria from the beginning to the end of a film, and his movies tend to involve sharp, shrill music and a lot of people panicking. The best example of his erratic style would be in his 1971 film The Devils, a story about sadistic, sex-obsessed nuns that very nearly ended his career. Copies of the full film are still difficult to find; it's never been released in its uncut form, and it was banned in several countries while heavily edited for release in others. His follow-up to The Devils was a cute love story called The Boyfriend, which still maintains a bizarre sort of hyperspeed, with random scene switches and a lot of yelling. Recently I read a sentence that more or less said that Russell's critics have often accused him of having an obsession with sex and Catholicism. This is true, but I think his fans would probably also agree with that assessment. Whether you think that's a good thing or not is up to you.

To give an idea of where Russell was coming from with this film, promotional images were a direct reference to a painting—specifically, Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare, which depicts a small demon perching on a woman's chest. As censors were always on high alert when they heard Russell's name, especially after the fiasco with The Devils, Gothic's poster was ultimately edited to have a reclined Natasha Richardson appearing sans demon, but the scene itself still appears in the film. Russell's compulsion to add scenes from famous paintings into a movie about Mary Shelley should give a fairly clear idea of his attention to and ultimate utilization of strange historical details.

This is also the first film appearance of Natasha Richardson, whose mother Vanessa Redgrave had previously worked with Ken Russell—portraying a particularly depraved nun in the aforementioned The Devils. Over the course of Richardson's career, one of her other important roles would be the main character in the original film version of The Handmaid's Tale. Although Richardson didn't have many break-out movie parts under her belt when she passed away, there's a detached and vulnerable quality that she had that brings a lot to the role of Mary Shelley, making her seem both sympathetic and strangely disconnected from the people around her. I always liked Richardson's work a lot, and I think this is one of her best roles.

The characters of Gothic are as follows: famous romantic-era poet Percy Shelley as played by a truly over-the-top Julian Sands; fellow writer and eventual wife to Percy, Mary Shelley; infamous dirtbag (and also poet) Lord Byron; half-sister of Mary and lover of Byron, Claire Clairmont; and finally, Doctor John Polidori, who wrote a horror book about a vampire that predates Dracula by about a hundred years called The Vampyre. The story begins with Claire, Percy, and Mary arriving at Byron's home, their plans to have a nice summer vacation quickly quashed by a turn in the weather. Like most books or movies that are loosely based in reality, Gothic delves well into theories and rumors about the characters involved. One thing we know for certain: Claire Clairmont had an affair with Byron that led to the birth of her daughter, Allegra. We assume that Byron likely slept with his sister, Augusta. Percy Shelley is portrayed as a fairly weak-willed hedonist that falls under Byron's spell within minutes of their arrival. Mary is protective of her half-sister but suffers from jealousy, knowing that Percy's attention span is about as fleeting as that of a moth.

It's important to understand that this is a surrealist film in which the plot must remain necessarily secondary to the imagery. Claire reveals that she's pregnant with Byron's child, which leads to a violent outburst when Mary tells him; later, he coldly advises that Claire should have an abortion. A major part of the subplot involves Polidori experiencing extreme envy over Percy's relationship with Byron, as well as his struggle with his own homosexuality. It's a little tedious that, most times, when a gay character shows up in a horror film of this time period (or a Ken Russell film in general), their role is typically to engage in acts of violent self-loathing and jealousy, but Polidori is known to have genuinely struggled with these things.

Like most Ken Russell movies, Gothic is extreme, it's weird, and it's a little incoherent. It's also not the scariest horror film, mostly because the emphatic hysteria of the imagery and the constant panic of the characters makes it a little difficult to catch your breath at times, let alone fully grasp what exactly it is they're freaking out about. On the other hand, I'm a Mary Shelley stan, and I'll watch just about anything that references her. This film is actually kind to her, fleshing out her grief over her lost child, the trauma of losing her own mother as a child, and a strange premonition of the further tragedy that would follow her throughout her days. She lost both her child, William, and Percy only a few years thereafter, and her work, including Frankenstein, was widely questioned as being stolen from Percy—despite her very personal discussion of the creation of the book and her career as a writer, both of which predated her relationship to him. Besides, as fans of Russell know, there's a sense of delight one gets from watching his completely-uncalled-for extremism. Gothic is probably my favorite entry from an incredibly bizarre career that, somewhat surprisingly and against all odds, lasted decades.