Considering he's supposed to be 'obsessed with the image' Ken Russell's 'Gothic' is notable for what it leaves to the imagination. Russell is no tyro-hack; he's seen 'the Haunting' and 'the Innocents' and knows an in-tune audience will pick up subtle terrors which may (or may not) be glowering in dark corner...or in the dull recess of a guilty imagination.
Is that a branch scraping the window, or something much more sinister trying to gain access? Russell's anti-thriller gives no answers ~ even in a rather disquieting epilogue, where the excesses of the previous night are 'explained.'
Briefly: Don Boyd at Virgin Vision had a literate Steven Volk script on his hands. The core plot had Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, his pregnant lover Claire, and a snide, repressed biographer, Dr. Polidori, all spending Saturday night at a mansion in Geneva.
Thought Don: let's see what happens if we give 'em loads of drugs, vats of wine, throw in a thunder-storm, a haunting, some scene-stealing goats..and let 'em go.
Now, who do we get to direct? Hmm...
Russell doesn't disappoint (he NEVER does; all his films, good or bad, have got something of interest in them) and his puckish imagination is at full throttle here.
It's a memorably furious and gloriously upsetting picture. You can feel that creepiness as the protagonists decide to hold a séance: to beckon their darkest fears to exist in this world. Russell has a field day illustrating in detail what a houseful of stoned, tortured geniuses are afraid of (and capable of !) in the depths of their debasement, with their guard temporarily down.
One grotesque tableau follows another: Russell - up-front as usual - never makes it easy for the rattled viewer.
As to what's real and what's not, that's left open, as is the interpretation at the end. Was it really suggestion and hallucination?
This reviewer isn't convinced, and Russell's leaving only the vaguest of clues.
There are many redolent Russell repulses to rejoice in: a gory stigmata, a make-your-own-mind-up abortion, leeches, rats, incest, slime... In fact, if you can think of it, it's probably here; dowsed in Thomas Dolby's swanky score and competing like crazy with all the other fierce imagery.
There's an attractive funeral pyre sequence, filmed in the Lake District and involving Shelley.
In his autobiography, Russell indicates this is how he would ultimately like to be 'disposed' of. Good idea, better than cold earth; hope the weather's good so the 40 piece orchestra, assembled by Melvyn Bragg, don't get sodden as they play Liszt or the Who at full blast!
Performances are good: particularly Gabriel Byrne as 'mad' Lord Byron and Natasha Richardson as proto-feminist Mary Shelley (and I'd love to hear the advice mum Vanessa Redgrave gave her about working with Russell. She may proclaim 'the Devils' to be her best film, but she never worked with him again!), and I don't think Julian Sands performance as Shelley is as bad as reported, either. It's not great by any stretch, but I've seen worse and he IS playing a highly strung (out!?), self-suffering waif-in-a-storm, zonked out of his literary brains.
'Gothic' isn't Russell's best film but it is a good one. Compared to the output of most modern Hollywood directors, it's a masterpiece. It has wild imagery, some very tender and moving moments, but most of all it has an atmosphere of utter dread, created masterfully by a visionary who knows instinctively how to use light and shadow, sound and silence, and Richard Branson's money to make a loony entertainment about some of the worlds most respected and austere literary figures, verbally and physically abusing each other, ripping off their clothes, raising the dead and writhing round in slime.
A Ken Russell film, could it be anything else ?