on 1 March 2008
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 ?
on 19 April 2011
If you really know what does the genre gothic means, then you will love this film. Ken Russell depicts with images what Goya says in his engraving "The sleep of reason produces monsters". This film is an oniric voyage created by opium and by the characters' fears. Gothic, as literary critic Fred Botting describes: "signifies a writing of excess". This is what Russell does, a film full of excesses and of a constant battle between otherness. This in an excellent movie. I also recommend an excellent film full of gothic elements, Svankmajer's "Conspirators of Pleasure".
on 8 January 2010
I first found this movie on a $1 budget-DVD "Double Feature." I was very disappointed by Dolby's first chords because I thought they gave the film a very cheap, amateurish quality. Despite that fact, I think this is certainly worth a watch.
You may indeed have to know a bit about the people involved to truly appreciate it or maybe you can just enjoy it as a colorful, wild ride through bizarre places usually visited by only madmen, poets, and the intoxicated. Some reviewers complain about the incredible behavior of the characters but I've been around "stoned", pretentious, creative types. When someone else is paying the bills, much strangeness often ensues.
I would love to see this re-released with an orchestral score instead of Dolby's synthesizer music.
I bought this here because my cheap version has no subtitles and the picture quality is terrible. I'll watch it as soon as I finish typing this. The delivery was pretty quick - I live in the States - and the price was very fair.
I am collecting on DVD the movies of Ken Russell, which should tell you that I admire his work. I had not seen ‘Gothic’ before but was aware of a certain ambiguous repute. A film of Byron’s and the Shelleys’ time spent at a villa on Lake Geneva that saw the birth of Frankenstein would ordinarily be natural fodder for Russell after all: historical celebrities with reputations for extraordinary actions; a heavy dose of sexual chemistry; and a whiff of the supernatural. But, alas, instead of a Romantic romance, Russell’s depiction is akin to scenes from a Gothick novel of the previous generation – Radcliffe, Walpole, Lewis – but with no narrative or plot worthy of the name.
There is no subtlety here: instead we have non-stop melodrama, and bad melodrama at that. There is no humour, just silliness; there is no terror, just daftness. We jump from scene to scene with no time for consideration. And there is no depth of character. In Russell’s own autobiography he admits one major part was miscast, but who? My guess would be that it was Julian Sands (Shelley) who in my experience has never shone in any work in which I have seen him. Or might it be Natasha Richardson (Mary Shelley) who, again from my experience, was never outstanding? And Gabriel Byrne (Byron) is here often OTT. The only major actor who merits any credit qua an actor here is Timothy Spall as Dr Polidori.
It is ultimately the director – and the screenwriter Stephen Volk – who must take the blame for this farce of a film. The movie did not get better on its second screening: in fact, it was torture! Lots of screaming and running around with mad laughter and loud arguing. The dialogue often required subtitles to be switched on. The soundtrack is by Thomas Dolby, an artist I have heretofore held in high esteem, but whose music here is clumsy and clunky and far too intrusive.
So what’s to like? Well the production design by Christopher Hobbs, that’s what. And the camera work can often be interesting. But otherwise this film merits, rarely from me, only two stars. That’s not to say it should never have been made, but that it was made badly. In the listing of all the Ken Russell films I have seen so far (and that includes more than half), it comes bottom by a long way.
There are no extras on my DVD.
on 8 May 2011
Very lucid, surreal and frantic at times, portrays one of most important moments in history of fantastic literature. Symbolic, with unique visions (which is Russel's trademark). Good acting, including late Natasha Richardson and Julian Sands. Shame this is only "bare-bones" edition, with no extras added - I believe they exist, or may be created one day? Anyway, one of best horror-related British movies of 80's.
on 2 November 2009
Paul Ess has described this movie in detail, so my take on it will be more impressionistic.
Gothic is shot as a dream: a nightmare. In this respect it works well, it seems like a dream, it's a series of images/episodes that seem to point to a common theme - the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
It is a sumptuous production: fabulous stately home with doric columns, rich red drapes, roaring fires, wine, high ceilings, ornate furnishings, dark shadows: it's an orgy of opulence. Ken Russell is very good at 'orgies' in a cinematic context.
However, Byron did not seem very Byronesque in Gothic, and there was far too much blood (seems to be an obsession of Ken's in this movie!).
And just as the dreams and fantasies were coming to an end, and I was waiting for a conclusion, the movie comes to an abrupt termination - did Ken run out of cash or inspiration!?
So, it's a great romp but it's an unfinished symphony...
on 9 March 2013
It's difficult to say much about this film without giving things away, being a spoiler, but I'll try. But if you want all the surprises, you shouldn't be reading any reviews in the first place, so there.
This is the story about the night when Frankenstein's monster was born. That is, when the story itself was born. More or less nothing is shown that doesn't take place, one way or the other, in reality or in mind, and that's part of what makes it such a fascinating ride. And those fascinating people having existed for real doesn't diminish the pleasure.
On a side note, I have heard about an anthology containing the other stories, those that didn't win. If anyone knows how to find it, do tell!
In the summer of 1816, the poet Percy Shelley, his lover Mary Godwin and her stepsister Claire Clairmont spent some time at the Villa Diodati, which was being rented by Lord Byron. They were the rock stars of their era, immersed in art, sex and drugs.
And you would THINK that it would make a spellbinding movie, especially since this summer spawned the gothic classic "Frankenstein" and the more obscure novella "The Vampyre." But not so much in Ken Russell's hallucinatory "Gothic," a mesmerizing, acid-soaked, baffling movie populated by well-respected, talented actors who are doing some of the worst work of their entire careers.
Shelley (Julian Sands), Mary (Natasha Richardson) and Claire (Myriam Cyr) arrive at the Villa Diodati, where Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and his fawning physician Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall) are living. Byron warmly welcomes Shelley and Claire (who wants to resume their torrid sexual affair), but is somewhat less welcoming to Mary. Mary, for her part, is worried that the sexually-rapacious Byron is going to hurt her sister, who claims to be pregnant with his child.
That night, the group amuses themselves with a volume of ghost stories, hide-and-seek, opiates and an impromptu orgy, which climaxes with Shelley climbing naked on the rooftop because he believes it is "the spark of creation." They decide that they have the godlike power to bring forth a new creation by resurrecting the dead -- only for Claire to collapse in a seizure.
As the night goes on, the five of them are haunted by the ghosts their little ritual has conjured up -- Polidori's sexual guilt, Mary's past miscarriage, and the feelings simmering between the two brilliant poets. Strange sex and grotesque visions plague the people in the villa, as they become convinced that they did indeed call something forth -- and that if they don't send it back, it will drive them all mad.
Some of the weirdest aspects of "Gothic" are actually rooted in fact -- for instance, the seemingly random scene where Shelley start rambling about a woman with eyes in her nipples is actually based on something that happened. But a lot of the weirdness is purely Ken Russell's doing -- the whole movie has an overheated, sweaty, hallucinatory quality, like something you might dream of when you were really sick and feverish.
Furthermore, Russell drapes the story in past cinema (a heavy influence from Italian giallo) and art (Fuseli's "Nightmare" is very explicitly referenced when Mary dreams of an imp perching on her sleeping body), and name-drops quite a few works of actual gothic literature and/or Romantic poetry. It adds a sheen of respectability to the goings-on.
Unfortunately, the movie ends up collapsing under the weight of its own artistic pretensions, becoming a grotesquely silly, overwrought experience that is just trying to build up to the "shocking" moment when Byron finally kisses Shelley. Male bisexuality among artists -- how shocking. Until then, Russell just peppers the feverish story with all sorts of random moments, mostly filled with phallic symbolism (a snake on a suit of armor -- WHAT DOES IT MEAN?) and some truly baffling scenes that lead nowhere (a confused-looking Shelley watching a robotic belly-dancer).
Russell also had a glorious cast to work with -- Byrne, Richardson, Sands, Spall, all respected actors who have done excellent work elsewhere. Unfortunately, they are all MESMERIZINGLY bad here. Byrne seems checked out and listless throughout most of the movie, Richardson looks baffled by whatever she's doing, and Sands manages to give a performance both flat and manic, scenery-chewing through speeches about galvanometers and narcolepsy.
It also is painfully misrepresentational of the real-life people at the villa. Shelley is perhaps the only one written well, as you can see why this golden-haired, strangely childlike poet would enchant any man or woman. But Byron is almost exclusively depicted as a sadistic manipulator. Claire is just a goggle-eyed, giggling nymphomaniacal goblin who fantasizes about being raped by suits of armor, and spends the movie's climax slithering around the wine cellar covered in filth, like a pornographic Gollum.
And Mary is depicted as -- of all things -- a flat, prim, dull woman who would be completely unremarkable if we didn't know what she would later write. There's not a spark of genius or even charisma in this portrayal, just of a weepy, prissy woman who barely tolerates her lover's infidelity.
But the worst depiction is of Polidori. I don't know why Russell apparently loathed Polidori so much, but almost every aspect of him is misrepresented here. In real life, he was a young, stunningly beautiful, hotheaded, bisexual genius who probably had a crush on Mary Shelley. In this movie, he's a simpering, sweaty, unattractive, middle-aged gay man who is tormented by religious guilt over his sexuality -- which seems unlikely in circles where bisexuality and free love were common. Russell even goes so far as to suggest that he committed suicide because he must have been gay (depicted with a face-full of grotesque makeup), even though the motives for his suicide are pretty well-known.
"Gothic" was clearly meant to be a trippy grotesquerie, and in that it was successful. But it also has mesmerizingly bad acting, pretensions of art, and horrifically twisted personalities that it's almost impossible to care about.
on 17 November 2013
I've not watched this film in many years so I thought I'd give it another watch to see if it stands up and I'm pleased to say that it does. It's an unusual horror film that says more about the imagination and its ability to conjure terror, especially when helped by copious indulgence in opiates!
The film tells the story of a night hosted by Lord Byron when he is visited by his friend the poet Shelley and his mistress (later to become Mary Shelley), from this party two classics of the horror genre are spawned Polidori's 'The Vampire' and Shelley's 'Frankenstein'. The party starts with a sceance to create a ghost built from all of their personal fears. Their creation then haunts them through a horror filled night.
The characters are a joy to watch and are a mixed bunch, I always enjoy watching Gabriel Byrne in action and his ability to play dark characters works well with his portrayal of Lord Byron. The other charcters are fun as well, especially Shelley (although he does come across as a little overdramatic at times, but that does fit with the story and the role) and the Doctor is excellent as the weak link in the group.
The two female characters are less impressive, but still do their jobs well. The horror in the film touches on the metaphysical as well as the psychological and even better does not rely on gore or shock to get the message across. There's a definite sense of dread as the film gets going.
The one reall off note for me was the music, for some of the scenes (such as the barn) it's a little unimaginitive and seems at odds with style of the film. Still that's not a major issue and overall this is an excellent horror film.
on 10 August 2008
I saw this some twenty years ago, and haven't seen it since. It is a very particular vision of the famous night when Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley spent a night in a country estate in Switzerland and decided to see who wrote the scariest story. Mary Shelley, of course, wrote Frankenstein out of that night. There are other movies on this subject - I think Roger Corman made one. Gothic is what one expects from Ken Russell - lurid, grotesque, hallucinatory, over the top. It hasn't been seen a lot since then, it hasn't become one of his classics, but it is a good film for those who like this sort of thing. And there is the addition of seeing the then young and upcoming English actors playing this - Natasha Richardson (as Mary Shelley), Gabriel Byrne (Lord Byron), Julian Sands (Percy Shelley), Timothy Spall. The scene that have stand most in my memory: Myriam Cyr's nipples turning into eyes.