Director – Ken Russell
Cast – Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson, Myriam Cyr, Timothy Spall, Alec Mango, Andreas Wisniewski, Dexter Fletcher, Pascal King
Release Year – 1987
Reviewed by John of the Dead
The name says it all. If you are a fan of gothic horror then this is a pretty cool film that should be right up your alley. From controversial director Ken Russell (Altered States), known for his liberal adaptations of classic texts and his fascination with sexuality, Gothic follows Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s (then Mary Godwin) visit to Lord Byron’s estate. Alongside her future husband Percy Shelley and her stepsister Claire, their stay at Byron’s Swiss estate is anything but ordinary. As a storm is raging outside, all of the guests amuse themselves by taking opiates and telling ghost stories, which become all-too-real and result in personal skeletons exposed.
I really like this storyline as it gives us an interesting take behind the writing of famed gothic works Frankeinstein and The Vampyr. As the opiates take their effect on the partygoers they begin to suffer vivid hallucinations that expose what truly haunts them. For Mary Godwin, it is the death of her unborn child (via miscarriage). Her fascination with bringing back her dead child is what inspired her creation of Frankenstien’s monster. Another character in the story, Dr. Polidori, was influenced to write The Vampyr after the opiates exacerbated his suicidal thoughts, homosexuality, and fascination with vampires. This is how the horror is Gothic. It isn’t actually “real”, just perceived by the participant. It’s still horror though, and there is the constant dreadful feel that leaves you feeling like a deadly accident is about to happen.
Stephen Volk (Ghostwatch, The Awakening) adapts the screenplay from Lord Byron and Percy Shelley’s story. This is a character and dialogue-driven piece, and it is sure to leave you scratching your head during the first act. The opening sequences of the film took me for a loop as I was unsure of what was going on thanks to the quirky execution of the characters. Eventually things settle down and they start telling ghost stories about 20 minutes in. From then on out you will be witness to one of the weirder gothic horror films out there. Typically, such flicks are pretty straightforward. They center on castles, ghosts, and are quite “safe” to watch. Gothic ups the ante by involving drug use, which in turn brings forth sexuality and carnal instincts. The hallucinations are the only look at traditional horror viewers will see, and these scenes were well executed by director Ken Russell. They really are vivid nightmares where the possibility of the character being killed is intensified by the actions they engage in.
Ken Russell’s direction is good, and it comes with the quirky niche he is known for. This begins with his actors, who are quite the characters in this piece. Everyone held their own here, and it was great to see a young Julian Sands completely lose his mind. As with most gothic horror films the atmosphere is good, although it isn’t great. The entire film takes place at the castle and in this case the castle is not used for spooks. It is never scary and it seems that is not the intent of the filmmakers. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the low-lit scenes and the odd but effective musical score. Russell’s execution of the horror is great, with the only thing holding it back being the story. He does a good job of bringing ghosts and the creature from Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare painting to life, bringing out some decent chills at times. If you go in expecting this to be like Altered States you will be in for a surprise. This is nowhere as serious of a film.
Overall, Gothic is an enjoyable piece but it probably isn’t for everyone. While I liked it I don’t believe I would give it another watch. It’s appeal is its use of famed writers from days passed.