Directed By: Ken Russell
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson
Tag line: "Conjure up your deepest, darkest fear... now call that fear to life"
Trivia: Gabriel Byrne walks with a limp and carries a cane because the real Lord Byron had a club foot
Ken Russell’s Gothic really threw me for a loop. A movie that takes us back to the very night that Mary Godwin Shelley was inspired to write her classic novel Frankenstein, the film has a lot going for it (performances, story, etc), yet is constructed in such a way that suggests its maker felt the style of the telling was more important than the tale itself.
Set in the summer of 1816, Gothic introduces us to Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), who, accompanied by his lover Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson) and her stepsister Claire (Miriam Cyr), visits Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) at the Villa Deodati on Lake Geneva, where he resides with his personal physician Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall). One night, as a storm rages outside, the five pass the time by reading from a book of ghost tales, at which point Lord Byron suggests they all try their hand at writing a horror story. But when (thanks to a steady stream of wine and laudanum) they instead come face-to-face with their greatest fears, their evening of frivolity descends into a nightmare from which they cannot escape.
Gabriel Byrne shines as the devious Byron, whose constant prodding convinces the others to confront their demons (whether they want to or not), and Natasha Richardson (in an early role) brings warmth to the part of the reserved Mary Godwin, a woman so inspired by the traumas of that fateful evening that she wrote one of the all-time great horror novels, Frankenstein. These same events would be explored again a year or so later in Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer, but where the latter film focused more on the dramatic, Gothic was interested in weaving a supernatural tale, which, truth be told, fit the subject matter quite nicely (the characters are tormented throughout by the personification of their fears, which at times takes the form of a monster, creeping in the nearby shadows and watching every move they make).
Where Gothic lost me, though, was in its execution. Ken Russell, whose style has always leaned towards the flamboyant, fills the movie with one bizarre image after another, from life-size mechanical puppets that dance to a pair of female breasts with eyes where the nipples should be. It’s not that these sequences don’t work; on the contrary, there are times when they successfully convey the dread that haunts these characters (whether brought on by the laudanum or a force they cannot comprehend). Unfortunately, Russell’s lack of restraint undermines the effectiveness of these scenes, bombarding us with the strange and unusual on such a regular basis that we become numb to it all. Whereas he would have been better off using the approach he took to Altered States (where the imagery supported the story), Russell instead takes Gothic in the direction of Tommy (where the imagery was the story), and the movie suffers as a result.