Friday, 2 March 2012


In many ways, the nineteen eighties and Ken Russell were a perfect match: egocentric, excessive, tasteless, gaudy, slightly embarrassing. ‘Gothic’ (1986) has the look of a Bonnie Tyler video, all dry ice and looking out of leaded windows into the dark as curtains billow around you, a phantasmagoria for the MTV age.

The story is set on the infamous night that Byron, Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (she had a child by Shelley, but they were not married until later that year when Shelley's first wife died), Dr. Polidori and a small retinue of children, concubines and hangers on spent in each other's company at a house on Lake Geneva in May 1816. As an electrical storm raged outside, the four 'star' companions competed with each other to tell the scariest ghost story. For all the literary credentials in the room, it was the non-writers, Mary and Polidori, who came up with the most macabre tales – Polidori with ‘The Vampyr’ and Mary with the considerably better known ‘Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus’.

Russell was obviously attracted to the story because it contains one of his favourite themes: the spark of inspiration that leads to the creative process, the story behind the art. In Russell’s hands, the evening becomes a visually startling nightmare, a parade of strange visions and hallucinations that flash forward and back in time, testing the already hypersensitive characters to the limits of their endurance. Snakes crawl through skulls, dwarves squat on people, eyes appear on breasts, water logged corpses taunt the living. At one point, Percy Shelley strips off and stands on the roof, daring the elements to strike his lightning rod.

It’s all played at the pitch of hysteria and acted, by Julian Sands at least, as if it were a matinee at a school for hyperactive seven year olds (Gabriel Byrne and Natasha Richardson fare better as Byron and Mary; Tim Spall is, as usual, awful). Once again, Ken lets the actors find their comfort zone – Sands, whose brief period in the spotlight is one of the great 'what the fuck?'s' of film history, goes straight to the mugging to camera in a hollow, declamatory voice area and makes himself comfortable. It’s hard to imagine his Shelley remembering to lift the toilet seat, let alone writing ‘Ozymandias’.

Exterior shots were filmed on location at Villa Diodati, the actual place where Byron et al stayed that night; interiors were filmed in Barnet and Hemel Hempstead. The hair gel bill alone must have been enormous and, just in case you were wondering ‘could this film be any more 80’s?’ Thomas Dolby throws in a soundtrack that must have sounded dated the second after he pressed the ‘stop record’ button.

For all it’s niggly little faults, however, the best bits about ‘Gothic’ are pure, untamed Ken Russell – ambitious, delirious, hyperbolic, ridiculous, i.e. just what we like best about him.  

1 comment:

  1. I could never take to Gothic despite loving what influenced it. I blogged briefly about it in January, and as you say, my conclusion was that the best bits are Ken's keen directorial flair. Spall is an actor I actually admire yet he truly is stinking awful in this. Sands always reminds me of Peter Cook doing Peter O'Toole in 'The Making Of An Epic' sketch from Not Only But Also