Laudanum, leeches, orgies and a decapitated pig. Not exactly what comes to mind when you think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
For my first classic review as a guest here, I am honored to dive into Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986). Russell was a polarizing master of disturbing, nonsensical imagery. Gothic explores the night Mary Shelley conceived her masterpiece, then expands into depraved fantasy.
It opens with Mary Shelly (Natasha Richardson) traveling on a boat to the estate of Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne). She’s accompanied by her lover Shelley, and her friend Claire. They spend a rainy night with their friend Byron in his typically creepy mansion, with typically creepy scenery. Nothing surprising there. However, Byron is a sexist, abusive scumbag. He tempts the group at every turn with drugs, sexual deviance and sets free their inner demons. He treats Claire like a subhuman, verbally and often physically. Horror tradition would normally punish such behavior, but he gets no comeuppance.
After some opiate cocktails to get things rolling, Claire and Mary run off to play hide and seek. Strangeness ensues. Since we know they are super-high, it doesn’t matter that Mary strokes a giant python, slithering on a coat of arms. We don’t care that she hears invisible babies. They’re stoned so yeah, you expect them to see leech faces.
The movie spins into the bizarre when Shelley (an exuberant Julian Sands) is found naked on the roof. Sands has the greatest lines of the whole movie. “Lightning is the fundamental force of the universe! The ether, the spirit!” said the stoned naked man on the roof in a thunderstorm. “It is an age of dreams and nightmares!” Julian Sands gives an insane performance. Downing opiates all night, he delivers some great howlers, such as: “I saw breasts with eyes! I remember the sense of spirit; vengeful demons chasing me!” His hilarious, demented expressions are worth the price of admission.
The centerpiece of the film is a seance (or something) that Byron initiates around a skull. I’m still not sure what that scene is, but that’s ok. They gather to tell ghost stories, which manifest in the real world. The baby imagery hints at the miscarriage Mary experienced. She wants to bring her child back, to bring life to dead tissue. This forms the basis of her idea for Frankenstein. Gothic never really expands much on this, because it is too busy throwing hallucinations on the screen.
When the pacing starts to lag, Russell ramps up the weird. The most chilling moment is when Byron is having sex with Claire. His admirer (Dr. Polidori) is in the adjacent room, heaving alone to their sex sounds. He removes a crucifix from the wall and slams his palm through the nail it was hanging from. He does this over and over, synced with the climax in the next room. It’s a little unsettling and lot of awesome.
Most Tim Burton films build to a fast-paced romp. Russell’s films also have moments of Burtonian madness. The final act finds Mary haunted by her dead baby. Scrambling to leave, she runs from room to room with a new nightmare behind each door. This is meant to symbolize Mary facing this horrible event in her past, but isn’t fleshed out very well by the script. Eventually, they gather around the skull to expel the spirits, or something. I still don’t understand that part because I am distracted by Claire covered in mud and spiderwebs.
Like most Ken Russell films, it’s packed with disturbing imagery. Russell is not a subtle director. If you don’t mind brash, his visuals impress even when they make no sense. The score sounds like it was recorded on a 1981 Casio that was beaten up by a toddler. It has some good moments. As any fan of John Carpenter or Creepshow can attest, cheap tonal effects are pretty creepy.
Gothic seems to be telling you to indulge your madness, and explore your fear. Preferably with a nice cocktail. For the imagery and crazy Julian Sands, it’s worth a round or two.