#494: Ken Russell’s Gothic
The night that birthed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is almost as disturbing as the book itself in this opium-fueled mindbender
Initial release: 1986
Director: Ken Russell
“Harold and Kumar Go To Villa Diodati” read my name in one of my Discord servers. I wasn’t the only one — visitors to said server will also (for a time) be greeted by names like Haunted Orgy and Laudanum Enjoyer. And why not? This is exactly the kind of response that a film like Ken Russell’s legendary Gothic demands.
On the one hand, it’s a bit of a shame. The fateful holiday trip in which Mary Shelley was inspired to write the seminal sci-fi gothic novel Frankenstein as part of an informal ghost story contest surely deserves a more serious, reserved portrayal, yes? Then again, we’re talking about a party at Lord Byron’s house. Debauchery and madness are the order of the day, and who better a filmmaker for that than the man who gave the world The Devils?
Gothic starts out simply enough — Lord Byron’s house in Geneva, the Villa Diodati, is something of a tourist attraction, with admirers from afar observing the manor from across the way via spyglass, hoping to catch a glimpse of the exiled poet doing something debauched. Mary Godwin, her future husband Percy Shelley, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont meet up at the manor for a summer holiday. Aside from Byron they’re also met by John Polidori, Byron’s physician and biographer, who wavers between contempt for Byron and admiration.
As we know from history, it was a particularly dark, rainy summer that year, and the fivesome are generally confined to the indoors. One night after a game of hide-and-seek, the group take turns reading excerpts from a book of horror stories that Byron had found in a shop in Geneva; inspired, they hold an impromptu seance around a human skull that Byron just so happens to have, during which Claire has a seizure, and that’s when the shit starts to hit the fan.
What follows is what is clearly intended to resemble a classical haunting, with strange phenomena, characters going missing for periods of time, seeming possession, and even a mysterious vampire attack; however, given how much laudanum the group have been chugging it’s hard to look at it as anything other than a particularly dark drug comedy. Ken Russell’s transgressive filmmaking style actually works both for and against the movie’s favor, as the film is just absurd enough that what’s clearly meant to be scary is ridiculous instead of horrifying, but the film is still so damn enjoyable because none of the characters come off as real enough to be worried about. I suppose on some level that makes it true to classic gothic horror of the type the real Mary Shelley helped popularize; we’re so used to associating “gothic horror” with the aesthetics of the Victorian era that we forget just how potboiler most gothic horror actually was, including some of the more famous examples.
If there’s any character who particularly stands out, I would have to say it’s Byron himself. Played by Gabriel Byrne, looking for all the world like a British Jurgen Prochnow (I almost said ‘discount’ instead of ‘British’ but they’re essentially the same thing) he’s exactly the kind of ravishing fuckboy you’d expect from a guy with such a sterling reputation as being “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” It’s hardly a surprise that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein; I’d write a story about a rich asshole convinced of his own genius who destroys everything he touches too.
Don’t expect much from Gothic beyond the most lurid of gothic horror tropes; if you can track down a copy of the early Laura Dern film Haunted Summer, which covers the same subject, it might be worth watching that and comparing. Good luck finding it though — MGM sells rather sketchy print-on-demand DVDs that you can buy, but a proper DVD release with anything more than the barest VHS transfer seems to be nowhere in sight. Still, though, it’s a fun romp, a sort of stoner horror flick for goths who want to see Natasha Richardson telling Lord Byron where he can shove it.