Dir. Ken Russell
Written by Stephen Volk
Starring Gabriel Byrne, Natasha Richardson, Julian Sands, Timothy Spall
Ken Russell gets… classy? I guess? in this sumptuous (presumably) highly fictionalized tale of the night Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley (then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin), her cousin Claire Clairmont, and perennial also-ran John Pilidori got together, fucked absolutely every last living thing in sight, and sowed the seeds that would become Frankenstein and The Vampyre. With its many cheeky references and quotes to their works, this is almost an ACROSS THE UNIVERSE style tribute to the artists involved, or would be if ACROSS THE UNIVERSE had a scene where the Beatles had a hallucinogen-fueled four-way and then summoned the devil which, obviously, it should have.
I was worried about this one because it stars Gabriel Byrne, and as we all know Gabriel Byrne is a fantastic actor who was unfortunately cursed by a gypsy to only appear in awful dreck. I know, I know, he was in USUAL SUSPECTS and MILLER’S CROSSING, but jesus, that’s two movies out of dozens of films he’s done since 1978, I mean, that’s still way less than simple luck would dictate. I always get excited to see the guy on-screen, hoping that this is the one that will turn things around for him, but if anything his luck seems to have worsened over the years.
|The original Breakfast Club.|
Well, GOTHIC doesn’t exactly shake the trend, but it’s still a pretty interesting not-quite-successful experiment. Basically, the fab five conduct a seance and possibly summon a spirit which menaces them with glimpses of their deepest fears and insecurities. But also possibly, they’re just a bunch of strung out aristocrats who let their fears get the better of them. Russell uneasily balances between the possibility that there is something genuinely supernatural going on and the (somewhat greater) likelihood that this is all in their heads. It’s a worthwhile tactic for awhile, and as usual Russell conjures a world pulsing with nightmarish menace and exaggerated style. But the problem for me is that it all feels a little like a tease; you get flashes which suggest a horror story, but they’re maddeningy brief and ethereal. There’s a ton of tense buildup, but then nothing very concrete ever really happens. Now, it’s fine to have a horror film of pure intimation (any given Val Letwon film), but Russell’s style is so soaked in intensity that after awhile you get a bit resentful about him being coy with the monsters. It all feels like a film which is constantly about to go somewhere that never quite arrives. It’s all pitched at the same hysterical frequency, so there’s not really any build, nor can there really be much tension since these are all historical characters who we know went on to have careers afterwards.
|This guy needs to be in a rap video.|
A stronger emotional angle might have helped amp up the tension, but despite the strong performances by everyone here I’m not convinced that the film successfully communicates the dynamics of this complex five-way relationship. Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) seems pretty out of it, a mess of generalized neurosis and addictions, while Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) gets the unfortunate role of whiny girlfriend, constantly fretting and chiding everyone else for being so awesome. Not really a lot to get invested in, there. Byrne as Byron has a much showier part, but he’s also written as a sort of mythic, sociopathic enigma, and we never really get any hint of a human side behind his devilish persona. Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) has a likeable, free-spirited energy to her, but she spends most of the second half passed out or running around naked, so while you like her more than everyone else there’s not exactly a lot of character growth there. That leaves only poor Timothy Spall as the second-banana John Pilidori, who if the movie is to be believed is Byron’s gay lover and isn’t super happy to find three interlopers (especially Percy Shelley, who Byron is clearly lusting after) stuck in the house over the weekend. Everyone uniformly treats Pilidori like shit, and Spall makes the character sort of likably pathetic, coming closer than anyone else to an actual appealing characterization. But he’s also kind of a side story, barely interacting with anyone else during the film’s second half, so not a real big emotional hook there, either.
So without a core of human drama and without much in the way of traditional genre thrills, it eventually becomes more exhausting than engaging. That said, the film does have its moments. There’s a nifty attempted hanging which definitely does not go according to plan, a scene where Clairmont’s nipples suddenly become giant eyeballs, some kinda freakiness with a deformed goat, that kind of thing. The movie could have used more of this sort of weirdness to make its rich atmosphere a little more justified by events. But I will admit, despite its lack of build the climactic sequence is visually baroque enough to finally overwhelm you into falling victim to its sweat-soaked nightmarish intensity. And honestly, that’s a good thing. The last thing you want from Russell is subtlety; his strength is in mental and sensory overkill, so once the film finally stops pussyfooting around about the horror stuff and just goes all in, things resolve pretty nicely. There’s not really story enough in Stephen Volk’s) screenplay to allow him to do that all the way through (though no one told composer Thomas Dolby, who slathers every moment of the runtime with his bossy, histrionic score) but once Volk* gets out of the way and lets Russell do his thing, you have a pretty good time. Although judging from the film, a night with the real Lord Byron would have been an even better time, and probably a good deal more frightening.
*Noted writer of two other mildly interesting disappointments, Friedkin’s THE GUARDIAN and 2011's THE AWAKENING.