Ken Russell’s name is not necessarily synonymous with Horror. Some of the director's films (most notably The Devils and Altered States) indeed contain some horrific elements, but in Russell’s world these tangents are generally used to keep his audience open to whatever particular excesses he decides to revel in. And make no mistake, a Ken Russell film is usually about excess. Controversial, flamboyant, visually arresting, thought-provoking: all these things can be said of any of his many varied works. What he brings to Gothic, his only real attempt at traditional Horror, is a sense of wild and reckless abandon. “A little indulgence to heighten our existence on this miserable earth” Lord Byron exclaims during the denouement, which is surely the intent of Russell’s tempestuous and twisted fairy tale.
We are quickly introduced to our esteemed ensemble as they arrive at Lord Byron’s sprawling villa in Switzerland. Soon they are all reading ghost stories, playing hide and seek, taking opium, drinking laudanum (a liquid opiate) and satisfying their sexual urges. A séance highlights the occasion, in which they attempt to conjure and summon their darkest fears to fruition. Under the influence and open to suggestion, they each channel their personal demons, fueling within them both creativity and madness.
Ever the auteur, Russell skillfully captures all the hysteria in grandiose and unconventional fashion. The treatment is robust in bizarre and surreal imagery. There are breasts with eyes, a demonic dwarf, living mannequins, leeches, rat munching, the requisite snake (seemingly a Russell favorite), hallucinatory sequences and fish-eye lensings, along with enough exuberant dialogue to keep any intellectual’s attention. Gothic succeeds in serving up a bold and heady mixture of trepidation and transcendentalism in equal parts.
The entire cast is excellent. Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands give brave and highly flourished performances that, alone, could carry the bulk of the film. But this isn't to take away from Myriam Cyr and Timothy Spall’s respective portrayals of dysfunction which are quite engaging also, while Natasha Richardson in her film debut as Mary Shelley is flawless.
I really wouldn’t recommend Gothic to lovers of more modern fare; however, being that the title of the film bares its exact point of reference this should come as no real surprise now, should it?
Ken Russell would go on to endow the work of Bram Stoker two years later with his underrated and very entertaining Lair Of The White Worm, which I would also recommend. Now I’m off for a swig of laudanum, for purely medicinal reasons of course.