Gothic (1986)

Gothic (1986), directed by Ken Russell.

It's a great concept based on a true story: on a dark and stormy night in 1816, Lord Byron hosts a party at his villa on Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley conceives of Frankenstein and John Polidori The Vampyre, the first dark vampire romance in English.

Ken Russell -- unavoidably -- blows this out into an extravagantly decadent rampage which one reviewer described as "Five Go Mad on Laudanum". The time continuum may be slightly disrupted: we seem to be confusing Regency literary characters with late century Decadents and 1960s free love artists. His approach is both intense and intensely stupid, but whether that makes it a bad film: I just can't say. It's meant to be something of a spoof but there isn't much of way of comic moments.

It does have a heart: haunted characters making up ghost stories, projecting their fears and desires into literature.

It's been years since I last saw it and I know the actors better now, which makes me like it more: Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson, Timothy Spall. Sands made particularly good use of a hyper-aesthetic persona in those days, as in A Room with a View (1985), Siesta (1987), and Impromptu (1991).

This was Natasha Richardson's first feature film and she seems honestly shocked by the production, which is good because she can represent the audience. As Mary Shelley this is her story.

The setup was used before in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) where in a preface Elsa Lanchester is Mary Shelley telling the story. She is later also the "Bride". Other films that feature that night: Haunted Summer (1988), Rowing with the Wind (1988), Mary Shelley (2017). I haven't seen any of them as of this writing.

What was that evening really like? Somewhere between the staid drawing room conception of older literary adaptations and Russell's wacko imagining, I presume. They had opium and were an "advanced" artistic set, but did they really have orgies? Did Percy Shelley swill down drugs by the jug and dance naked on the roof during an electric storm? Did they dabble in seances and the necromantic arts?

The servants put up with a lot. No wonder tourists on the other side of the lake watch the house through telescopes.

Laudanum -- opium dissolved in alcohol -- was popular in the nineteenth as a pain killer and recreational drug. It is still available by prescription.

Score by Thomas Dolby (a stage name of Thomas Morgan Robertson, who is not Thomas, son of inventor Dr Ray Dolby).

Available on Blu-ray. Two commentary tracks:

The first is an excited conversation with Russell's last wife. She says he enjoyed modern horror films and this one was influenced by Halloween (1978), The Fly (1986) and Scream (1996), the last of which is not possible unless he had a time machine. Errors like that make me wonder about the accuracy of the rest of the commentary.

The second is a 36m interview with the composer, followed by some isolated score.