Saturday, July 22, 2023

Review: "GOTHIC" is a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie (Remembering Julian Sands)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 33 of 2023 (No. 1922) by Leroy Douresseaux

Gothic (1986)
Running time: 87 minutes (1 hour, 27 minutes)
DIRECTOR:  Ken Russell
WRITERS:  Stephen Volk
PRODUCERS:  Penny Corke
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mike Southon (D.o.P.)
EDITOR:  Michael Bradsell
COMPOSER: Thomas Dolby


Starring:  Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson, Myriam Cyr, and Timothy Spall

Gothic is a 1986 British psychological horror film and historical drama directed by Ken Russell.  The film focuses on a group of five people whose activities on the night of June 16, 1816 invite something dark into the mansion where they are staying.

Gothic is a fictional account of the events that happened at the Villa Diodati on night of June 16, 1816.  To understand Gothic, there is the need for some historical reference.

English novelist, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797-1851); her future husband, the radical English romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822); and their son, William (1816-19); accompanied Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), to spend the summer of 1816 with the English romantic poet, Lord Byron (1788-1824).  They arrived in mid-May 1816, and by then, Mary was calling herself, “Mrs. Shelley,” although she was not yet married to Percy.  Byron was renting a mansion, the Villa Diodati, located near Lake Geneva, Switzerland.  The Shelleys rented a place nearby.  Byron's young physician, John William Polidori (1795-1821), also joined the gathering.

This summer of 1816 became legendary in literature.  On the night of June 16, 1816, Byron, Mary, Percy, Clairmont, and Polidori entertained themselves with German ghost stories from the Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of such stories published in 1812.  This amusement led Byron to propose that they each write a ghost story.  Because of poor weather, the group famously spent three days together creating stories to tell each other.  Coming out of that contest were two completed landmark works of Gothic horror fiction.

The first is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, a landmark in Gothic fiction, Gothic horror, and science fiction.  The second is John Polidori's 1819 short story, “The Vampyre,” which is considered the first modern vampire story and also the beginning of the romantic vampire genre.  Polidori's short story is also based on Byron's contribution to the ghost story contest, a vampire horror story that he turned into prose, but which Byron did not complete.  It was first published in 1819 as “A Fragment,” but is now known as “Fragment of a Novel.”

The film Gothic opens in the summer of 1816.  Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson); her future husband, Percy Shelley (Julian Sands); and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr), arrive at Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.  They have been invited to spend some time there during the summer by the poet, Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), who also introduces them to his physician and friend, Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall). 

On June 16th, the group is forced to stay inside the mansion as a storm rages outside.  Mary, Percy, Claire, Byron, and Dr. Polidori amuse themselves by engaging in a game of hide-and-seek, and later read from Phantasmagoria, a book of German ghost stories Byron purchased.  Reading these stories inspires the five of them to hold a séance while gathered around a human skull, during which Claire has an apparent seizure.  Later, each member of the group begins to have strange and horrifying experiences, dreams, and hallucinations.  Percy believes the group collectively gave birth to something during the séance.  That something is a creature that not only manifests their worst fears, but also their worst behaviors.  And that creature could destroy them all.

The English actor Julian Sands went hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles in January of this year, 2023.  He was reported missing afterwards, and his remains were later found in the area he was visiting.  He is best remembered for his breakout role in the 1985 British film, A Room with a View, which was released in the U.S. in 1986.  Although I did see that film, the first film in which I saw Sands was Gothic.  It was also the first film I ever watched at the LSU Student Union Colonnade Theater, a movie theater on the campus of Louisiana State University.  [From what information I've gathered on the Internet, the theater no longer exists.]

The identification of Sands remains and the subsequent memorials of his life got me to thinking about Gothic, which I had not scene in its entirety since that first time I saw it.  I remember not being too crazy about it, but I have been feeling the need to acknowledge Sands' passing, as I was and still am a fan of his.

Also, I have seen a few of Gothic director Ken Russell's films, including the notorious The Devils (1971), which I also saw at the Colonnade.  However, the only one of his films that I have previously reviewed for the Negromancer blog is The Music Lovers, his 1971 biographical film about the 19th-century Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  So re-watching Gothic is also a chance to acknowledge Ken Russell (1927-2011).

While Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron and Sands as Percy Shelley get top billing in Gothic, the film's main focus of this ensemble is Mary Godwin/Shelley, played by the late actress, Natasha Richardson (1963-2009).  Gothic is indeed a psychological horror film because writer Stephen Volk's screenplay forces the character to confront their deepest fears and their most troubling desires.  Volk also lays bare the characters' relationships, especially the dynamics between Byron and Clair, Byron and Polidori, and Percy and Mary.  Volk seems to use Mary to center this, including her own tribulations

Mary has recently delivered a premature baby girl who died, a loss which haunted her (also based on real events).  The death of the child is a recurring motif in this film, usually via the sound of small child crying or in the images of vague, doll-like baby corpses.  Russell, who was known for being typically over-the-top, uses the raging storm, the characters' ingestion of hallucinogens, and their worst nightmares to create a grand vision of a house haunted by its occupants' craziness, selfishness, and psychological issues.  Russell and Volk put Mary Shelley either front-and-center or at least near the most bizarre confrontations (real and imagine) and hallucinations.

Gothic is more about impressions than reality, and to that end, the cast gives good performances.  Sands and Cyr are a little overdone at times, but it's clear this screenplay considers them the most troubled.  As the film progresses, I appreciate Gabriel Byrne's performance as Lord Byron.  I've been watching Byrne for decades over a career full of performances in which one is not like any other, but here, I really believe he is Lord Byron.  Natasha Richardson gives Mary Shelley such depth of character that I wish this film was longer so that Richardson could give us more of Mary.

Gothic has excellent production values.  The costumes are perfectly fitted to the character's personalities.  The lighting and sound bring the raging storm and the raging emotions and madness to life.  The art direction and set decoration offer sets that are straight out of a fairy tale dream, although it is mostly for a story that is nightmarish and melodramatic.  The hair and make-up sell the madness and troubles of these characters and is a perfect match the surrealistic mood.

And just as soon as it began, Gothic's long nightmare is over, and the light of day returns, but with a foreboding.  In real life, the three main male characters would all be dead within eight years of this summer known for being a pivotal time in the history of Gothic fiction.  When I first saw this film, I only kind of understood the importance of what it was fictionalizing.  Since then, I have become more fascinated with that place and moment in the summer of 1816, and I have become more enamored with this dreamlike film.  In a nod to nostalgia, the recent passing of Julian Sands has raised Gothic in my estimation.  It's time for me to buy a physical copy so that I can watch it any time I want without bothering with streaming.

6 of 10
★★★ out of 4 stars

Saturday, July 22, 2023

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