Thursday, October 20, 2011

Gothic (1987): or, The Young Romantics are TRIPPING BALLS

October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 19!

In the summer of 1816, in Sweden at the Villa Diodati, one of the most legendary gatherings of literary heavyweights in history is about to take place. One of England's most famous young poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands) is to be the guest of one of its most infamous, the Mephistophelean Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne). Shelley is accompanied by his beautiful future wife, Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson)--not yet Mary Shelley, since the poet is still technically married to his first wife--and Mary's fiery, slightly unhinged stepsister Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr). Byron's sole companion is his physician, Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall), a creepy little man with a more-than-professional interest in Byron's body. Once gathered, the group immediately engages in an orgy of free love, laudanum-fueled licentiousness, and nightmarish visions that will drive them to the brink of MADness, and will also give birth to one of the enduring horror myths of all time.

Warning: if you're in the mood for a Merchant Ivory-style biopic about the girl who wrote Frankenstein, this is NOT the movie you're looking for.

I had seen Gothic (1987) before, many years ago, but somehow I had forgotten how relentlessly, jaw-droppingly INSANE this movie is. Director Ken Russell--a man not particularly well-known for his even hand and cool restraint--takes the famous historical event as a springboard into a Phantasmagoria* of frenetic debauchery and borderline-surrealism. Everything is turned up to 11: the dialogue is overblown and operatic--literary references and quotes are dropped repeatedly and with great force. The music (by Thomas "She Blinded Me with SCIENCE" Dolby!) is hyperactive and intrusive, going from 80s synth rock to symphonic tempests to the Diodati Disco.  And the images...dear God, the images!

*Yes, I know.

A fish flopping helplessly (and pointlessly) in a stone birdbath. A writhing python draped around a suit of medieval armor. A merkin-jerkin' automaton. A demonic dwarf crouched on Mary's chest. Byron's menstrual vampirism. Claire's constant CRAZYFACE. Mary's visions of her dead baby. And Percy meeting a dream woman who never has to say, "Hey, my eyes are up here."

None of it makes very much sense, but Russell is clearly not interested in any sort of accurate historical representation--it's all about seeing how many beautiful, nightmarish images he can cram into 90 minutes. Turns out, the answer is "A Metric Shit-Ton."

The acting here is hard to judge. I said it was operatic, and it's true--there's lots of grand gestures, wild expressions, and screaming on key. Byrne really makes a meal of this diabolic version of Lord Byron, and Richardson is vulnerable and passionate as the future Mary Shelley. Cyr is a force of nature, with her wild black hair, huge, almost Steele-ian eyes, and a sensuality so raw it's almost bleeding. On the down side, Sands seems to have been hired solely for his (admittedly uncanny) resemblance to the actual Percy Shelley--even taking into account the over-the-topness of the script, he is uniformly terrible here.

Themes of birth, death, creation and destruction form only the thinnest framework for the unstoppable fever dream that is Ken Russell's Gothic--a movie so incredibly insane, if it were a person, you'd have to lock it up in the interest of public safety. This is, of course, the highest of recommendations. 3 thumbs way up!

This was exactly my facial expression during the entire runtime of Gothic.It will be yours too.

1 comment:

JamiSings said...

You know, I still have nightmares about that damn not Disney approved automaton with the eyeballs where nipples should be.

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